National Press Club

2017 Communicators Summit highlights content creation, rebuilding trust and a call to action on ethics

October 24, 2017 | By Malini Wilkes |

Going viral with a talking squirrel. Finding the messenger who can reach your “tribe.” And a push for a new ethics code from one of the country’s foremost PR practitioners.

The National Press Club’s 2017 Communicators Summit covered all that and more Wednesday, with two panels of experts and a keynote speaker discussing the challenges of creating content in an era of “fake news.”

Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the global communications firm Edelman, outlined a new proposal for a single, strong set of ethical standards for PR professionals, going beyond the codes of conduct at existing membership organizations.

“This crazy quilt of PR standards will no longer suffice,” Edelman said during his keynote address. “We must do better.” He called for a four-part PR Compact that stresses accuracy, transparency, a free and open exchange of ideas and a requirement for rigorous ethics training.

Edelman also urged businesses to put their full force behind addressing social issues such as fair trade, urban renewal and gender equality. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer shows that belief in most major institutions is collapsing. He believes business, with 52% trust, is the one remaining institution that can reverse the trend.

During the first panel discussion, three experts offered their insights on content strategy at a time of rapidly changing technology and a major shift in the political landscape.

Nicholas Johnston, editor at the news website Axios, explained his company’s goal of creating content that fits on a single mobile phone screen, where users typically spend less than 30 seconds. Whether it’s a 150-word story, a video or a map, Axios strives to tailor its content to each specific platform.

“You have to be hyper aware and constantly thinking… then using what you know about that platform,” said Johnston. “The way people react to emotion and video on Facebook, the way people will just blast through Twitter.”

It’s sometimes difficult to predict what will catch fire. Bill Walsh, vice president of integrated communications at AARP, said he was surprised that email turned out to be one of the most successful channels from a recent brand awareness campaign. He was even more surprised by the success of a video on health care reform.

“We had a fake lumberjack talking to a stuffed squirrel,” said Walsh. “I thought it was just crazy, inane!” But the video took off, resulting in significant earned media. Longer, relatively dry updates on the legislative process also found an audience on Facebook Live. Walsh believes it’s because people were hungry for any information during a chaotic debate on a critically important issue.

The non-profit group No Kid Hungry recently launched a campaign that involved the creation of three sophisticated, interactive microsites with video, graphics and text.

Brian Minter, associate creative director, found that engagement was high, with users spending five or six minutes on the site. But traffic was low. Looking back, he would have put more resources into promotion. “It is no good building something cool if nobody’s going to see it,” he said.

The Summit’s second session explored how communications professionals can be credible sources of information in the age of fake news.

Panelist Richard Levick of Levick Strategic noted that communicators spend a lot of time developing messages. But he thinks they should focus more on finding the right messenger to cut through the clutter.

“We get our truth from who we know—our tribe,” he said. “People will say they don’t trust Twitter or social media. But what they do trust is when their friend forwards it to them.”

Emily Horne, head of global public policy communications at Twitter, was questioned about President Trump tweeting nuclear threats to North Korea and the company’s overall policy on violent rhetoric.

In response, Horne said that “newsworthiness and public interest are… factors for how we determine content staying or going on the platform.” She added that Twitter is currently updating its standards on abusive and violent messages.

With the president ridiculing reporters and calling any critical stories “fake news,” journalists have suffered a severe loss of credibility in the last year. Mark Greenblatt, senior correspondent for Scripps Washington bureau isn’t quite sure how to respond.

“Maybe perhaps we become more transparent,” he said. “Maybe perhaps we have to put out... all the steps we have taken to get to the other side of the story.”

Katerina Matsa of Pew Research Center presented results of a post-election survey examining Americans’ trust in media. Matsa said 32% of respondents reported seeing completely fabricated news online, while 51% reported seeing misinformation, or news that is not fully accurate.

Video links for the panels and the keynote address can be found below:

Panel #1:
Panel #2:

For slides from the speakers’ presentations, please contact Danny Selnick, co-chair of NPC’s Communicator Team at