Start with why: I grew fed up with the b.s., the tired client/agency courting rituals, the agency billing practices that ranged from obscure to deceptive. I saw an unrealized opportunity for commercial communication to add value to our public discourse instead of distracting or detracting from it. I wanted to close the gap between consumers and well-intentioned brands, and forever end the superiority and arrogance from which marketers viewed the recipients of their communication.
All those hopes and goals may have remained unattainable, had social media not demoted the gatekeepers of taste and information. In 2001 – two years before MySpace, three years before Facebook, five years before Twitter – I delivered guest lectures to Ph.D. and MBA students in Southern California universities about the radical transformation coming to business and society because of the internet. I likened it to open-heart surgery: the heart of your organization will be visible to all. Act accordingly.
What I did not predict then was the ugly underbelly of America that the internet’s transparency would reveal. I did not predict that social media would increase political polarization and social tribalism. But I should have. Back in 1982, when I served as editor of my college newspaper, we attempted an early experiment in social media: we promised to publish any and all letters that our readers cared to submit. We ceded our role as gatekeepers. But things got nasty – fast. We had to shut down our experiment in “mass media accessible to the masses.”
Some political leaders today feel the way we did almost 40 years ago. They cannot shut down Facebook and Twitter, but they do want to curtail social media’s hatred, destructive rumors, conspiracy theories, and false facts. Were they here today, America’s founding fathers – all of whom subscribed to Enlightenment ideals – would decry with horror our nation’s slide toward Dark Age superstitions. They would tell us: Speak freely, but don’t lose your way.
So how does all this affect brands, and our attempt to spread the gospel of their products, services, and causes? We can and must swing the pendulum back toward civil, constructive public discourse. To do so, we will:
– Represent only brands that act as a force for good.
– Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.
– Aspire for our communication to benefit all society, not just the ‘target audience.’
We are the new gatekeepers. We each must become our own Walter Cronkite – who, for two tumultuous decades, was the most trusted man in America.
And that’s the way it is.
On Feb. 27, 1968, after witnessing for himself the war in Vietnam, Walter Cronkite said on the CBS Evening News that the war was at best a “stalemate,” and therefore America should negotiate for peace and withdraw its troops.
President Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked of that broadcast, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Six weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election.
Arguably, Cronkite’s status as the most trusted man in America also made him the most powerful man in America. Brand marketers can learn from his example.