Playing the Field

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Playing the Field

A State Department press briefing by Secretary of State Blinken threw a wrench in my week. I am not complaining. He was announcing an effort to get my brother released from Russia’s ongoing wrongful detention. But it meant that, once again, I was in family spokesperson mode for my family. And once again, I was put in the uncomfortable position of media trying to circumscribe my attempt to support my brother.

It is thankfully not a regular occurrence. The way it normally works is this: an event happens, I send out a media statement, and interested outlets contact me for additional information or an interview. It has taken me literal years to get this working in a manageable way.

This means that, in general, when something happens that impacts Paul’s case, I’m communicating with media directly. My mailing list media statements go to just over 160 journalists and producers. It helps me help them. I can’t have 160 interactions, I don’t have the time or energy and they all have immediate deadlines. I can immediately communicate a text-based statement that they can use to meet whatever deadlines they have.

It is the only way to scale media coverage in this sort of situation. And, if you ever have a family member in this situation, scale is a challenge. This is not a local story. It is covered in local markets and national and international ones. To achieve the sort of awareness that we believe is important, I need to achieve a breadth of coverage. The goal is for as many people to know, and care, about Paul’s case as possible.

You might suggest that I do not need to take every opportunity. I don’t. A large UK platform asked us to write an op-ed and we declined. I usually decline media platforms not based in the US or Russia because awareness building in other markets is unlikely to have any useful outcomes. And, because of work commitments this time around, I had to decline a lot so that I could meet with Board members and have an all-hands meeting.

But I’m only one person. Sometimes our sister does media but wasn’t available. And we’re not going to expose our parents to media. I wouldn’t, frankly, wish it on anyone. The media move on after a story – you have to live with the aftermath.

As I’ve written in my ebook for hostage families, media is a business. Media people are friendly but not friends. Most of them approach the story as something that they can share and it’s not a zero sum event. There remain, however, some who see each story as something to control for their particular benefit. They are the ones who seek the exclusive.

I felt very pressured to provide one in the first week of Paul’s detention. It was to a large platform and a nationally-known participant. I have regretted that and have refused subsequent requests, including the one I received this time. That first week, I was susceptible to the idea that an exclusive on a notorious program might be decisive. In the end, as I’m sure they know, I learned that no single program or event is anywhere near that powerful.

It’s a Numbers Game

On its face, accepting exclusivity only undermines my ability to help Paul. My goal is breadth. So holding off on sharing information or a story with media stymies that goal.

The benefit to the platform is that they may be able to leverage that exclusivity for eyeballs or click-throughs. People may go to a platform if they can only get the information from one location. This is an increasingly rare occurrence, as far I as I can tell. When I hit a paywall, I can usually find the content somewhere else (or just de-script the paywall).

I could see doing it if any program had enough reach to make it worthwhile. But a quick look at streaming and traditional video news shows that no one has that many viewers. And there’s no reason to think that you can attract other viewers in large numbers. So if, as in my case, breadth is the goal, exclusivity makes zero sense.

It’s probably worth mentioning that no one has declined to have me on because of my unwillingness to be exclusive. It’s a negotiation tactic. When you turn down the request, they treat you just like any old interview. It is not a risk to decline to be exclusive.

Each of the top rated news programs (“on cable”) capture less than 1% of the US population. I’m not selling a product so I’m not too fussy about demographics. If we assume that there are really only a handful of platforms (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX), even if you do an interview on each one, you are unlikely to reach more than 5% of the US population.

I will note that most of those most-watched “news” programs are not what I would normally consider news. They are personalities who talk about things that are in the news. I’ve been fortunate that usually only the real news programs are interested in Paul’s case. It gives me some confidence that my participation, and Paul’s circumstances, aren’t being misused. But their audiences may be half the size of the leading “news” programs.

So let’s say you’re the “talent” or a producer at a radio or TV program. You attract less than 1% of the US population. Your hope is to increase your viewer- or listener-ship. More eyeballs or clicks can generate additional advertising revenue, on which the platform’s success (ability to raise revenue) probably relies.

You can’t realistically expect much of an increase though. The news media market is not dynamic. In fact, there’s a lot of interest in what exactly matters because we’re seeing a huge decline in “newspapers” and news video attention as people move to streaming, and streaming media splinters.

Chart created from data in Pew Research Center feature on Cable News TV, July 13, 2021

One of the interesting data points in the Pew report is how Fox’s success mirrors a substantial investment in news that other platforms are not making. It’s no wonder they’re moving ahead in viewership count. But even their rise (which may have benefited from some environmental factors) barely brings them up to 1% of US population.

From a strategic perspective, you also can’t afford to ignore local news video. The obvious challenge it represents is that it is heavily fragmented and you might expect it exacerbates the issue of your availability. I think that, if you try to do individual interviews, it can be. Fortunately, from a resource perspective, your story may only appeal to one or two local markets. Additionally, many platforms rely on libraries of content generated by other programs on the platform.

Behold, the Monolith

I smile these days when I hear that someone watches Fox or NBC or whatever. It’s far more likely that they mean they watch a personality like Tucker Carlson or Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow or a specific time slot. It was an eye opener for me when I first started dealing with news media: there is no single platform that you’ll interact with called CNN or NBC or ABC or CBS or Fox.

Instead, there are lots of programs. And each program operates on its own, fighting for the same information resources. There are some internal rules to manage these relationships, of course. I’ve accepted one offer and had someone else retract theirs because of it because they share the same platform. At best, though, each media platform is an archipelago of islands that are aware of each other but in no way coordinated.

I don’t watch television, cable, or streaming news (even my own interviews). So I don’t know who these people are or why they’re well-known or how long they’ve been on their programs. I’ve heard of some, if they are ever themselves news. But it helps me to keep a bit of an ambivalence as their celebrity is literally meaningless to me.

When someone contacts you for exclusivity, you are also locking yourself out of other programs from the same platform. Producers will maintain relationships with you in order to be able to contact you quickly when news breaks. It allows them to pre-empt both competitive platforms and as well as competitive programs from their own platforms.

I’m afraid I’m pretty frustrating. A lot of news media live on phones and texts for communication. I don’t use either mode of communication very much. My phone is usually off. And my instinct for fairness means that I try to take each request, by email, in the order it is received.

One aspect of this incredible fragmentation is that you will occasionally be found by a producer who wants to capture video for the entire platform. I cannot say enough how incredible news producers are. I’m really careful when I deal with them, and, like the folks who set up audio or frame my video picture, try to make sure I am always saying thank you and remembering their names. Not because I feel bound to them, but because they are the ones making news happen.

The way this can play out is that you will have an interview with, essentially, no one. Someone, who will never appear in front of the camera on the platform, asks you a bunch of questions. You answer them just like you would in an interview. This video is then distributed across the platform: national programs, local programs.

It’s the best of both worlds for me. I can focus on breadth and also save time, to use on additional media interactions. This what my recent Wednesday/Thursday overnight looked like:

  • 2:30pm – US radio (MichPR), pre-taped
  • 5:00pm – Canadian platform (CBC), pre-taped
  • 6:30pm – US platform (NBC), pre-taped
  • 3:30am – US platform (CBS), pre-taped
  • 5:00am – US program (ABC), live
  • 6:15 am – US syndicated radio platform (Cumulus), live

Each of those pre-taped platform interviews went into some sort of library, as I understand it. The clips of my answers could then be used by whoever needed them on each platform. This includes all of those local news stations under the same large umbrella: your local Fox or CBS channel. The individual programs could potentially add to that footage if they asked me new questions.

When I already have a day full of meetings or events or time marked off to accomplish a task on my deadlines, this is invaluable. It not only allows me to share a message when I’m unavailable. It vents the demand from those platforms, so that folks who can’t reach me by deadline can still potentially get something to use for their own purposes.

Ephemeral Viewers

Exclusivity flies in the face of the wrongfully detained family’s goal of breadth. It locks you out of other platforms. It may lock you out of other programs on the same platform. If the exclusive interaction is not great, either because you don’t do well or the interviewer doesn’t, then the shareable raw material is weak.

But it’s not even clear that the end goal is achievable for the platform. We’re learning that its your regular readers or participants who should be the focus, not click metrics. If anything, it would seem that media would be better off focusing on its core, brand-loyal participants. An exclusive story might make them feel special, I suppose, like an insider. But that’s a platform benefit. It’s not one that serves the family of someone wrongfully detained.

I think a lot about this in the context of how to grow awareness at our law library. Novelty schticks may get people in the door. But you need to build something stronger for people to remember your law library, in particular, to make referrals to others to use the library’s services and collections. I think this is something else libraries share with media platforms: we need to focus on strong relationships, not scatter gun efforts that generate weak ones.

Brands focus on loyalty because a loyal consumer pays off in a variety of ways: stickiness, referrals, likely to consume additional brand products. Based on the Pew Center charts, it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of fluctuation in news viewers. What would it take you to stop watching your regular news programming? Or to stop following the media periodicals or feeds that you currently rely on? You made choices and stopping would undo them.

So exclusivity doesn’t even seem to make much sense as a way to poach viewers from other platforms. And poaching from other programs on the same platform would seem like cannibalism. Even if they don’t share personnel, they all work towards shared revenue goals. Once you’ve poached someone, you will need to retain them.

If they are just rubbering in on a story, there’s no reason to think they’ll stay. You’ll have choice-supportive bias (I have made a choice, therefore it’s the better choice) fighting with mere-exposure bias (I like things I’m familiar with). A single story doesn’t seem likely to shift preference from a familiar platform to a new one.

The Flipside

There may be a place for exclusivity. We have deployed it a few times, where we wanted a specific journalist to look at a specific angle or issue. We used exclusivity because we wanted someone we could trust and potentially share information that we couldn’t share more broadly.

Those are a lot harder to accomplish. The journalist is still independent. And even if you are able to get the story that you hope they’ll tell, one platform is not breadth. You then have to spend a lot of time to amplify that one platform to reach people that will not otherwise discover it. Most people are not looking for stories about Paul. In fact, we know that people are probably only looking when his case is already in the media.

For example, the Google Trends on his name match spikes in news coverage. The news coverage matches up with major events in his case (arrest, trial and conviction, release of another Russian hostage, etc.). These spikes are repeatable in other wrongful detention cases, so it has reinforced for me that we are probably doing the best we can on awareness.

Google Trends data screenshot for terms “paul whelan” and “whelan russia”

The benefit to trying to encourage a specific story is less for awareness (breadth) and more to put a pin in a perspective. That way, in the future, when people do look for things about Paul, they may find this perspective and information that we know is reliable. My media work is only partly about getting Paul home. I am also thinking about what happens after that; what media is he going to have to live with forever.

There are unquestionably stories or interviews for which exclusivity works. It just isn’t suitable when your goal is to create awareness. If breadth is what is warranted, there is no strategic reason to agreed to an exclusive media event. There is no media that is that broadly followed or trusted. Don’t let it distract you from your own strategic goals.