When John Fahey arrived at National Geographic in the mid-1990s, he spoke frequently and with great conviction about the power of the National Geographic Brand. Protect the brand… leverage the brand… capitalize on our brand equity… the word has been the cornerstone of his strategic plan for our Society for more than 15 years.
So it was a great surprise to read this story — and this quote from John:
So much for the primacy of The Brand.
The good news is: John is right. And the question he asks is critical: What is National Geographic trying to bring that is unique?
The answer can’t be “good stories” or “great science journalism” or even “outstanding photography” because all those things can be found all over the web, in enormous quantity, for free.
The answer can’t be our history of exploration because that doesn’t speak to our present — or future.
And the answer can’t be expeditions such as James Cameron’s recent deep-sea dive because (a) it revealed nothing much that was new, (b) we can’t afford to launch such expeditions often enough to create profitable content, and (c) James Cameron is an embarrassment.
But here’s a viable and compelling adventure story upon which we can build a future: For 125 years, National Geographic has told the story of the West meeting the world — and it’s a drama that’s still underway. Perhaps the story’s most exciting element is that we — the citizens of free, open, and democratic societies — are both observers and participants. We’re not simply watching The Democracy Story unfold, we’re living it. We’re creating it. We all have a role to play, and each one of us has been blessed with a speaking part.
Imagine, then, if John Fahey stood up in the pages of our Society’s official journal and said something like this:
The skills needed by good journalists — the ability to ask incisive questions; to evaluate information; to communicate clearly — are the same skills that empower citizens in free and open societies. National Geographic cares about these societies at least as much, if not more, than we care about the fate of Big Cats.
To that end, we will help equip, empower, and inspire the members of our Society with tools, training, and community support. We’ll serve as an international basecamp for those who want to Join The [Democratic] Adventure.
Our ultimate goal: To make The Democracy Story (and the National Geographic Society) a success for generations to come.
In other words: Take these ideas, which John shared during a recent and barely publicized event in Washington, DC…
… and make them the cornerstone of everything we do at the National Geographic Society.
Your thoughts, John?