PEOPLE | Nov 8, 2019

Data and digital technology change the way we communicate: an interview with Carlo Fornaro

How can companies exploit data and digital communication to use brand journalism and become media companies?

“The most significant impact of digital technology compared to communication was not so much the explosion of new channels, such as social network platforms, as the transformation of human beings in their relationship with organizations in general. The citizen is no longer a target to be reached, but an interlocutor to be debated with”. Carlo Fornaro, founder and CEO of Brand Reporter Consulting, a strategic consulting firm for corporate communication, and author together with Diomira Cennamo of “Profession Brand Reporter. Brand Journalism and New Storytelling in the Digital Age” published by Hoepli, summarizes in this way the most important paradigm shift in communication, transformed by the advent of digital technology.

“The change is profound – Fornaro goes on to explain – but companies, institutions and organizations are not yet fully aware of it and often continue to deal with people in the old fashion, the one with which they used to advertise their products and services. A mistake they often make is to talk to people without taking into account the fact that these want to be informed not only about the company’s products and services, but about the issues and areas in which the company moves and does business and about how it does so”.

How can brand journalism help businesses?

“Brand journalism is about true storytelling, the story of all organizations, not just of companies, that is, what the subject represents, the values it embodies, its way of working, the context in which it works, which must be sincere to become a prerequisite for dialogue. Storytelling is not promotion, it tells the story of a company for what it is and not for what it would like to be, it does not use the language of advertising, which is a hyperbole as it is aimed at convincing others of the goodness of a product or service. This is the new frontier of business communication: the customer is someone with whom you can talk directly, without the need to mediate through newspapers or advertising campaigns, but communicating as a media company”.

You say that storytelling has measured the inability of companies to portray a true narrative. Why this limit?

“Thanks to the research “L’Azienda Media-Company” presented last May by our Osservatorio Brand Reporter Lab, whose complete results, together with a series of high-profile contributions, are contained in a book coming out for Hoepli in February, we have verified that, for example, 64% of the companies interviewed has at least one active editorial channel, and is therefore interested in brand journalism, understands its value, but there are still limits which do not allow its use in a structural manner. Entrepreneurs of both small and large organizations are on average not digital natives and have often experienced change as a threat. An obvious example is that of publishers, who did not see digital technology as an opportunity to expand their audience. Their defense of paper to the bitter end has merely built up a small community of people who still buy newspapers and read on paper, but who form a very small part of public opinion, found instead massively on social networks. Once it was the press that guided the choices of citizens, today television still does, but if you want to intercept the wider public you have to start dealing with social networks. Many people do so, but not many have understood the correct way of doing it”.

Are there any companies, in Italy and outside Italy, to bring as an example of effective brand journalism?

“One of the best experiences to cite is that of General Electrics, whose magazine GE Reports does not talk about itself, but about the sector in which its own business operates, that of energy. It is directed by a journalist, and it does so thanks to the work of journalists who recount the topics of the sector but who do not finalize the contents towards promoting the company or its products; they are there simply to inform and to ensure that the company should be positioned in that specific communication area. In this case, as in the case of Red Bull whose website became the leading magazine on worldwide extreme sports already many years ago, the company has taken a step that in Italy companies struggle to do: it has stopped talking about itself and about how well it does things in an advertising manner, and has moved on to a journalistic approach. On the contrary, if we look at company websites, we notice how much these are news areas that speak of the company in a language that is typically the advertising one, rather than journalistic. Companies which have understood the potential of brand journalism are instead hiring journalists, whose trade is to recount, and are placing them to manage contents, publications and websites with a journalistic approach. Journalists don’t have to sell anything, they have to tell stories. Unfortunately, within our companies we have not yet understood how to review the organization of personnel and communication processes and this is why the Italian experiences presented in the research, many of which are of value, are still partial”.

Today, we are increasingly talking about “data-driven” communication, given the availability of data which can be analyzed to understand how to best build the message. How much do companies know about exploiting its potential?

“To understand how much not only companies but also policy makers have not understood the potential of profiling, just think of the questions Mark Zuckerberg was asked following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the two hearings held at the U.S. Senate or in front of the European Commission. These questions have shown how clear it is for everyone that there is a problem with the collection of personal data from citizens, something which has made the owner of Facebook one of the most powerful men in the world, but how unprepared political decision-makers are on the subject. In fact, on that occasion they only asked vague, general questions without pinpointing the problem, to which the owner of Facebook responded skillfully, easily getting out of the corner where the summons itself to those high political assemblies appeared to have put him. While we are still wondering how best to use the large quantities of data that companies may obtain or already have, policy-makers are not able to study and implement corrective measures in relation to protecting citizens in the face of an uncontrolled collection of their personal data. Another evident phenomenon brought about by Internet and by the large quantities of data entered by citizens when commenting complex political or politico-economic phenomena is that this enormous platform of collective conversation has led to a great simplification, giving people the perception of being able to comment everything, regardless of their proficiency and knowledge of the specific problems. Obsessively repeating “Italians first” so we stop African immigration or, on the other hand, “let’s tax plastic” so we can save the world, are just dangerous simplifications which, based on the generic collective perception of complex issues, try to turn this into political-electoral consensus. Today, a serious and broad approach towards the subject would be absolutely necessary, because where it is true that Internet represents a great revolution in freedom, it is also true that to support its advantages it is necessary to understand its dangers and to be able to govern these”.


Sonia Montegiove