The news of AT&Ts attempt to acquire Time Warner without shedding CNN brings the value of media brands back into the spotlight. CNN has seen its share of criticism over the last year –primarily from one powerful voice – but its position, and the debate over “fake news” raises an important issue for media brands everywhere. Embellishments and dramatizations may be acceptable in politics and in the corporate business world, but in journalism, they violate a universal standard: integrity. When a writer or editor runs afoul of that hard line, it reflects on the overall media brand. Inability to earn and sustain public trust can kill a brand, or forever damage a business. That balance, trust over mistrust, fact-based journalism over sensationalism, is harder to achieve than ever.
The News of the World phone-hacking scandal from a few years ago is a perfect example of how to mismanage brand reputation. Executives of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. covered up allegations and evidence of gross misconduct instead of exposing those responsible and holding them accountable. Now, with criminal investigations under way and News Corp. employees in jail, News of the World has folded and Rupert Murdoch’s personal and corporate brands are damaged beyond repair.
Some media brands have managed their brand reputation effectively under challenging circumstances. When Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Jayson Blair of The New York Times were exposed as frauds, their editors immediately made it known to the public and took steps to make it right. This American Life took the extraordinary step of retracting a story when it was discovered that a nonfiction storytelling piece on Apple supplier Foxconn was rife with falsehoods. Editor and host Ira Glass went on air to explain the failures in his and his team’s fact-checking that allowed the story to air. Oprah Winfrey confronted author James Frey for lying in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which she had promoted. Each of these media giants avoided long-term damage to their brands by being forthright about their errors in judgment.
Managing brand reputation is essential to any organization, but especially to media organizations. At the end of the day, it’s the brand that takes the biggest hit when credibility and integrity are questioned and restoring the integrity of the brand is most critical. How media editors, publishers, and executives respond in crisis can dictate their brand’s survival.