Every Company's a Media Company

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 02-07-2007

Every Company's a Media Company

A documentary crew is taking a long look at Ford Motor Co., and the camera does not flinch from the bad news. Footage shot on July 20, 2006—the day the struggling automaker reported a $123 million loss for the second quarter of last year—shows Kevin Tynan, an analyst with Argus Research, explaining his "sell" rating on Ford stock, and predicting that it will be difficult for the company to meet its turnaround schedule. Barron's senior editor Jay Palmer then appears on screen, noting grimly that Ford must stop the bleeding to survive. And Mark Fields, president of Ford's North and South American business, admits he was surprised by some of the external factors that hit the bottom line.

See also: Success with Video Blogging

The documentary, Bold Moves: Documenting the Future of Ford, is a 30-part program that launched on the Web last June and completed its run in January of this year. The earnings-report segment is titled "Fist Full of Doubters." Other portions of the series include looks inside Ford business meetings and production facilities, historical clips, auto-racing footage and glimpses of future technological advances, and a segment dealing with prospects for laid-off workers.

Given the scope and sometimes dour tone of the documentary, it may be a surprise to learn the identity of its producer, host and distributor: Ford Motor Co. But the Bold Moves series reflects a new reality of the Internet age: Every company is now a media company. Every organization now has the ability to create and share video, audio and text communications with external and internal audiences; just a few years ago, such productions would have required expensive, specialized equipment and training, along with big budgets to disseminate the product via advertising, direct mail or other channels.

Ford engaged its longtime ad agency, JWT, along with the production house Radical Media (which made the documentary film, Some Kind of Monster, about heavy-metal band Metallica), to help on the project. Not every Web venture will match the ambitious length or glossy production values of Ford's effort, with its multiple locations and theatrical release-quality editing. But whether it's Microsoft Corp. with its Channel 9 video site for corporate news, or General Electric Co. using podcasts to share earnings calls and analyst reports with stakeholders, or investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein making extensive use of blogs and wikis for internal communications, the media meme is widespread.

Any company with a Web site is already at the starting line. The technology needed for producing, hosting and sharing that can translate an organization's Web site into a media hub is the easy part, relatively speaking. What takes serious work is creating a culture that allows the level of candor about internal difficulties that Ford managed, or handing over a brand message that has been tightly controlled to multiple parties, including, perhaps, people outside the organization itself. "For some people, it was uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to push people to embrace change," says Whitney Drake, a spokeswoman for the Ford and Lincoln Mercury brand communications group, which collaborated with other groups across the company on the project.

Becoming a media company means making decisions about who best represents the company via new media. It also means determining how much they should say, how often, to what audience—and why, with what expectations. How CIOs and other business leaders navigate those questions, along with getting a handle on the technology issues, is critical to making the promise of new media a reality.


#1: Know What You Want to Do">

Key #1: Know What You Want to Do

Ron Bloom, CEO of the well-funded new-media startup PodShow Inc., says he is seeing interest in Web-driven communications strategies at the highest levels of large companies. "Boards are starting to ask senior management what their new-media strategy is," he says. "The rationale is to increase shareholder value. There are very few things in traditional companies that can emotionally engage constituents and investors, and this is one that is available. The communications department is moving closer to the CEO's office every day."

Understanding the purpose of an organization's media push is critical, as is setting realistic goals. "Don't just jump on the bandwagon," says Charlie Melichar, vice president for public relations and communications at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. The highly regarded school makes extensive use of Web video to reach potential students and other constituents. "We are interested in more than just page views—we are not trying to create the next 'Numa Numa' video," he says, referring to the viral hit clip of a kid lip-synching an eastern European pop song.

Ultimately, the delivery vehicle, whether blog, video or podcast, is not what matters most. "My office is charged with telling the Colgate story, to stimulate folks to engage with the university, apply, give, whatever," he says. "I'm only interested in the content, not the container. No institution can say, 'Blogging is our competitive advantage.' It's a tool that helps you do what you need to do. Fit it into your strategy and go for it, but don't just do it to do it. Otherwise you'll disengage people—they'll see right through it and pick it apart."

Says Ford's Drake: "We wanted to change perceptions of the company, and to tell our story our way, through our eyes. In a traditional ad buy, you get 15 or 30 or 60 seconds to tell it. Those ads have mass appeal for a broad audience. This documentary complemented our advertising campaign." The audience for the documentary includes not only people interested in a new car, but anyone who likes a good story. "It is about getting people fighting for an underdog," says Drake. The series has attracted some 2 billion hits, resulting in a 15 percent increase to the Ford site, with visitors spending an average of 8 minutes each time they come; Ford also makes its video clips easy to share, à la YouTube, by including a snippet of code with each episode that allows anyone to embed it on blogs and other Web sites.

"Ford as a company recognizes that the media environment is changing, and people are aware of the change," says Drake. "It's still a little bit controlled, we're a very big company and there are legal issues about disclosure...but if people have ideas, we have ways to bring their ideas forward. You can't ignore things like YouTube or Second Life. People want their information quicker, and not necessarily filtered. We want people's trust. The culture has changed, and new media allow us to address those changes."

A survey conducted by the company showed that viewers do come away with changed attitudes toward Ford, says Drake. It's not a benefit that can be quantified, or that will lead to a quick turnaround at the foundering company. But that's not the point. It's an investment in image, and in the future of the brand. The viewers surveyed, says Drake, "want us to win. Strategically, we thought it was successful."


#2: Get a Handle on the Technology">

Key #2: Get a Handle on the Technology

CIOs can cobble together versions of low-cost tools for video and other media, and most are already experienced in dealing with issues of bandwidth and storage. These are not, for the most part, huge problems—that's the enabling factor behind the shift in the first place. That said, the new-media model is still evolving in terms of turn-key solutions for large companies.

"Workers are starting wikis and podcasts, using software [to power those things] that has no home in the enterprise," says PodShow's Bloom. "They are going around the IT department " at some companies. But not for long. Bloom expects large tech firms to lead the way in creating their own "enterprise-stable stack" that combines wikis, blogs and audio/visual tools, and to turn to third parties to help understand the content side of the equation. "What's missing so far is the group that can walk into a company and say, 'here's the combination of platform and content,'" he adds.

Ryan Montoya is an Internet strategist for the John Edwards presidential campaign, which runs a sophisticated multimedia Web site. In a short period he's seen his job get simpler, at least on the technology side. "You can do for $50 what used to cost a fortune," he says. "We have a distribution network that is efficient and cost effective to get our message out. At first we used a laptop with free Audacity editing software and a couple of mikes to create podcasts, but now we've graduated to a little Marantz digital recorder that cost maybe $500 and provides superior quality. It's not rocket science."

In 2005, Montoya used a video camera to make the first Web clips for Edwards' One America Committee political action group, handing the tape off to an editor for coding and uploading. These days, he's graduated to a digital video camera, and uses a variety of free editing software found via the Web. "The logistical problem is solved," he says.

Starting small and feeling the way forward worked for Colgate University, which began by using students to write blogs, first with Google's free Blogger software, and more recently with the TypePad application from vendor Six Apart. "We did not begin with something terribly sophisticated," says Melichar. "The threshold to give it a try was so low that it just made sense to do it. With video, it was a similar thing." At first, Colgate's video was handled as part of the routine Web operation, but success led the university to work with Onstream Media Corp., the Web-services firm that specializes in supporting the delivery of rich-media content, as it prepares to launch a new Web site in February. "We have invested a lot in putting video on the site, and we need to make sure it's available," says Melichar. Production is driven by a single Web-content person, who works with a team of students to shoot and edit material.


#3: Think About the Message—and the Messenger">

Key #3: Think About the Message—and the Messenger

Even the slickest of media efforts can go wrong if the message doesn't keep pace with the medium. Consider the National Basketball Association, which offers a newsy, stat-heavy, video-rich experience at its nBA.com Web site. In December, the league earned the scorn of media-savvy fans by seeming to ignore some bad news.

When nBA.com went longer than a day without offering serious coverage of an ugly (and widely publicized) fight between players from the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden, all the bells and whistles at the site didn't make the NBA's lack of introspection look any better. Everyone else in the sports world was talking about the fight, but the NBA was still pumping out the happy-talk. That's old-school PR, and in a world where anyone can comment, it just makes you look weak. As the sports blog True Hoops put it: "This is one of those days when NBA.com loses all credibility as a news organization...it's like, 'what massive fight in the world's most famous arena?'" (The NBA did not respond to requests for comment.)

Another way to establish credibility as a media organization is to put the right people in front of the camera, says Melichar. Colgate has a page at its main site called "Web 2.0: Colgate Live," with links to blogs, video and photo galleries. "If you have a good story to tell, all this new media doesn't make it any better. But the caveat is, you need compelling personalities, and you need them to be comfortable with their stories," he says. "If not, you're in trouble. If someone is boring it won't work."

Colgate determined that the best voices for its message come from actual students. "It's the same logic as with consumer products: Who cares what Tylenol says about their products? I want to hear from the users," says Melichar. "People want to hear how we do education here, what it's like to be a student at Colgate, to attend a residential liberal arts college. We have to be credible because we want students to look at us without having to filter out the marketing-speak."

Getting people to participate, and to keep up with blogs or other obligations, is also part of the challenge. Some people have stories to tell, so new media is "organic" for them, Melichar says. It helps to "have an institution that is comfortable with itself, and willing to take some chances." But even then, finding the right opportunity for busy people to participate is important. Colgate President Rebecca Chopp, he says, is "a masterful storyteller. She's very tuned in, she's read the Robert Scoble book on blogging [Naked Conversations, cowritten with Shel Israel], but for her to jump in with a full-time blog would be a lot to ask." Instead, Chopp blogged a recent trip to China, and may take advantage of similar, targeted opportunities that show her as a worldly, connected leader at a school that aspires to inculcate those qualities in its students.


#4: Look Outside the Company, and in the Attic">

Key #4: Look Outside the Company, and in the Attic

Another key step is deciding how far the media network will extend. "A big question is, who gets to post?" muses Montoya, campaign strategist for John Edwards. "We don't really keep that tightly controlled. One of the first things we discovered was the power of community. We put our site up with limited staff, and within days we had people from outside adding information we wouldn't have resources to find, like audio clips of the Senator speaking someplace that we never would have had. Soon thereafter, people started weekly roundups of what he was doing, which we could not have kept up with."

The idea is to let your constituents become programmers for your site, with the dual benefit of adding content and furthering engagement with your audience. "Our community blog gives people the tools to be journalists," says Montoya. "Every time John Edwards goes to an event, people bring video cameras and digital cameras, and they post about it at our site." Diaries, videos and podcasts are recommended by registered users at the site, and monitored by staff and volunteers. Says Montoya: "A lot of times we'll bring those posts to the front page of our site without editing."

PodShow's Bloom says that replacing the single, dominant voice of an organization with "a dynamic message" is a big cultural shift, but one that allows "the underlying soul and spirit of the entity to be communicated." The payoff, he says, comes in the opportunity for longer, deeper dialogue with anyone who is interested. "You get your day in court in any conversation this way. If you have a fully enabled media platform, you have the opportunity to excite and engage almost anyone."

Meanwhile, some of your best material may already be on hand. One of the common-sense steps toward becoming a multimedia operation is to start by taking inventory of the media assets you already have. "We have a lot of content," says Montoya. "We want to use it, and use it efficiently, so we've taken image and footage that exists and pushed it out online."


#5: Get Buy-in From the Bosses">

Key #5: Get Buy-in From the Bosses

Getting to that level of openness requires buy-in from the top, and cooperation across the organization. At Ford, Bold Moves was driven by a cross-functional team that included people from marketing, public affairs, sales and service, and other parts of the company. The documentary required approval from top executives—not that the company can really hide from its problems, which are big news; in late January, Ford made headlines with the announcement of shocking 2006 losses totaling $12.7 billion.

Support from the top matters in any organization. On the campaign trail, "The Edwardses [the candidate and his wife, Elizabeth] are a big force behind this," says Montoya. "They get it, and one reason is that wherever they go, people ask them about their book club, or their podcasts, so they can see it working in real time. People are showing up at events because of the connection they've made online, so there's validation, and not a lot of proving to be done. The site becomes a focus group, and you'd better believe the Edwardses read it."

Ironically, the original Edwards for President campaign had a notably weak Web presence in 2003. "Who knew how powerful blogging would be?" says Montoya. "Now it seems like the natural trajectory, from print to video. It's a mindset. If companies are smart, they will understand its power." n