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When months of investigative reporting by The New York Times produced the story, “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence“ and the companion piece, “Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day,” I wondered how Brookings would respond.

The wondering didn’t last long.

The same day the stories came out, Brookings published “Brookings Rebuts New York Times” that captured its position:

Mr. Lipton and Ms. Williams make a sweeping allegation that, in return for donations, Brookings promotes the business interests of certain corporations. They assert that the line between researchers and lobbyists has “at times” been blurred. That is not the case at Brookings: the line is always clear, hard, and recognized by our scholars, our institution, and our donors.

And Brookings wasn’t done.

Last Thursday the Institution took a more expansive approach, publishing “New York Times Allegations and Our Response.” When I say expansive, I mean expansive. This treatise weighs in at 6,797 words, give or take.

What you communicate to the outside world in times of crisis — and make no mistake this constitutes a crisis with the NYT essentially saying you too can curry favor from Brookings by writing a check with enough zeros — nailing down the content rates the top priority.  No doubt Brookings spent hundreds of man hours developing this content. I guarantee it was painful a experience with spirited and probably contentious debates on the way to the final copy.

Yet, the channels for catapulting that content to the outside world also play a crucial role in the success or failure of the effort.

How did Brookings handle those channels of distribution?

Taking a pass on interviews with the media, Brookings turned to owned media — its website — as the core channel for communications. In this age of digital pulpits, many companies have taken this path, including Walmart, which itself battled the NY Times a couple years ago. Such an approach enables a company to express its point of view without dealing with reporters and their pesky questions.

Though not proactively courting the media, Brookings believes its narrative will still end up in media stories since it’s the only commentary available from the think tank. It turns out that the NYT investigative reporting on Brookings didn’t trigger a cavalcade of stories from other publications. Still, there’s nuance to the Brookings media strategy which also published its response on Medium, a move that landed coverage in Fortune.

In fact, Fortune calls out Medium in how it frames the story:

“The Brookings Institution, a major think tank based in Washington, hit back with a post on Medium today. “We are proud of our scholars, their work, and our partnership with our donors,” the post reads. It argued that the New York Times “cherry picked phrases” and “fundamentally misrepresents our mission” and how the think tank operates.”

Would Fortune have published the same story if the source was the Brookings website? We’ll never know, but there’s a reason that Fortune chose Medium over a corporate website. Medium has the feel of a third-party legitimacy though Brookings controls every consonant and vowel just like owned media.

And Fortune linked back to the Medium post.

The earned media tally included another tier-one publication, The Washington Post. In this case, the coverage came in the form of a byliner, “What do we know about the independence of think tank research that we didn’t a week ago?” from Tufts University professor, Daniel W. Drezner. The good professor brings a voice of reason — and a positive perspective of Brookings couched in clinical language — to the topic concluding:

“None of this is to say that the concerns raised by the Times reporters are not worth further investigation. Rather, my conclusions are twofold:

  • Think tanks are taking the necessary steps to improve their transparency;
  • Short of unrestricted billion-dollar endowments, there is no perfect solution to this conundrum.

So reports like these should make people uneasy. They should not cause one to doubt every think tank report in existence.”

Did Brookings tug the right puppet strings to generate the Washington Post coverage? I doubt if Brookings called Professor Drezner and said, “Danny, about your regular contribution to the Washington Post …” It is conceivable that Brookings reached out to its fellows and “friends” with the message that it would welcome the public airing of  their perspectives as a counter balance to the NYT story.

The Washington Post story links back to the Brookings website.

Turning our attention to online presence, a significant percent of Brookings’ target audience will conduct online searches to come to their own conclusions on the “he said, she said” standoff. Here’s a look at one obvious way they’ll search on the topic, [New York Times on Brookings]:

(Note: All searches conducted on August 14, 2016 using the incognito mode)New York Times on Brookings Google searchYou can see Brookings performs well, securing multiple slots on Page 1.  Also note that the Fortune story ends up on Page 1.

Certainly, big brands and names like a Brookings have an advantage in bulldozing their way into the search engine results page (SERP). Plus, the Brookings URL as an .edu, delivers lift in the eyes of Google.

While the on-page SEO for the website content addressing the crisis lacks sophistication (more on this in a moment), I suspect that the link juice from The Washington Post and Fortune goes a long way toward ensuring the content resonates with the Google algorithm. Keep in mind that the Brookings Medium post links to the website, so it passes some of the Fortune link juice to the website content.

It seems reasonable to expect some people would search on words such as [New York Times on think tanks].New York Times on Think Tanks 08-16In this scenario, Brookings also lands one slot on page one, and we find the favorable Washington Post byliner making Page 1 as well, still a good performance.

But look what happens when the search becomes [NYT on think tanks]:NYT on Think Tanks 08-16The Brookings voice is MIA on Page 1 of the SERP.

Which brings us back to the on-page SEO. I find that the construction of title tags often provides a good litmus test for on-page SEO.

Take a look at the title tag for response #1.Brooknigs and New York Times title tagNow take a look at the title tag for response #2.Brookings New York Time title tagThe title tag is one of the most important parts of on-page SEO (search engine optimization) that Google uses to determine relevance in what it serves up on the search engine results pages. No human being interested in this topic is going to search with keywords like “Brookings rebuts New York Times.”

Brookings would have improved online discovery by considering how different stakeholders would search on the topic and inserting those keywords into the title tag and the copy. At the very least, “think tank” should have been included in one of the title tags as well as “NYT” instead of “New York Times.” As Chris de Sa from our SEO team pointed out, simply using “NYT” in one of the URLs might have done the trick.

It’s also worth mentioning that neither Brookings response included a hyperlink back to the offending New York Times articles. No doubt the Brookings executives are thinking, “The last thing we’re going to do is validate this rubbish by linking back to the stories.” Yet, linking back to the story would have strengthened online presence and increased the probability of Google serving up a Brookings response for broad searches on the issue.

Finally, examining the paid side, Brookings is running a PPC campaign to amplify its voice for relevant searches.New York Times on Brookings PPC campaignIts PPC campaign points people to the post on Medium, again capitalizing on third-party feel that comes with the platform. It’s a good move, though one that again would have been improved by anticipating the different ways that target stakeholders search on the topic. For example, the search [new york times on think tanks] doesn’t a trigger the paid ad, a miss considering Brookings is absent from the organic listings from this type of search.

Playing Monday Morning Fellow on the PPC campaign, I would have rotated the pointer between the Medium post and byliner on The Washington Post. I would have also doubled down on PPC searches using the misspelled “Brooking” since some people will forget the “s.” While this post focuses on channels of distribution, the copy for the Brookings PPC campaign — “Get the facts from Brookings on independent research programs” — doesn’t exactly make a persuasive argument for a click.

On the other hand, I give credit to Brookings for highlighting the issue on its home page.

Brookings homepage

Companies often take the attitude that the less attention they bring to the crisis, the sooner the issue dissipates into the yesterday’s noise. Brookings recognizes that most people coming to the site in the forseeable future will know about the issue; consequently, it’s better to get in front of it by proactively highlighting its point of view.

All in all, I’m impressed with the Brookings approach to channels of communications in handling this crisis. While one can quibble with the on-page SEO and a couple other areas (and I did), the approach delivers a range of touch points for the Brookings perspective.

As for the bigger picture, the Brookings/NYT tiff provides yet another indicator of the evolving balance of power between the media and the companies it covers.

 


Comments

  • Frank Strong

    Terrific analysis Lou. I really like your point about Medium have the look and feel of a third party. It seems to be emerging as a crisis response platform (a-la- Amazon). It also has built-in distribution with a community, that I suspect, are early adopters including lots of journalists. The latter needs to be tested.

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Thanks Frank. I agree with your points on Medium. While Medium’s back-end tools offer the potential for “gorgeous” content, their value proposition hammers the point of online discovery and incremental traffic. I’m working on a post that tackles this topic.

      Reply

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