Tarnished brands: CNN & Cuomo
Can they be resurrected?
Photo: “CNN Finally Fired Anchor Chris Cuomo over Allegations” source:livenewsnow.com.
Brands are the culmination of everything associated with an object, from images and colors to language and claims. They act as a shorthand for quality, values, trustworthiness, and status.
Much more than a logo, brands shape (and are shaped by) our perceptions of an object, whether it is a business, a product, or a person. To gain a loyal following, brands need to be authentic — something genuine, honest, and sincere.
This is why marketers are obsessed with authenticity.
Authenticity is a buzzword that can be cringe-inducing when thrown around carelessly. At a recent event, I had to leave the room when I heard a colleague say, “Marketers can use clickbait and still be authentic and provide value.”
But I digress… Despite marketers’ obsession with creating authentic moments, people are becoming increasingly distrustful towards brands. In fact, a recent report showed that consumers believe less than half of brands are portraying themselves authentically.
How can authenticity-obsessed marketers be missing the mark on authenticity?
Predicting if someone—or something in the case of a company— will be seen as authentic is a tricky exercise. It’s an essential element for marketing, but exactly what authenticity is is hard to pin down.
As a marketer, I judge a brand’s authenticity by asking these questions:
Is a brand making credible, consistent claims?
Are the claims honest and consistent with the brand’s image?
Does the brand act on those claims?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then people are more likely to see the brand, whether it is a company or a person, making the claim as inauthentic.
Credible and consistent claims
It’s worth noting that people perceive credibility for personality brands like politicians, artists, and celebrities differently from companies, at least in the West. When surveyed, consumers respond that it’s important for corporate values to align with their own when making a purchasing decision.
However, consumer purchasing behavior deviates from this sentiment. The reality is that consumers in the US and Europe are more pragmatic: studies show that Western consumers place more weight on the quality of the service and product, rather than value alignment with a company. In response to this sentiment, companies have created corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability programs to little effect.
Given the consumer distrust in business leaders is high, the discrepancy between attitude and behavior is not surprising. Consumers do not consider corporate claims around societal values as credible. In turn, corporate claims around societal values are mostly ignored by the public and rarely affect purchasing behavior, positively or negatively.
For personality-driven brands, like politicians or celebrities, value alignment is much more important. Beyond values, personality-driven claims must align with historical claims. Expressed values should be consistent. If values change, their evolution must be made deliberately and publicly. Meaning: If you change your position on an issue or a program, you need to communicate as your position evolves to remain credible.
Truth sometimes feels like a moving target
Even credible claims can be considered inauthentic as people sift through the massive amount of information at our fingertips, from an array of sources that present conflicting information.
Often, two different narratives unfold at the same time — both true, or at least both accepted as true, depending on who you ask. Multiple truths can feel misleading, in some cases, can harm trust. They can also trigger cognitive dissonance, which some experts believe leads certain people to seek out sources that reinforce their existing beliefs.
Conforming to the preferences of your perceived audience is tempting. However, honesty is always the best route, especially if you can back it up with facts.
Brands can be tempted to exploit this natural aversion to cognitive dissonance by cherry-picking facts to present themselves in the best possible light, but this can backfire. By spinning a narrative that omits essential information, brands seem dishonest, manipulative, or even opportunistic. Moreover, brand promises can be used against them when they appear disingenuous or threaten institutional norms.
And once trust is broken, it can take years to rebuild. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is underestimating consumers, who are incredibly perceptive of hypocrisy. And in the world of advertising and marketing, perception is reality.
Unfortunately, the reality is that trust has declined across every tracked category by the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. People distrust leaders at the national and international levels–especially non-scientist leaders. And trust in science leaders is falling. The public operates on a trust radius with people that they know: local leaders and their neighbors.
If you say it, do it.
The importance of alignment between claims, image, and action is often downplayed. And to seal credibility, there needs to be follow-through. Announcements need to become reality. All plans must lead to action.
We have to address an underlying problem: using shortcuts to build momentum and establish credibility quickly. One shortcut is to publicly respond to crises to show audiences that, by saying the “right” things, brands stand in solidarity with their audience.
Chris Cuomo’s recent firing highlights how inauthenticity can tarnish both personal and corporate brands. Going forward, brand will refer to business brands and personal brands interchangeably— Chris Cuomo as a personal brand and CNN as a business brand.
Case study: Chris Cuomo and CNN
During the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was held out as the epitome of government leadership. This image was created through his “masterful” press briefings, where the governor would calmly and confidently review Covid metrics for NYC. Andrew Cuomo even won an Emmy for these performances.
But, underneath the veneer of competence was the fact that New York state had the second worst COVID fatality rate in the country. Even worse, the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes was being under-reported.
Despite obvious conflicts of interest, CNN waived a ban against employees interviewing family members, allowing Chris Cuomo to interview his brother Andrew on his CNN program during the height of a global pandemic.
Despite concerns over biased reporting, the network did not preview or approve interview questions for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Perhaps this is why no tough questions were asked. During the interviews with Chris, Andrew shared his “successful” approach to keeping Covid under control in New York state. Not once was it mentioned that New York had the second worst COVID fatality rate in the country.
Through these chummy interviews, Chris gave his brother air cover on the underreported nursing home deaths, and Andrew took advantage of his newly minted national celebrity. Andrew got a $5 million book deal and used New York state staffers and resources to help him write his book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Then there was the Cuomo brothers’ comedy routine in May 2020. Chris pulled out an oversize Q-tip, joking about swabbing Andrew’s large nose for the coronavirus. Even Katie Couric said the interviews were inappropriate.
After Andrew Cuomo's investigations by the state attorney general’s office and the New York Judiciary Committee were gaining steam, CNN changed its tune. The investigations covered a lot of ground: sexual harassment claims, the book deal, under-reporting of Covid-19 nursing homes deaths, and even disregarding concerns about the safety of a new bridge named after Cuomo’s father.
CNN reinstated its ban on Cuomo interviewing or doing stories about his brother that it had temporarily lifted the previous spring. While the network covered the story, its most popular show, Chris Cuomo’s show, did not. Some could see this as protecting the two Cuomo brothers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared on Chris’s program nine times between March 19 and June 24, 2020.
Recently, it has surfaced that Chris never stopped using his position to help his brother. The younger Cuomo initially tried to downplay his role but did acknowledge that it was a “mistake” to act as Andrew’s unofficial adviser.
Chris Cuomo initially told CNN viewers he had not called the press about his brother’s situation. A month later, he admitted that he had used his position to help his brother behind-the-scenes — only after New York’s attorney general released Chris Cuomo’s interview with investigators and 169 pages of Chris’s text messages, emails, and other communications exposing exactly what happened.
Responding to criticism, Cuomo has said, “it’s never easy being in this business and coming from a political family.”
Actually, that’s not true. I assume that getting the exception for familial interviews from corporate required quite a bit of effort. It would have been easier for Chris to use the ban as an excuse for not having Andrew on his show in the first place. Then, Andrew wouldn’t have gotten as much national attention on his handling of the pandemic, which triggered investigations and so on...
If Chris had just followed CNN’s protocol—and if CNN enforced it—none of this would have landed on Chris’s lap.
Will both brands suffer?
Chris Cuomo’s recent hemorrhaging ratings show that viewers are tuning out as a response to these revelations. With the drop in viewership and sexual misconduct allegations surfacing against Chris Cuomo, CNN fired Chris Cuomo on Saturday, December 4, 2021.
The Cuomo saga is over, and by relaxing its own policies the network may have harmed its brand. In the end, can CNN still say that it is “the most trusted name in news?”