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Internal Motto Turned Brand Slogan: WaPo Self-Absorbed Tagline Invites Laughter

The Washington Post’s new nameplate slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” excited a Twitter thread and much buzzing in the press. I’m sure it also excited some branding experts to debate over whether it’s ever a good idea to expose an aspirational internal motto to the general public.

Who Are You Motivating?

A sort of mission statement within the walls of the Washington Post, the slogan was apparently devised after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos acquired the paper, and initiated a search for a new credo. The phrase can be traced to legendary reporter Bob Woodward, who used it in a 2007 speech at Drew University while discussing governments operating in secrecy. He referenced a 2012 Ohio court decision on voter suppression by Judge Algenon L. Marbley as his source for the phrase.

One problem is its combative tone, which is troublesome even among WaPo employees, according to at least one report. It also can be read as defensive, and has been called “bleak” by some media observers. And, it affirms to many that the paper is partisan—the opposite stance of the paper’s original and objective slogan under the legendary Graham family: “An Independent Newspaper.”

Stephen Colbert of CBS’ “Late Show” made mock of the slogan, saying WaPo has “entered its goth phase,” and suggesting discarded slogan ideas like “Come At Me, Bro!” But some branding professionals approve of the emotional appeal of the slogan… completely ignoring that an obvious claim of opposition to the current administration is a dubious goal for a supposedly objective journalistic enterprise. When the press sees itself as embattled, its mission of shining light on the powerful loses all claims to objectivity. That is a sad comedown for the storied newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal and was once seen as dispassionately speaking truth to power.

Should the News Become News?

Meanwhile, WaPo spokeswoman Molly Gannon told an interviewer that the slogan was created as part of outreach to new online readers in social media channels. As a solid progressive, even I cock an eyebrow to that explanation. With the White House actively barring major news media from official press briefings and POTUS accusing the press of being the “enemy of the people,” it’s plain that the appearance of the slogan on the WaPo nameplate following the Inauguration is a response to the new administration.

All of this reflects poorly on Washington Post brand managers, who should know that positioning must be properly framed for external audiences. How you understand your mission within your walls is not usually the same as how you explain it to outside audiences. The inward and outside audiences are seeking different motivation, so the message should be adjusted to meet those needs. Also subject to debate is whether it is a good thing for the public to focus on who creates the news, more than on the news itself. One side effect of the growing distrust in journalism and reporting is criticism of media based on who owns the media.

But Back to Branding…

While one might salute the sentiment expressed in the Washington Post’s new slogan (and many won’t), interested observers will be watching to see if the slogan is quietly removed at some future date. They didn’t announce the change, so I would not expect an announcement of its eventual withdrawal. Here’s hoping the Post returns to its dispassionate roots as a national newspaper whose job it is to hold government institutions accountable. Let’s also hope wiser brand counsel takes the lead in future expressions of brand values.

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