"Fake news." It’s one of the most buzzed-about terms of the past year, embraced by even the president of the United States as an insult to belittle critical reporting about his administration.
It’s also an impetus for the most hallowed news organizations in the country to launch brand-building campaigns—for some, their first in a decade or more.
Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have created short films illustrating the lengths that their journalists go to provide accurate reporting and commentary. The London-based Financial Times has also launched an integrated campaign dubbed Black and White, conveying its news as impartial and presenting all sides of a story. The Washington Post also rolled out a new tagline, "Democracy Dies in Darkness."
‘First brand ad in a decade’
The New York Times rolled out four short films last month as part of its The Truth is Hard brand campaign, which it launched during the Academy Awards in February. It is the newspaper’s first brand-focused advertising push in a decade.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan and The Wrestler fame, the branded films profile Times journalists documenting refugees in Lesbos, Greece, and the Ebola virus in West Africa, as well as other dangerous assignments. The campaign extends the "Truth is Hard" tagline to "Truth is Hard…Hard to Find."
Linda Zebian, director of communications at the Times, says the campaign wasn’t made in response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on its credibility. The effort launched last summer, with the goal of helping the company reach revenue targets.
"The truth is we are a business and had been working to gain new paid digital subscribers," she explains. "People pay for music online and TV online, but for the most part, news has been free over the internet, even though original, independent journalism is expensive to create. The business of finding the truth and all the work that requires is the story we’ve been trying to tell more and more."
Yet she acknowledges its message is resonating more widely, given Trump’s fast-and-loose relationship with the facts and more general awareness about fake-news producers. In the first quarter, the newspaper enjoyed a record haul of new digital subscribers, 208,000, bringing its digital-only audience to 2.2 million.
The Financial Times launched a campaign playing up its journalistic bona fides last month, as well. One ad features British Prime Minister Theresa May next to Trump in the Oval Office with the caption, "Special relationship or marriage of convenience?"
Darcy Keller, chief communications and marketing officer at the FT, notes that the outlet saw an acquisition uplift of 75% and 33%, respectively, in the weeks surrounding Brexit and the U.S. presidential election.
"I can’t speak for others, but our recent marketing initiatives seek to give readers an alternative to the cacophony of noise out there and answer their demand for accurate, impartial, and authoritative reporting and insight," she says, via email. "The FT gives you the facts and features a variety of perspectives at a time when people are seeking information they can trust which isn’t one-sided, superficial, and, sadly, yes, even artificial."
A Wall Street Journal representative could not be reached for comment.
However, polls show major media organizations have their work cut out to regain the trust of the public. Ninety-four percent of Americans say they are aware of the contentious relationship between the Trump administration and the news media, and 73% say that’s getting in the way of their access to important national political news and information, according to the Pew Research Center. Both concerns are widely shared by Democrats and Republicans.
Gallup polling from last fall showed the trust Americans have in mass media "to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly" was at the lowest level in its history, with only 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. That number was down eight percentage points from the prior year.
The root of that mistrust is many Americans’ belief that media outlets are ignoring the stories that are important to them. Most outlets also missed the groundswell of support for Trump—right up to Election Day—that swept the businessman into the White House, notes Kevin Goldman, senior director at APCO Worldwide and a former journalist at The Wall Street Journal.
"The New York Times has said it needs to do better in covering so-called ‘flyover’ states, and I think you’re already seeing terrific stories based elsewhere than just in New York and California," he says, adding that media outlets need to make their case without getting in a public spat with Trump.
Other former journalists working in PR say the early months of the Trump administration are a watershed moment for mass media institutions.
"I can’t remember a time when the marketing was so focused on the essential mission of journalism in society," notes Betsy Stark, MD at Ogilvy and a former correspondent at ABC News.
She calls the trend a departure from the past, when media organizations were focused on competing against one another and didn’t feel their very raison d’etre was under siege. Yet now, more people can find alternative sources for so-called "news," such as their social media feeds, and believe mainstream outlets have slanted coverage.
"In broadcast journalism especially, a lot of promotion was about talent and programming or the winning of awards and ratings. What we’re seeing now are brand campaigns designed to remind us about first principles of democracy, the role a free press plays in uncovering the truth, being a watchdog of government, and insuring democratic value," notes Stark. "It’s important to have a broader brand narrative around the vital role of a free press in a democratic society. We need to educate news consumers, especially the new ones, about what’s at stake."
A new front
The face-off between news organizations and Trump loyalists entered a new phase this week when CNN refused to sell commercial time for an ad marking the president’s first 100 days in office because it labeled major TV networks as "fake news." The decision resulted in a harshly worded statement from Michael Glassner, chief of Trump’s campaign committee. "It’s clear that CNN is trying to silence our voice and censor our free speech because it doesn’t fit their narrative," he said.
The cable channel countered with its own statement, claiming, "The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted."
"The environment we are in today and financial pressures on the industry combine to make this a really challenging time, but also ripe with opportunity for mainstream media to redefine and promote themselves to current and potentially new audiences," notes Richard Keil, EVP at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and a 20-year veteran of the Associated Press and Bloomberg.