Social Media @ NGS: How High a Priority?

Robert Michael Murray

Robert Michael Murray

As we reported two weeks ago, National Geographic has appointed Robert Michael Murray to be our Society’s first-ever Vice President for Social Media. We’re delighted that NGS has finally seen the value in focusing on social media, but when we read Monday’s official press release about Robert’s appointment, we started to worry.

Here are three concerns:

1. The chain of command: According to the press release, Robert will report to the President of National Geographic Digital Media (John Caldwell) who reports to the COO of National Geographic Ventures (Ted Prince). And best we know, Ted Prince reports to the President of National Geographic Global Media (Tim Kelly) who reports to the President and CEO of the National Geographic Society (John Fahey).

Is social media a high priority for our Society? Doesn’t look like it.

Solution: Raise the institutional standing of the Society’s new social media evangelist by making him a top executive with direct access to CEO John Fahey. (Yes, it’s that important.)

2. Defining “social media”: In the press release, John Caldwell, President of National Geographic Digital Media, says:

“National Geographic is an inherently social company with an ongoing goal to connect people with stories and visuals. Robert will bring clarity to that effort and amplify the Society’s voice when it comes to creating a cohesive and engaging user experience across myriad platforms and international audiences.”

With all due respect, Mr. Caldwell is using all the wrong language—especially for a digital media executive who is supervising the supervisor of this new initiative.

If National Geographic is seriously committed to social media, Society executives need to stop talking about “users” and “audiences” and ways to “amplify the Society’s voice.” Why? Because social media is not about pumping more cheetah pictures to “users”; it’s about helping amplify the voices of the people formerly known as the audience. Social media isn’t about connecting “people with stories and visuals”; it’s about connecting people with other people. Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, and other tools are not just new platforms “to transmit National Geographic-curated stories and the mission of the society….” They are amazing new mechanisms that could help members create and curate their own content—and connect with each other.

Put another way: Social media has the potential to put the word “Society” back into the National Geographic Society.

Solution: Let a social media professional like Robert make announcements about social media. Or at least let him edit these statements before they go public. (If you want to be social, you need to sound social.)

3. The Press Release itself: Why announce the appointment of a new VP for Social Media by using perhaps the most anti-social of all media tools—a press release? The company strides on stage to make a big announcement… and we sit back and listen. There’s no byline on the statement, no room for comments or questions, no conversation at all. There’s also no contact information provided for Robert—or for John Caldwell or Ted Prince.

Mr. Caldwell claims that “National Geographic is an inherently social company,” but this press release suggests otherwise.

Solution: Set up blogs and Twitter accounts for John Caldwell and anyone else at NGS who is responsible for our Society’s social media efforts. Actually using these tools—and exploring what social means online—can only help executives help make this new initiative more of a success.


FYI: Here’s the job description that National Geographic posted many months ago for the position of Vice President, Social Media. It provides an even more detailed picture of exactly what John Caldwell thinks social media really means. It also outlines what Mr. Caldwell expects Robert Michael Murray to do.


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