Anderson Cooper Comes Out: A CNN Ratings Push or PR Play?
By Ben Piper, President, Ben Piper Consulting
I must confess that I don’t watch Anderson Cooper and haven’t in a couple of years, but I do keep up with the news and Cooper’s ratings have been in the tank for about that long.
Marketers often talk about the importance of being authentic. The philosophy is that if you are just yourself and convey that to people, they will flock to you. Perhaps Cooper’s public announcement of his sexual preference is a ploy by the marketing folks at CNN to boost ratings by having him suddenly come across as “authentic.” Couple that with the fact that he is currently trying to boost interest in his daytime talk program, Anderson. Before you respond with negative comments here, let me point out that Forbes ran a piece claiming that Anderson Cooper’s coming out “Will Help His Brand.” So why couldn’t this have been actively planned?
And if it were, what’s the problem with that?
The problem is that authenticity can’t be faked.
Authenticity Must Be, Well, Authentic
Part of being authentic is being consistent. Abruptly going from being deafeningly silent about his personal life to dropping such a personal bombshell on CNN’s viewing audience after his two-decade long career in broadcast journalism hardly qualifies as being consistent. Cooper’s “coming out” only serves to cement his image as a person who will do anything for ratings.
There is a lesson here for individuals who are in the public eye: Authenticity is an all-or-nothing proposition. You either present yourself publicly the way you really are, or you try to convey a particular image. The line gets blurry when you are trying to represent your employer publicly while still letting “you” shine through. But blurry lines are unpleasant to look at, and people will not deign to look for long when there are much clearer figures with a much clearer message.
CNN’s overall image fares no better. Cooper has long been one of the primary faces identified with the CNN brand. While everyone knows that Cooper is not the official face of CNN, consumers nevertheless judge media outlets by the company they keep. If CNN will resort to such pathetic and transparent attempts to boost ratings, can viewers really rely on them? Viewers expect Hollywood to resort to shock tactics to boost the bottom line. But respectable news media outlets are expected to offer better, more compelling and relevant content to their viewers. Failing this, CNN has dredged the bottom of the barrel by rousing people’s curiosity about what Anderson Cooper will say and how he will act differently now that he’s “out.” And people will watch, for a time. Then the novelty will wear off, and Cooper’s ratings will continue to decline.
Making the Shift
I don’t know what CNN’s motivation was, but assuming it was to make Cooper more authentic, they went about it all wrong. If you’re going to make the shift from canned delivery to an authentic personality, you can’t just make the leap in the way CNN did. You have to follow some common sense guidelines:
First, communicate clearly and often. Your audience wants to know what is happening and more importantly, why. CNN made a mistake by failing to explain why Cooper’s announcement was relevant to the viewers or the network. Consequently, they left the reasons to the public’s imagination. That’s never a good idea.
Second, don’t offend your audience. CNN did not consider that some viewers might be offended by Cooper’s public pronouncement of his sexual preference. Many viewers who subscribe to traditional values received it as a slap in the face. Slapping your own viewers in the face is never a good idea either.
Finally, but most importantly, have a good reason for everything you do, especially if the public will see it. This is almost as obvious as not offending your audience, but it needs to be said. Wanting to boost ratings is a fine rationale, but the steps to achieve that objective that should be executed haphazardly. If you are the least bit unclear on your objectives, your audience will be utterly confused.
Ben Piper helps transform information technology organizations into investments that deliver unprecedented returns. He is President of Ben Piper Consulting and can be reached on the web at benpiper.com; via email at firstname.lastname@example.org; or via telephone at 678-561-4236.