Episode Transcript – Taking an Organizational Stand on Social and Political Issues. Is it Worth it?

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 76

Guest, Jay Webster, Cision

Published November 27, 2022

Listen to this episode 

Doug Downs (00:11):

Disney, not only the happiest place on Earth or so, the branding goes. It’s also one of the most respected and image conscious companies in the world. Self-confession. We’ve gone to Disneyland twice as a family, and both times I’ve come back to work thinking I’ve got to start doing things differently for my clients. More like Disney. In March of 2022, the Walt Disney Company suddenly faced a crisis of its own making. Groups of employees were outraged. When CEO Bob Chapek didn’t publicly condemn a piece of Florida State legislation called the Parental Rights and Education Bill, or what opponents called the don’t say gay bill. In his first statement, Chapek said, Disney’s real influence was through the inspiring content we produce. That’s a familiar tactic. Hey, we just produced widgets. That’s our focus. Well, that sparked the anger. LGBTQ employees were furious and let ’em know.


Chap eventually apologized saying, you needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights. And I let you down. I’m sorry. Disney denounced the bill and decided to freeze. All political donations in the state surveys are showing more than two thirds of consumers say they want companies to become more involved in social and political issues. Stop sitting on the fence, but is that what they really want? Or do people want companies to choose their side Today on stories and strategies, we talk with one global company that’s heard the message and has decided it’s time to speak up and not just wish upon a star. My name is Doug Dowds. Music Off the top When You Wish Upon a star composed by Lee Harline and Ned Washington, perform by the Neverland Orchestra. My guest this week is Jay Webster, decision Chief Product and Technology Officer and Cision Coms cloud president. Hello, Jay.

Jay Webster (02:32):

Hello, Doug. Thanks for having me.

Doug Downs (02:34):

Joining us today from New York, right?

Jay Webster (02:36):

<laugh>? No, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Doug Downs (02:38):

How are things in Ohio?

Jay Webster (02:40):

You’re Close though. You were close.

Doug Downs (02:41):

Not really. <laugh>

Jay Webster (02:43):

Things have cooled off. I spent three weeks in California and returned to 27 degrees last night, so just readjusting the internal thermostat.

Doug Downs (02:54):

But the Bengals won on the weekend, so

Jay Webster (02:56):

They did

Doug Downs (02:57):

The world’s in order here

Jay Webster (02:59):

For this week.

Doug Downs (03:00):

Jay, you like innovation. You have more than 25 years’ experience in MarTech ad tech and performance marketing. At Precision, you lead the execution of an innovation product roadmap, ensuring precision delivers for its customers with confidence. And part of your interest in innovation also has to do with digital development. And that’s something we’re going to get to shortly, Jay. Many is the day that I’ve spent the first part of my morning reading reports from Cision in some way, shape, or form. I even had a joke that my decisions are made kind of in the morning from reading the media clip. So it’s a pleasure to connect with you. This whole idea, the willingness to take a position to speak out. Can you walk me through what exactly that means for communications and public relations professionals right now, including decision and what the benefits are?

Jay Webster (03:56):

Yeah, well, I’ll do my best to describe that very complicated landscape. Well, I think that every year it would seem that this job gets more complicated, meaning the communications professional. It’s been said more than once since I’ve only been at Cision for nearly two years now, and it’s been said more than once, that communications is at the zenith of the profession, that there is no better time to be a comms professional than there is now. But I think it’s important to ask the question as why is that the frequency and volume of communication is at unprecedented highs, I believe because we’ve put the tools to broadcast basically into the hands of every citizen of this planet. And so it used to be that communications channels were controlled by more authoritative entities. The professional journalism was the stalwarts of truth and fact information, and that has really just all gone out the window now <affirmative>.


And it’s not enough that we put publishing tools in the hands of the citizenry like we did with the worldwide web, combined it with social graph data structure and algorithms that make it very easy to proliferate your message as a self-styled influencer. And so for the comms professional, I think it means a few things that being data savvy is no longer an option because of, again, the frequency and volume, just the decision making process in what to pay attention to, what story is important, what message is important, what social justice movement is important to my brand or my client. Just being able to sift through that every day and make decisions in and of itself is monumental challenge. And then I think that the decision whether or not to engage, how to advise the C-suite, I’m sure you’ve seen the data that over the past few years that the C-Suite is much, much less willing to freelance it when it comes to making public statements because we’ve all seen how quickly you can get into trouble should you say something untoward.


And so the pressure is now on to be more strategic. The pressure is now on to be much more reliable advisory to the C-suite in communications with the public. And then I think that the ability to do that in a very cross-functional environment is super important now. So I, I’ve spent 25 years in paid media and after two years in earned media, I can tell you that the earned media is not only the much, much more complex environment, it’s the much more the one with the most value. So the prize for being good at this is real staying power for your brand to develop an actual a personality, something that your customer, your client feels like they can actually connect with. To me, that’s the real prize in a really effective communication strategy. And that’s really what’s at stake now. Right?

Doug Downs (07:37):

See, I got you. But some of these topics being open and transparent and taking a position on a social issue, some of these topics are, they’re harsh, Roe v, Wade, <affirmative>, gun Control, vaccines, climate Change. What about companies who have delivered a position on these topics and others? What does it say about them for that transparency? I guess I’m asking what’s the win? Yeah,

Jay Webster (08:01):

That’s a great question because participation yet has yet pretty uneven and the data is actually kind of contradictory in some instances in this moment. I think companies willing to make it to take a very nuanced public stance if you just take Roe v. Wade as kind of the most incendiary thing we’ve had recently. So companies like JP Morgan who came out and just made a very plain statement that they intend to support all of their employees, they cover all of their expenses, that they end up impacted by this decision, that their mission is equal access to healthcare. I think that companies that delivered that message plainly, I think that they derive value from that. I think that they derived the good feelings of the people who work there. I feel like that was probably an excellent move for morale. And then I think that external reaction to that probably falls right along political lines, <affirmative> and try.


So you probably may have made a few friends, probably made a few enemies. But it’s really interesting in the breakdown of the data that the folks who support companies taking a stand for an important social issue like Roe v. Wade, are also kind of two or three times more likely to actually make a buying decision based on a company’s willingness to do that. Whereas people who are opposed to companies make taking a position ever in this arena are much less likely to make a buying decision based on whether or not they do. I thought that was just a kind of fascinating

Doug Downs (09:59):

Stat. And there’s a study that came out, I sent this to you in advance of the interview from peppercorn and Reagan communications indicating 18% of brands of very likely to speak out on social issues. 18%, that’s less than one in five. Yes. And that same study says they might be missing an opportunity here for me. <affirmative>, can you expand? You talk

Jay Webster (10:22):

To it there? Well, yeah, I think that the surface interpretation of that is, I think the same study said more than 50 per, approximately 50% of consumers say that they want companies to take a stand. So that would indicate that there’s another 32% of companies who are missing an opportunity to connect with a willing public.

Doug Downs (10:41):

I would ask, do I really mean that or do I, I want a company to take a stand if it agrees with me. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I’ll say something and yeah,

Jay Webster (10:52):

I do. So I think that this is a trend that’s really gonna emerge for the next generation. So Gen Z, right? We’ve spent so many years talking about millennials that I think some people don’t realize that millennial are now the mass market.

Doug Downs (11:12):

They’re 40 years old,

Jay Webster (11:13):

26, 26 to 41, right? They’re just like, they’re what we were when we started talking about ’em, right? But now, gen Z, 10 to 25, I believe is where Gen Z is right now. All of the survey data would indicate that Gen Z is very interested in transparency, not transparency over perfection, meaning that they’re not looking just for what do you believe in? If you believe with me, we wanna know either way so that we can make a decision. Do I wanna support your company? Do I wanna support your company? Why does your product matter? Why does your product exist? Which is what I was getting at in your first question, how important comms is relative to paid advertising. Paid advertising, we’re gonna hammer you with frequency and one-to-one targeting, et cetera, et cetera. Whereas the effective use of comms and earned media, I think the companies that are willing, those 18% that are stepping out there now, they’re thinking about the future.


Because look at what happened in BLM, right? So in Black Lives Matter happened, everybody ran to get on that message bandwagon, if you will, <affirmative>. But there were a lot of companies that suffered from that by not really examining how they should do that. So you’ve got a bunch of companies, so it’s like interesting, you’ve supported politicians who are directly opposed to this in the past because there is an army of Gen Z folks out there with a keyboard that will immediately test the veracity of your claims if you support something like Black Lives Matter. Whereas then you have Ben and Jerry’s on the other side who their entire company has been about social justice since its founding. So when they come out and make the statement, it’s not questioned is inauthentic, is authentic. And so I think that companies now who are thinking about the future, they’re trying to build that authentic narrative, a corporate voice right now, and it’s really not. But the impact isn’t always about right now. I think that those willing to take the chance who are in those 18% are gonna benefit from that in the long run

Doug Downs (13:35):

Investment for the future.

Jay Webster (13:36):


Doug Downs (13:43):

A 2019 report by the BBC found consumers are more engaged during the branded parts of a podcast than they are during the rest of the content. A 12% higher memory and coding. That same study found podcasts, increase awareness of your brand by 89%, favorability of your brand by 24%, and purchase intent, whatever that means for you by 14%, maybe a podcast is right for you and your brand. Send me an email personally and let’s just talk about it, Doug, at stories and strategies.ca, let’s talk podcasts.


Cision, part of your business is helping people get the word out. I would go to Cision for a news release, let’s say <affirmative>. Well, what if my news release doesn’t quite fit with Cision’s, social perspective on something? Can I still be your client?

Jay Webster (14:48):

Yeah, that never happens. The short answer is yes, of course you can. No, this is a multipart answer. So there are limits to that. So when Russia invaded Ukraine the same week, we discontinued business with all Russian entities to make sure that we were not supporting the spread of any information misinformation regarding that conflict. But on the other hand, we make a set of very powerful tools and anything else designed for good, it could potentially be used for evil. And that’s where I think that all companies in that business, whether it be software or pharmaceuticals, that is an ongoing exercise that requires some level of vigilance. And in our case, one that does not infringe on First Amendment rights, but at the same time is not totally unchecked. And so in some cases, like with the Russian invasion, it’s pretty easy to figure that one out.


But in other cases it is very nuanced. So we have many clients in the political arena and just judging from the macro data, it’s safe to assume that half excision and half of the country doesn’t agree with whatever that politician has to say and is using our platform to message and the other half do. And so in that instance, yeah, I mean we definitely provide tools to companies who we are not completely in line with in terms of their policy or their message. And as you would imagine, pretty challenging to police that on a daily basis. Right?

Doug Downs (17:02):

Yeah. What about employees? I mean, you have just under 5,000 employees decision <affirmative>, they’re not all going to agree. For some it’s blue and for some it’s red. Yes. How do you look after the house, so to speak, by taking a state?

Jay Webster (17:18):

Yeah, so I’m part of a fairly new management team that came decision at the beginning of 21. And my management philosophy is one of complete transparency. And so when our employees do not agree that we have that, if we’ve got account that they don’t like, we definitely hear about it and absolutely engage in the conversation. But at the end of the day, it’s just that, it’s a conversation as to why and how things occur. Now, if one of our employees were to uncover something untoward or nefarious, we would take that very seriously and if it warranted action, we would take it. But we do provide a forum to provide feedback anonymously or so I have a forum that’s just up that anybody can put anything into a hundred percent anonymous. And it just comes to me. We’ve had other issues where internally we didn’t see something coming. So I’ll just be very transparent with you, Doug, and share that last year we were gonna participate in an eSports league, and the game was Overwatch, and you probably followed some of the scandal at Blizzard Entertainment with a institutionalized sexual harassment and discrimination. I had read something about that issue, but just briefly and had forgotten about it. And when we announced that we were gonna do this great thing, I heard about it and we backed out at the tournament <laugh>.


And then since then, it’s been acquired by Microsoft and they’ve regained their good standing. So there’s forum for employees to communicate. And like I said, if there’s anything that’s ever actually untoward, we would definitely take that very seriously.

Doug Downs (19:23):

And the process is iterative. I get it. Last question, A key aspect of your role at Cision and Cision’s clients is digital innovation. You’ve recently acquired Startup Factmata, a news media monitoring and analytics product that uses AI to identify and track narratives online. So it could theoretically be looking at this podcast and extracting a narrative. It could. Can you tell me what that means for brands? Increasingly, I am attracted to more and more AI, and I get the dangers. We’ve done a whole episode on some of the potential dangers of AI, but it is increasingly an exceptionally useful tool for marketing and comms.

Jay Webster (20:10):

And let me be the first to say that I don’t believe that AI solves everything. I’m actually a big fan of the book, Weapons of Maths Destruction, <laugh>. So, okay, algorithms can be biased in any case. Factmata is a really interesting piece of technology. So originally Factmata was founded to help to sort out the fake news issue. So Mark Cuban was their seed investor, and really that was their mission to root out and expose fake news, supposed to become an unbiased fact checker that could work at scale. Now that, that’s very hard model to commercialize as a standalone for lots of reasons. And so when the company brought in a new leader, gentleman by name of Anthony Cousins, who’s actually joining us at Cision, who’s a lifelong communications professional, he was able to see a really interesting application for the PR comms pro. And that application is that, as we talked about at the beginning of this podcast, the volume of information that you have to deal with every day and the channels through which that information flows, and the influencer, if you will, from whom it flows.


And so most tools, now you have to dive into a channel to do your discovery. So if you wanna attract sentiment, generally you would do that. What’s the sentiment in Twitter? What can I discover in Twitter? Then I would do the same thing in Reddit, and then maybe I would do the same thing in Lexus Nexus, et cetera, et cetera. That requires you to write queries, to know what you’re looking for when really comms professional and office operating at scale, just wanna know what are the key messages that are emerging about my brand? What should I pay attention to? And so what Factmata enables us to do is to surface elucidate those messages regardless of the channel in which they’re being proliferated. From there, then we can determine who is the influencer responsible for spreading whatever this message is. Good or bad. Could be a journalist, could be a freelancer, could be a podcaster, could just be somebody with a massive following on Twitter, and then we can determine what is the body of work, what is the stance of this individual influencer?


Do they have an agenda? And from that, able to sort through all of this and present to you the college professional, here are the things you need to pay attention to. And the studies that we did with fact, the diligence process were actually pretty fascinating. So one of the best one was actually on Twitter, and this is pre Elon’s acquisition of Twitter. We determined that overwhelmingly there was support for his acquisition of Twitter, interesting <laugh>, and that you wouldn’t necessarily believe that if you were just reading what’s out there. But the interesting part is, at the same time, absolutely no love for the man <laugh>, Elon Musk. And so yes, he wanted to buy it, it was positive. And then <laugh>, no, not a lot of love for Elon. The person

Doug Downs (23:59):

I could see a lot of stakeholder engagement uses for a tool, what Factmata is offering as well. I’ve done surveys where I’ll get 2000, 3000 written pieces of feedback and I’m still pouring through those as a human <affirmative> trying to do exactly what Factmata is designed to do and create the narratives in the themes that I’m hearing. And it’s hard cuz humans get tired and humans get cranky and humans get very, very jaded after a while

Jay Webster (24:26):

And so we will have to be just as vigilant in the development maintenance of the algorithms that drive Factamata, so that we don’t end up in an overfit biased situation. That’s just automatic, right? It’s no better than a human, but you really can see the direct application of the fake news detection, if you will, and this particular use of the technology, because you know really need to know, what am I looking at here? This ProPublica, they did an investigative piece and they really found something. Or is this just a group from next door that made up a conspiracy theory and it got traction? Being able to know that I think when you’re in the C-Suite is super important these days. And that’s K, that’s kind of what we’re gonna endeavor to do.

Doug Downs (25:22):

Jay, thank you for your time today.

Jay Webster (25:24):

Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s great to meet you.

Doug Downs (25:27):

Great to meet you too. Hope things continue to go well in Cincinnati

Jay Webster (25:31):

<laugh>. Thank you.

Doug Downs (25:33):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Jay Webster and Cision itself, you can follow Cision on Twitter. It’s @CisionGlobal. Stories and Strategies is a co-production of JGR Communications and Stories and Strategies podcasts. We’re hoping that you might leave a rating for this podcast on either Apple or Spotify, but more than anything else, if you like this episode, do us a favor, tell just one friend. Thanks for listening.