Saturday, November 23, 2013

Orwell's sniff test of 'Native Ads' and 'Strategic Communication'

My inner Orwell, ever on the alert for new Orwellian words, has found two worthy of note.

Ironically, but alas not surprisingly, they are becoming embedded in the lexicon of communications jargon.

They are “strategic communication” and “native advertising.”

I first came across “strategic communication” when the University of Oregon opened an entire “strategic communication” program at its Portland campus. I got the strong sense that the term was trying to be an under-the-radar replacement for “public relations,” which has its own questionable meaning. The “public” appears because it is PR’s job to influence the public. (A qualification: As a journalist, I often rely on PR folks and many of them are exceedingly helpful, but we also harbor a mutual suspicion.)

PR is often about putting a verbal gloss on a corporation’s (or candidate’s or political party’s or government’s) image. The mission of PR is to get the client’s story out in a way that serves the client’s best interest. That can lead to omission, obfuscation, dubious comparisons and false association.

I can’t figure out how strategic communication is different except it has substituted a new name. Just ask your self: “Who’s strategy is this communication part of?”

The term is now creeping into my own neighborhood where the Hillsdale Main Street program has a board member assigned to “strategic communication.” As a journalist who covers Hillsdale (, I take the board member’s designated assignment as fair warning. Indeed I’m already seeing frothy, “strategic” press releases issuing from the small, struggling program.

I don’t know where I first came across “native advertising.” The term on its face seems vacuous except that it suggests it is different from plain old advertising. “Native”? Could this be the “new new thing in advertising?”

Of course, advertising itself is riddled with deceitful devices. For a list visit any media literacy site. Try THIS ONE.

So what exactly is “native advertising”? It seems to be advertising that melds with surrounding editorial content (on-line and in print) by having the same “look and feel.” In short, it requires you, dear reader, to separate editorial wheat and advertising chaff. For me, the prime example is “WIRED” magazine, where editorial content looks like advertising; advertising looks like editorial content.

Most of the time a reader can “read” the “look” without having to read content to tell which is which. Not so with “native advertising.” Getting you to read it – ALL of it– is the point.

No doubt a “communication strategist” devised the term “native advertising.”

Before writing off both terms as not passing my Orwellian sniff test, I decided to visit Wikipedia to see what its entries had to say. It seemed as if “communication strategists” have again been at work. Worse, ACADEMIC communication strategists had been at work, sprinkling the definitions with vague jargon and an air of inscrutable respectability.

Example: Strategic communication management could be defined as the systematic planning and realization of information flow, communication, media development and image care in a long-term horizon. It conveys deliberate message(s) through the most suitable media to the designated audience(s) at the appropriate time to contribute to and achieve the desired long-term effect. Communication management is process creation. It has to bring three factors into balance: the message(s), the media channel(s) and the audience(s)

Another definition deals with governmental uses of “strategic communication”:

In the U.S., Strategic Communication is defined as: Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.”

Could we be talking about propaganda perhaps?

Wikipedia, fortunately, is not asleep at the wheel about its contributed content.  Wikipedia editors top questionable definitions with warnings. Of the “strategic communication” entry they write:

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards. (February 2010) This article contains wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information. (April 2013)

“Native Advertising’s” definition on Wikipedia emphasizes how the device is used on the internet.

Native advertising is a web advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user's experience. Native ad formats match both the form and the function of the user experience in which it is placed. One form of native advertising, publisher-produced brand content, is similar in concept to a traditional advertorial, which is a paid placement attempting to look like an article. A native ad tends to be more obviously an ad than most advertorials.[1] The advertiser's intent is to make the paid advertising feel less intrusive and thus increase the likelihood users will click on it.

Again, to Wikipedia’s credit, the editors put up a warning about this definition:

This article may document a neologism in such a manner as to promote it. Please add more reliable sources to establish its current use and the impact the term has had on its field. Otherwise consider renaming or deleting the article. (May 2013)

You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

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