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CEOs and the New Media World: Man Bytes Dog

November 13, 2019

The traditional media of newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations is being transformed by new channels of communication and new forms of reporting, driven by technologies that are now taking us far beyond the transformations of the internet era. In short, the media is being democratized and, as a result, CEOs and their organizations face fresh risks and opportunities.

New technologies have widened the aperture of what it means to be a news producer, to include still-evolving digital hubs of influence.

The internet era of the last 30 years has acclimated us to the electronic delivery of news, and the spread of social media over the last decade has created a new front page in the form of the digital feed. News aggregation led by Google, Facebook and Apple is now key to how we consume the headlines of the day. News dissemination through Twitter, Snapchat and other social channels, which circumvents traditional journalism, is perhaps even more disruptive to the media.

In the midst of this complicated web of news dissemination channels, we see the dawn of a new era in news production; we are highlighting it here because we have not yet seen it addressed head-on, but believe it will change the calculus for how companies engage with media. We also think that the implications are bigger than the tactical insights we can garner by knowing that millennials cut cords, and GenZ trusts Logan Paul more than they trust Paul Ryan. Technology’s democratizing effect will change the way CEOs will need to lead.

Journalists have always relied upon primary research (interviews), and secondary research (publicly available materials). That did not change during the internet era, it only sped up and became more democratized. Journalistic research has been greatly aided and made more efficient by search engines, email, and social networks. Journalists can find confirming or negating data in relatively short order. But so can everyone else. Information once available only to media with the resources to access it has become accessible to everyone with a smartphone. This competition from non-professionals has changed the reporting landscape.

What is new today, and is only just beginning to be understood, are the emerging sources of information, driven by new technology. It has started with crowd-sourcing and will accelerate as the media begins to leverage the power of Artificial Intelligence to spot patterns and trends that were previously too time-consuming to undertake manually.

A Tale of Crowdsourcing

In this account, a mythical business reporter named “Susan” heard anecdotally that the fictitious company, “SellCo” had discriminatory hiring practices. Her investigation 10 years ago would have been focused on finding former employees through internet searches and subsequent calls and emails to request interviews. After several weeks or perhaps months, she may have found five former employees willing to speak to her. These sources would then form the basis of her investigative article.

Fast forward to today, Susan confirms the anecdote on Glassdoor (a wellknown website where current and former employees anonymously review companies) through citable (though anonymous) comments. Then she goes to LinkedIn and direct-messages several hundred current and former employees with an invitation to discuss their experience at SellCo. She also finds a SellCo employee-run Facebook group, where she posts an all-points request for stories of discrimination at SellCo. Some participants contact her directly, others post their stories to the entire group. Now she has 50 sources after three days of research.

SellCo may have become aware of Susan’s outreach on the first day, when a former executive alerts the company that she contacted him. Or it may have found out when her request was posted to the Facebook group which they monitor. But by the time SellCo begins direct engagement with Susan, she has more than enough primary research to convince her editors this is a legitimate story.

This form of crowd-sourced research is only the beginning. Companies that actively engage employees through the same channels Susan is leveraging are the only ones that stand a chance of countering her narrative.

The Rise of Participatory Journalism

Media outlets are going further than crowdsourcing for on-the-record sources. They are conducting participatory research that leverages their consumers without requiring a significant effort. A reader interested in the impact of screen-time on society may be willing to provide their personal daily screentime data to assist in a story about when and where New Yorkers spend the most time looking at their phones. A reader interested in what political news and advertising is being served up to the public can automatically send the ads they see on Facebook to a database analyzed by a media outlet.

Unlike the crowdsourcing investigation conducted by Susan, this mass-scale participatory journalism merely requires passive participation to generate the data needed for news. That’s because media outlets now have access to AI tools that can quickly consolidate the information and draw broad-based and credible conclusions backed by data. Which leads us to the most significant burgeoning trend in media: AI-augmented analysis.

Mining our Digital Footprint

Our personal digital footprint is rapidly growing so large that many of us have long conceded any control over it. That footprint is orders of magnitude greater for most corporations, and yet companies often believe they have more ability than private citizens to control their information flow. This belief is grounded in the control companies can exert over their traditional methods of communication: marketing, press releases and corporate-sanctioned events. But non-traditional sources of corporate information are rapidly becoming
accessible through new technologies.

This goes well beyond the ‘behind the scenes’ video shot by a factory worker of conditions in the plant in which they work, an occurrence that has become better understood by companies over the last decade of smartphone proliferation. It is now manifested in satellite imagery that documents the number of cars in the employee parking lot, or analysis of publicly-available video to spot trends among retail shoppers. Use of imagery and video to inform analysis began with sophisticated investors just a few years ago but is now becoming a resource for the media.

It also goes well beyond the word search in the earnings transcript quantifying the number of times the CEO said “innovation.” It is now manifested in AI-aided analysis of tonal frustration in the CFO’s voice during the Q&A portion of the earnings call, or the micro-expressions on the CEO’s face during an interview.

The Internet Era led to an explosion of new information from a dizzying amount of new ‘newsmakers.’ This dynamic is both well-documented, and over-analyzed. Technology’s place as the driver of ‘more’ or ‘different’ content doesn’t get to the heart of our point, because technology will have a more important role over the next decade: sunlight.

Achieving Value Discipline

Crowdsourcing, participatory journalism and the exploding digital record are all opportunities for the media to get closer to the facts. In an era of fake news, and deep fakes, this is an important benefit. Technology isn’t just the fuel to produce different kinds of cat GIFs, Trump memes and TicTok Videos. It is the accelerant of transparency and the catalyst for the democratization of the corporate message.

Other people are going to tell your story. The real question is, ‘what will they say?’ A CEO’s words and actions, in addition to the words and actions of their employees, need to align or the dissonance will be the story.

In 2020, CEOs will need to inspire discipline throughout their organization – not just media-train it from the top. It will be the only way to make sure they are telling their story effectively; to make sure it is authentic, and consistent throughout the organization.

It will be about instilling value discipline, not message discipline.

Message discipline is an output of memorization. It is the product of a different era. Value discipline is an output  of an organization whose leadership creates a consistent culture and inspires its employees to do the same. It is the best antidote to newly empowered journalists, with the world’s information at their fingertips.