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Edelman Worldwide: The Dark Side?

This post is part of a series about a class trip to Seattle. 

Day 2 and it still hasn’t stopped raining. We wake up too early and destroy complimentary breakfast and head downtown to the Seattle newsroom of Edelman, a worldwide public relations and marketing firm. Absolutely nobody has done research on Edelman, but by God we know where to find doughnuts. 

After a parking fiasco we file into a swanky office building near the Belltown part of Seattle. Marty directs us to go to the 24th floor, and we discover it’s the top. What!

We stumble out of the elevator and are immediately struck by the gorgeous view. In the style of modern buildings, mixed concrete and carpet floors lead to full-length windows on all sides. Maude and superfluous office furniture is everywhere, and the office has a futuristic vibe. There are no cubicles.

Landscapes

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Young attractive people work at standing desks and laugh together. None of the guys are wearing ties and most women aren’t wearing high heels. There’s a huge community kitchen with a free Keurig. We drool.

In retrospect, this was a defining moment. Look at the place you could work. Look at the pretty people. Look at the pretty view. This could all be yours. 

Mizzou alum Cherylynne Crowder greets us and takes us into a side room for a frank discussion. We stand around half-constructed desks as she explains the office space is new. That’s probably why she didn’t lead us to a conference room.

So what do all these young people do, exactly?

In discussions about storytelling, brand trust and understanding trends, we discover Edelman is a PR firm through and through.

“I’m always thinking about the next new trend,” Crowder says, “Just the same as journalists, we’re always looking for the next new story.”

Her lessons sound vaguely familiar. “We need utility infielders – you have to be the next Renaissance person,” she says to a question about skills. “I have about 12 seconds to get the journalist’s attention.”

She goes on to discuss the changing nature of communication.

“For decades people yelled at the TV – now we’re closing the loop,” she says. Direct to consumer marketing is bringing people closer to the brands they love and boy, does it sound a whole lot like journalism.

She discusses the Trust Barometer.

“Media isn’t very highly trusted,” she says.

Two guys walk up to the group. One turns around a computer to reveal a MS Paint drawing of “Go Mizzou Tigers!” The mafia is everywhere. 

Rob, a young account executive in a plaid shirt, steps forward. He goes on to describe the storytelling he gets to do, all the multiplatform and emerging technology he uses. A story is told about a photographer that gets to swim with Great White sharks.

“What are the new ways we can tell familiar stories?” he says, referencing brand identities on various platforms.

He sounds like a journalist, but he isn’t. It’s perplexing. I challenge him.

“A lot of people, especially in our newsrooms at Mizzou, consider what you do to be the “dark side” of journalism,” I say. “What would you say to those people?”

He grins through frustration, like this is an argument he’s tired of making.

“I take pride in my skill set,” he says, “I’m a storyteller at heart, and I gotta make a living. If journalism can’t help you tell stories, find the channels that can.”

Another executive, Tyler, who just finished describing helping Microsoft start an Instagram, shares his perspective.

“In this job you get to work for stuff you believe in,” he says. “I don’t pitch stuff I don’t believe in.”

Rob closes his part with some strong words.

“Journalism is not the only place to do good.”

Exhausted from standing, we go for a tour around the building and head out. Quotes ring through my head.

Journalism is not the only place to do good. If Journalism can’t help you tell stories, find the channels that can. I take pride in my skill set. Media isn’t very highly trusted. 

edelmanview

 

 

I Can Has Cheezburger: Ben Huh

This is the second post in a series about a class trip to visit various newsrooms in Seattle. 

On our first day in Seattle, we arrive at the hotel jet lagged and wired on coffee.

We’re scheduled to meet with Ben Huh, digital entrepreneur and CEO of Cheezburger, the network of websites (single-handedly?) responsible for the internet’s infatuation with cats.

Cheezburger is the meme center of the internet. Huh helped start Circa, voted the best app of 2013 on both Android and iOS. He’s a legend, the kind of journalism entrepreneur we idolize.

So imagine our surprise when we cruise into Cheezburger’s headquarters and discover a half-empty office, well decorated but lightly staffed. We’re led into a conference room.

And imagine our surprise when Huh, about to go on vacation, comes into the room and gives us a frank explanation of his company and his industry. He’s wearing his standard circular glasses and speaks like a West-Coast techie.

One expects a man who runs a company called Cheezburger to be cheerful. However, his demeanor is grave, in stark contrast to the hand-painted memes hung throughout the office.

We do introductions and he launches into a short history of his career, from founding a tech company to his biggest break as a journalist. Soon the conversation turns to entrepreneurship.

“The best part about being an entrepreneur,” he says, “Is that somebody else pays you to learn how to start a business.”

At first his speech is inspiring, but soon he starts dumping realities. Journalism entrepreneurs – somebody asked a question about them – face a harsh and brutal reality.

“There’s a race in journalism and media to find the next hot thing,” Huh says. “By the time something gets big, nobody cares.”

Posed with a question about the newspaper industry, Huh speaks boldly.

Joint Operating Agreements were the worst thing to ever happen to news,” he says. “They were essentially monopolies that propped up voices. Now we’re seeing the natural defenses of a regional monopoly falling apart.”

He’s of course referencing The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer, two more locations we’ll visit later on the tour.

Even though it took a while to get profitable, and he had to lay off 24 employees, Huh doesn’t advise us to avoid entrepreneurship.

“People often talk about the ‘serial entrepreneur.’ It’s not about having ideas, it’s about a mindset. There’s no real value in an idea – ideas are worthless. The challenge is building something real. Don’t hold on to an idea like it’s a secret: the more people you tell about your idea, the better it will get.”

We leave Cheezburger disoriented. Was that a newsroom? Was the morbidly realistic Ben Huh the kind of journalist we’d all end up being? Is Cheezburger a success story or not? Why did we even visit?

Our professor Marty Steffens, in what I would call extreme wisdom, offers no opinions on Cheezburger or any other newsroom. She instead cheerfully offers the name of a good seafood restaurant downtown. We wander through the afternoon rain.

What is this trip about, exactly?

Cheezburger

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