Inside CNN’s Social Media World…
We all know that social media and TV News are getting increasingly intertwined. Many of us follow news anchors, producers, and network executives on Twitter and Facebook. But what we don’t see and know very little about is the infrastructure behind what the networks are doing in the social world.
With that in mind, and because I’m a nosy sort that likes mechanical stuff like this, I wanted to get behind the scenes and drill down below the usual superficial articles regarding cable news social media that we only infrequently get to read about. So, ICN corralled Steve Krakauer, Senior Digital Producer at CNN and the network’s point man on social media, to get a better sense of what his network does and wants to do with social media…
ICN: Would you briefly describe for ICN’s readers what your role is and how that translates into what CNN does with Social Media?
Krakauer: As senior digital producer for CNN U.S., my job is to represent the TV side online, through the web (CNN.com) and social media. I also run the @CNN Twitter account, which has more than 4.5 million followers.
ICN: How is social media structured at CNN? I know some shows have dedicated personnel attached to them for managing and implementing social media strategies. You yourself came to your new job from such a position at Piers Morgan Tonight. But it’s not clear to me, being on the outside, how the organizational structure functions, co-ordinates, and communicates.
Krakauer: As I’m sure it is at many companies, social media touches several aspects of the organization. When it comes to the editorial side of TV, I coordinate with the digital producers for CNN shows. All the shows have individual and unique digital strategies, which I help with, but also look out for the network as a whole and longterm projects like the election.
ICN: I’m going to do my social media full disclosure here and state that I’m quasi-agnostic about social media in general and more negative regarding social media implementation by news networks in particular. From what I’ve observed standing on the sidelines, news network social media strategy appears to take on a “let’s throw this up on the wall and see if it sticks” methodology implemented in a too often haphazard and unevenly followed through manner. In other words, it seems to me like networks in general, while they may have a detailed grasp of what’s going on in the various social media platforms, have yet to discover that magic bullet formula of harnessing social media in a substantive manner that goes beyond merely tossing out questions on Facebook over the air or throwing up some tweets and hashtag commentary on the screen now and again. Do you feel this is a point that has validity and if so what steps can be taken/are being taken by your network to move social media implementation and integration to a different level?
Krakauer: Well first of all, I’ve probably written something similar a few years ago when I was still a media reporter at TVNewser or Mediaite. And that speaks to the fact that media organizations – and CNN in particular – were actually fairly quick to embrace social media early in its inception. But we’ve come a long way from the early stages. Now, it’s about using social media effectively – to figure out the strategy that is optimal. A few quick examples: when I started as the digital producer of Piers Morgan Tonight, it was very important to get Piers personally involved and invested in the social media strategy. There was only so much I could do from a show account – and while very few executive producers are as involved in social as Jonathan Wald, there was only so much he could do as well. To do it right, we needed to harness the power of the celebrity status of Piers, and make sure his personality translated to Twitter. He obviously embraced it far beyond my initial imagination, but it was part of the early strategy. Secondly, now we try to use social media to bring viewers to the channel. That’s a very clear difference to the way it was initially used. A lot is made about Twitter followers or Facebook fans, but ultimately, what matters is how the followers and fans respond. Building a brand is very important, and on social media, brand building can be accomplished.
Far more important than a passive relationship on social is a very active and engaged one. We want fans and followers to responsd to a post or tweet – and seek out more information on TV and online. What we’ve seen is that in some of the big events – debates, election nights, the Charlie Sheen interview on Piers Morgan Tonight – there can be a social media correlation to ratings. We’re in the early stages of how to harness that on a day-to-day basis, and creating consistent engagement is part of that process.
ICN: Related to the previous question, do you see the cable news social media sector condensing around a smaller core of platforms or will the segment continue to fragment and if it does continue to fragment do you see that as a potential problem in terms of networks being able to keep up with all the changes? I mean, the networks don’t have the infrastructure to cover every social media platform with the same degree of coverage.
Krakauer: I think it’s a nice idea to want to try every social media platform that crops up, but it’s unrealistic when thinking in terms of a business. Let’s start with the big ones – Twitter and Facebook are valuable social media resources that have proven track records (as much as a still-fairly-young social media outlet can have a proven track record). But looking beyond the big two – Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and Instagram come to mind – those are certainly more uncharted territory for seeing if there is truly a valuable output to the input. Is there a value to building the brand on new, emerging platforms? Sure. It’s something that we can’t ignore. CNN was an early adopter of both Twitter and Facebook and it has paid dividends. But in order to do it, we have to do it right. And that takes a strategy that can only come about after we truly understand what the emerging platforms can do. I think there’s more value in exploring how to better harness the power of Twitter and Facebook for our purposes.
ICN: It’s been over a year and we still haven’t seen a social media successor to former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez surface anywhere in cable news. No talent, outside of maybe Greta Van Susteren, has come close to matching Sanchez on all of the social media levels he operated at. Piers Morgan, for example, may be a tour de force on Twitter but that’s it…Twitter is essentially the sum total of where Morgan makes most of his impact. Sanchez had Twitter of course but he was also a juggernaut on YouTube putting out video nearly every M-Fr. Why do you think we haven’t seen more Sanchezes come along and really go above and beyond in trying to reach out and connect with viewers on the internet and do you think this is something all talent will eventually have to contend with at some point?
Krakauer: I don’t believe a person has to match the number of platforms a person was on in order to be seen as a successor or a success. It’s important to note HOW a TV news talent engages on a platform, rather than pure numbers. Take Don Lemon – active on Twitter and Facebook, engaging the audience. Same goes for Brooke Baldwin with Twitter and web videos. Or Piers and Anderson Cooper – not only the two most followed journalists in the world, but #1 and #2 for a clear reason – they do it in a way that surpasses how many other journalists use the medium. I think the most important thing about social media is that it feels genuine, and that’s what works best.
ICN: As I noted earlier it seems to me social media is still relatively at the infancy level in terms of network integration without the appearance of a clear unified plan. This is understandable since a lot of these platforms are in their own infancy and new ones are popping up all the time. It would seem to me that one of the challenges in coming up with a unified plan is measuring the effectiveness of various individual social media initiatives to see where traction is taking hold and where it isn’t. My question is how many social media initiative postmortems are done at CNN where the numbers are crunched and how does one define what is an acceptable level of interaction and/or response vs. an unacceptable level of interaction and/or response? A corollary question would be is there any level of interaction/response that would be deemed unacceptable or a waste of CNN’s time or is it going to be a case of “We got some response so we’ll take it”?
Krakauer: In terms of measurement, I think we’re at social media 2.0 when it comes to evaluating whether things work and whether they don’t. There was a time where getting some response was great – we’re past that time. It’s great to see a conversation happening on Twitter and Facebook, and having a vibrant discussion on the web can only be a positive. For example, we saw recently with the Trayvon Martin special, a solid rating number for a Friday night as it was trending worldwide, while CNN.com saw fantastic numbers as well during the special. We use all sorts of metrics to judge the real value of that discussion, and we are optimistic that more and better research tools will help illuminate this conversation over time. I believe CNN is on the right track, and, in general, is ahead of the curve.
ICN: Returning to my cable news social media agnosticism, one of the reasons I am such an agnostic is because of the way I have observed the two big platforms Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook being harnessed to a fraction of their potential by networks in general and talent in particular. I became so frustrated that I ended up writing a blog post on the subject called Talent Twitter 101
In a nutshell, I view Twitter as a portal with great potential to defining a talent or a show in ways that simply watching the host or program cannot possibly provide. Yet more often than not this aspect is woefully underutilized. Instead, I tend to see mostly headline and clip link regurgitation. While that does service the networks to some extent in promoting shows, if that’s the majority of what comes over a talent’s Twitter feed it does little to promote the talents themselves as there’s nothing new or different vs. what airs on the TV. I consider a talent’s Twitter account as their own professional billboard and yet I don’t get the feeling that a lot of talent have really caught on to this tool in that manner.
I know this sounds more like a statement than a question but there really is a question coming. Do you feel that we are still in a “feeling out” stage vis a vis Twitter (and Facebook) and its potential and in general terms what sorts of guidance/help/instruction is CNN providing to the talent to get them over the hump so to speak?
Krakauer: Nice rant, Spud. But seriously… in a short answer – yes. I think we’re absolutely still feeling out what works best for talent on Twitter and Facebook, and we’re still in the ‘learning as we go’ portion of social networking when it relates to news, and by extension, celebrities and personalities. That said, I think many in the news business have found some very successful strategies. As I said earlier, whatever your social media personality is, it’s important that it matches your actual personality – it needs to be authentic. Authenticity is so important for news talent on TV and it is just as important on the web. People like Sanjay Gupta and Wolf Blitzer have found a way to harness it and display their personalities through Twitter. Don Lemon has cultivated a tremendous community on Facebook based around his authentic interactions. Soledad O’Brien serves both the purposes of her own CNN interests – Starting Point, documentaries – as well as the discussions that develop from those programs. She regularly interacts with viewers who have strong opinions about her journalism, positive and negative.
There is not a playbook for this. But what I have done since starting my new role with the network and what I hope to continue to do more is meet with the talent at CNN for discussions about how they personally would like to use social media. I want to know what they hope to achieve – do they want to crowdsource for news nuggets, spend time listening, market and promote their segments? Whatever the goal, there’s a way to try to mileage that. Everyone is extremely busy as is, so it’s getting maximum value out of time spent in the space. One more thing – and this is important: social media can be fun. I think it’s really necessary to view social media in the proper context – that it can truly be an entertaining, diversionary outlet as well. I love that Brooke Baldwin can go from tweeting about serious stories that are meaningful to her, to talking about her day or sending a song she likes – that’s who she is. Social media is a way for CNN viewers to learn about who Brooke Baldwin is the 22 hours she’s not on the air each day, and that will ultimately enhance the connection an audience has with her when she is on the air.
ICN: Related to the last question, I have read the version of CNN’s Social Media Policy that leaked out to Deus Ex Malcontent in 2008.
I have to say that my big takeaway from reading it was the sheer amount of bureaucracy that seems to be required in order to get anything new or different accomplished in the social media realm. This would seem to be the antithesis of the way social media functions vis a vis the nimble rapid fire way things unfold and the constant need for adjustment.
Without getting into the specifics of CNN’s Social Media Policy, can you discuss in general terms the issues involved in striking a balance between the endless possibilities of social media with the necessity of maintaining some semblance of order in an organization where the interests of the individual is necessarily subjugated to the interests of the corporation?
Krakauer: Without getting into specifics, let’s just say things have changed. At CNN, we’re lucky to have many members of our organization who use social media as part of their everyday lives and in conjunction with their work – it’s a natural, easy fit. We have people like political reporter Peter Hamby, who has become an exponential bigger star during this election cycle precisely because of his social media presence. Using social media is encouraged. That said, the important thing for CNN is to maintain the same level of journalistic standards across all platforms, and I believe we achieve that.
ICN: Where does CNN envision social media going in terms of utilization and do you think we will ever see the day of a totally interactive newscast whether on TV or the internet?
Krakauer: Since I can’t speak to where CNN is going, I’ll stick to what I think personally. Even before I got to CNN, I believed that the appeal of television news is its ability to maintain a level of traditionalism in a rapidly changing media landscape. The nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC, CBS may decline in total viewership (just as many broadcast outlets have seen across the board ratings declines), but they still attract a massive audience without very much format change in 50 years. There’s an appeal to television in it’s old media-ness.
That said, I like the experimentation that CNN has brought forward over the past couple years, and I believe that will be expanded. Cross-platform experiences are only going to grow – watching your television while looking at an iPad or laptop is a growing experience, and we need to continue to be at the forefront of giving the consumer a dynamic experience. While your television news viewing experience may not drastically change in the next few years, I imagine the additional elements to that experience will be greatly enhanced.
(Full Disclosure: Steve Krakauer was the founding TV Editor at Mediate. Mediaite used to have a weekly online streaming video interview program called Office Hours which Krakauer co-hosted. I was the second person to phone in to Office Hours and I was also once interviewed in the Office Hours studio by Krakauer. For the record I want to declare that there is absolutely no connection between my appearances on Office Hours and the program’s eventual demise. Probably.)