Rather illuminating

WOMM Advice From A Broadcast Legend

What advice would a 60-year broadcast-news icon offer that pertains to word of mouth marketing? 

A Small Rather

I recently had the privilege to meet Dan Rather – the 2012 recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement presented annually by the Washington State University Murrow College of Communications. It was a rare privilege to see the genuine interest that the longtime CBS news reporter, London correspondent, and network news anchor had in the students that he addressed -both in the classroom and during his keynote address.

As I reflect on his remarks, I can’t help but consider the stark contrast that exists between the education that Rather received and the tools that were available to him with those of aspiring young professionals in the digital age. Rather spoke of the transformation that occurred between the day in 1963 when he broke the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Texas and the four days in September of 2011 when he anchored the CBS News coverage of attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

“The digital age has ushered in a new era of speed and accessibility in today’s transfer of information. But meanwhile, a trend of rising confusion in America and a lack of faith in the press has emerged,” Rather said.

“A Gallup poll released last week indicated Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent, saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” Rather said. “This is a far cry from the days of Murrow.”

“The heightened speed of information has often come at the cost of real context in reporting,” Rather said.

“Rapid is all the rage,” Rather told the attentive crowd. “With social networking, the bully, the dictator and the scoundrel can now spread propaganda, manipulated with hyperbole, in the time it takes to snap a finger.” And in just as short a time the truth, the need, the opportunity can be exposed with the very same tools and community.

Commenting on Murrow’s stance on the speed of information, Rather said, “That is where Murrow stood guard, at the intersection of speed and truth. “Isn’t that where we stand now?”

Rather implored aspiring communications professionals in the audience, to approach their craft with humility, transparency, accuracy, and fairness.

“Journalism, at its best, is a public service. It is not meant to be an affirmation of beliefs already held, it is about creating understanding. In order to do that, you must experience what your audience has not,” Rather said. “That means getting out of the newsroom, and the cubicle, prying yourself away from the screen, grabbing a pencil, notebook, a recorder, a camera, and getting out into the world.”

Before accepting his Murrow Award, Rather stopped by journalism classrooms to share his story and offer advice to students on how to successfully prepare for careers as communicators. Seems to me that much of what he said is excellent advice for word of mouth marketers as well.

On Listening:

The key to a good interview is preparation and listening.
“By listening, the contour of the interview begins to develop,” Rather said. “Then, you can decide if you want to continue down those different paths.”

On Writing:
  • Rather offered three tips that, he said, would make it possible for students to never worry about being employed… “1) Learn to write. 2) Learn to write. 3) Learn to write.”
  • To Rather, good writing is the foundation of solid reporting and communication. He recommends keeping sentences short, using strong verbs and taking in examples of good writing from others. Rather used Murrow as an example for his point. The famous WSU alumnus read Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and other authors who wrote with short, direct sentence structures, he said.
On Accuracy:
  • “Accuracy is also of the utmost importance, Rather said. “Speed should not be the first priority. The first obligation is to be right.”
On Consequences:
  • While the digital age has sped up the delivery of information, it has also diminished some of the longstanding standards, including the price you pay when you’re wrong.
On Values:

“Most importantly,” Rather said, “establish a reputation of asking the hard questions and stay true to their own inner code. Know what you do, what you don’t do and what you stand for,” he said. “You have to know what you stand for or you’ll fall for anything.”

Yes, at the core of Dan Rather is the tenacity of a seasoned journalist and care of a professional communicator. He’s made the journey from teletype to television and from grainy black and white to ultra-clear high-definition. He’s reported the news and been the news. And now, the lessons he’s learned and shared are directly applicable to a digital age where the community has become the communicator.

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NOTE: Pictured between Dan Rather and me is my step-daughter, Abby Student. Abby is a sophomore communications student at WSU. Go Cougs!

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  • Paul Anderson
    Oct. 8, 2012
    Great post.

    I enjoyed meeting Dan's team when they were doing a story on unemployment. I wish I had met him personally but what you shared here is almost like my having a dialog with him personally.

    I'll continue to learn to write.

    Thanks for the inspiration tonight.

The Fine Print

Rod Brooks (that's me) is VP & CMO of PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and serves as Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Directors for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).  It's important to disclose both of those relationships and to be clear that this is my personal blog where I share thoughts and opinions that are solely my own.  Contact me!

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