Ryan Holiday is the Director of PR Strategy at American Apparel and author of, “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” He explains how he manipulated the media and lied his way to MSNBC, Inside Edition, ABC, NY Times, and many more outlets. Ryan believes contemporary blogging practices are similar to 19th and 20th century yellow journalism. He thinks big business drives today’s media. Mark Cuban recently lashed out at Facebook, saying their promoted posts are ridiculous. Ryan analyzes whether Facebook really improves a company’s brand.
Find out more about Ryan Holiday at www.ryanholiday.net.
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Start of Interview with Ryan Holiday
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Ryan Holiday. You may have heard his name, he’s director of PR and Strategy and American Apparel, and the author of the book Trust me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. This book will really blow your mind if you have not heard of it or read it already, it’s quite an amazing exposé on the media and blogging industry. And Ryan is coming to us today from New Orleans I believe. Ryan welcome, how are you?
Ryan Holiday: I’m good, thanks for having me.
Jason Hartman: Well good. The pleasure is all mine. It’s a great chance to be able to talk to you. Tell us a little bit about the book and what inspired you to write it. Were you just kind of fed up with the inner workings of the industry?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah so I was working for American Apparel and a variety of other sort of high profile media clients. And we kept sort of getting blindsided by these internet stories, or dubious rumors, or scandals that were sort of very much driven by a hand full of blogs. You know the Huffington Post, your Gawkers, your Drudge Reports. And so I sort of. . .you know I heard some people make some comparisons to things like yellow journalism, and so I really wanted to go back and sort of study the complete media history. Sort of hopefully looking for some explanation for why things were the way that they were. And I couldn’t really find it, and until I read a book actually written by Upton Sinclair in 1913, so right after he’d written The Jungle, which was a muckraking exposé of the meat packing industry, he wrote a muckraking exposé of the journalism industry. And it was this epiphany moment for me because it was like you could have republished that book today, changed the word, you know yellow newspaper it’s a blog and it would be totally true. And so I have been looking for this book that explained just sort of the economic forces and the motivations and the sort of hypocrisy and all the things that were created in the media environment that we live in today and I couldn’t find it, and so you know I found this sort of approximation of it. And I decided I would sit down and write through primarily my own experiences, you know an updated version of this book and explain you know really how the sausage gets made, and how the things that we read, and see, and talk about in popular culture, what is their root cause. And that’s what I hopefully accomplished at least in some measure.
Jason Hartman: It was really startling to me in reading the book how blogs make the news. I thought that the news was made by PR firms, spokes people, news releases. But blogs I always thought of as sort of a secondary thing. I mean of course there were big blogs, and you mention them in the book, Huff Po, Gawker, etc., etc. But you seem to really say it’s all about blogs.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, I mean I think initially blogs were very much a sort of a reaction or reflection of what the main stream media was doing. You know sort of copying the reports from newspaper, from television giving their opinion. Well what’s happened as they’ve grown as businesses, they’re sort of the constrains and approach of their medium has sort of become the driving force of the medium. And sort of give you an example of why that would be; think about a television station, a 24-hour news station, they’re on 24/7. So they have to fill up 24 hours of content 365 days a year. A newspaper has to fill one newspaper per day every day of the year. A blog is an online news organization, has an infinite ability to fill the news. And every news article that they make is more money that they make because it generates more pages, which they then charge to the advertisers, who at this point essentially have unlimited budget. So whereas if the New York Times decides at the last minute to run an extra story they don’t make any extra money from that. So there’s not, although breaking news is important, there’s not this imperative for an endless amount of new things of any sort of value that make money for the publisher. So what happens is when you’ve got a million of these blogs, or hundreds of millions of blogs at this point, all competing with each other for more pages it becomes this sort of insatiable beast that far out strips the actual amount of news and reality out there. And in some ways creates a reality that it then benefits from. So something happens, they’ve got to dissect it in a million ways where they got to guess what it means or why it happened. They can’t sit around and wait for the facts to come in, because every second that they do so they’re leaving money on the table.
Jason Hartman: Would it be fair to say, and you know I’m just guessing here, but would it be fair to say that blogs really gained preeminence with Matt Drudge. Would that be a fair assessment?
Ryan Holiday: I don’t know, because his blog isn’t so much a blog as it is an aggregator of use.
Jason Hartman: Fair enough yeah. But he did break the Monica story right?
Ryan Holiday: Of course. I think you see a lot of the good and a lot of the bad that’s inherent in blogging today in the story of Matt Drudge’s site and it’s development over the years certainly.
Jason Hartman: So how are they turning nothing into something. I mean you eluded to that. But give us like the flow chart for that if you would.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah so think about this way. One blog writes the story, it starts to get traction and another blog picks up that story and adds their opinion. And then another blog picks it up and then another blog. And what ends up happening is it’s sort of the upmost interpretation of the previous post becomes the basis for the interpretation and the subsequent post for the next blog. And so what happens is it’s sort of becomes very much a damn of telephone where one person is reporting on what another person kind of said, but they’ve only had a few seconds to read it, and very quickly you see these stories spin wildly out of control, and that’s how things like fake celebrity death rumors spread very quickly, or speculation about a big announcement tomorrow. You see these stories begin online. I think with very dubious origins, it’s like a tiny site in Idaho is reporting, or we saw this with the air crash in San Francisco, you know a fake tip comes into an internet or news agency who wrongly reports the names of the pilots and then all of a sudden everyone is talking about it.
Jason Hartman: I mean the most ridiculous story of all the fact that those names were not screened.
Ryan Holiday: Right and why weren’t those names screened? Because the person who got the scoop was probably under the impression that a bunch of other people got the scoop at the same time and they wanted to be the first one to get it live. And you know there’s this sort of. . .there’s this guilty, or somewhat problematic opinion online which is that like if we get it wrong we can just retract it. And so everyone throws up whatever their initial thoughts about things are and if I’m the 4th person in this chain giving my thoughts on what your thoughts were on the persons’ thoughts before you and then the person’s thoughts before that, pretty soon we’re not even close to any semblance of reality.
Jason Hartman: Sure, so what you mean there is when there’s an online medium there’s always the sort of attitude that hey you can just take it down, you can change the text later, just throw stuff up. Whereas in a newspaper it’s printed, of course you can print a retraction on page 27 at the bottom the next day. But with an online media people look at it as a more fluid kind of a situation right?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah.
Jason Hartman: Very interesting. I was really surprised Ryan, and I knew about the big sale with Huffington post and I think there was like $380 million dollars that amazed me. And then of course I think it was Bezos just brought the Washington Post, or Times. . .or I think the Post for $250 million or less. And that’s been around forever, much more established obviously. And it’s just shocking the economics of these well-known blogs. Do you want to share any examples of stories? I mean I was amazed of how little they pay bloggers. Like literally sweat shop labor. And how much money they can be worth.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah it’s really interesting when you sort of see how the model is evolved over time. So we saw one of the first blogging empires there. Their first stab at paying writers was $4 a post. And now we’ve certainly evolved a little bit past that, but sort of the standard model now is you get paid either a base salary or a base amount, and then you’re either bonus based on how many pages you deliver per month, or you have sort of a set quota of how much traffic you have to generate and if you don’t you’re fired. So blogs are surprisingly honest about some of these numbers. But you know a blog like Business Insider, which is very much a sort of a churn and burn kind of news organization. That I think the numbers that they made public is you need to make about. . .to make a salary of like $50 thousand dollars a year you need to turn out something like 2 ½ millions page views a month. And that’s just sort of the base. Like if you’re not doing this you’re fired kind of a number. And that’s a grind to generate those kind of numbers. It’s not the idea of. . .It’s very much antithetical to the perception that people have of journalism, which is that a reporter’s job is to get to the truth.
Ryan Holiday: No, if you’re a blogger your job is to generate pages and that happens to be through accurate or diligent reporting, good for you. But if you don’t hit your numbers the excuse that oh I was too busy fact checking this month is not gonna fly with your bosses. And that creates certain opportunities for PR and marketing people to exert influence. It presents certain opportunities for people with agendas to manipulate and control the news. And my book is about sort of the intersection of those economics and then how people, whether they’re bloggers or marketers, or publicists or public figures manipulate that situation to their own advantage.
Jason Hartman: Very interesting stuff. So they can help bloggers pay their bills, you have a chapter on that. But it’s not really about giving the money per say is it? I mean it’s about perks and treats and I know these mommy bloggers are probably getting shipments to their house every day of gifts you know to review products. They get all the latest new strollers or whatever they need. But what goes on there? Talk about some of that influence if you would.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, so when you’re a blogger and you’ve got to generate 2 million pages a month to not get fired, your incentive is not to produce good content, but to sort of do the kinds of things that will make it possible for you to keep your job. And so that very much determines how you write. So you’re writing a story about Taylor Swift right. Are you going to write a hard hitting or you know sort of a takedown piece about who she is or something she did? Or are you gonna write the kind of story that she’ll want to tweet out to her fans. So on the one hand you kind of get this sort of softball media press where we’re trying to pander to influential people who have millions and millions of twitter followers. Or you get people saying nasty or untrue or controversial things about those same people or groups, knowing that the people who dislike that person will love that post. So I’ve seen this with my clients you know if you have a controversial reputation it’s very easy to accuse that person of a heinous thing knowing that who’s going to take that time to really see if it’s true or not. And who’s going to care if a year from now they’re ultimately vindicated on those charges, you just want to get the pages today. And the fact your story turns out to be false even tomorrow, it doesn’t really matter because you already cashed your check.
Jason Hartman: Very very interesting. So there’s no balanced journalism, because it’s either the softball pander piece to get the followers or it’s the hard hitting controversial piece to just ruin the person’s reputation.
Ryan Holiday: Or if you’re a marketer you know that if you send an anonymous tip to a blogger they’re not gonna spend much time fact checking that piece. They’re just gonna sort of take you at your word, because they’ve got 9 other posts that they’ve got to write that very day. And so it sort of makes it very easy for you to exert influence or tell your side of the story, because you’re not dealing with that sort of adversarial press, or a press that feels like it’s a gate keeper to protect the readers. It’s someone who just takes whatever falls in their lap, and whatever the easiest to publish.
Jason Hartman: So you have 9 tactics in all and I’m sure we don’t have enough time to cover all of them here. People should get the book, whether it be Kindle, print, audio whatever. But share maybe some of your favorites.
Ryan Holiday: The book is in two halves and the first half is sort of a very A-moral explanation of how these economics work and how people like me take advantage of that. So that’s how we exert things like spin, that’s how we play with you know sort of the conflicts of interest and the bad incentives that these bloggers are dealing with. It’s how we sort of. . .we understand which triggers bloggers like to exploit with their audiences and we sort of give them those kinds of stories. It’s sort of how we play the media who is in turn playing the public. And then the second half of the book is sort of an analysis of what this means and the consequences of that system. So the tactics are sort of. . .it’s a weird way of putting this, but I call myself a media manipulator in the book. But I want to make it clear that in most cases the media is the one manipulating itself and people who are promoting things are marketing things have to understand how this works, or they’re either gonna fall victim to it or they’re gonna wonder why their competitors are getting all the press and publicity and their business is getting no attention because they don’t understand the actual rules that the media is operating by. You know they think it’s like oh you know I have this charity that it’s helping like starving Africans, but I’m not getting the attention that Lindsey Lohan is getting because she’s properly understood how to create a media frenzy around herself.
Jason Hartman: That’s just incredible. Are the people, the general public, are they just dumb that they suck all this stuff up. You know I mean not they, we, we all do it to some extent.
Ryan Holiday: I mean look I think on one hand there’s more than enough blame to go around. We obviously create the demand for this stuff and we click it and read it and whatever. So the general public has some culpability. But at the end of the day there is a lot of obfuscating, a lot of sort of pompous rhetoric , a lot of hiding and hiding behind journalism when really what these blogs are are sort of page you engines and scandal mongers. And I want to make it clear that these people are getting very rich and they’re getting very rich at your expense. They’re essentially taking journalism which was, although a profitable business, a business that didn’t have great margins. It’s expensive to run the Washington Post. It’s very cheap to run the Huffington Post. And they have gutted the media industry and made it hyper efficient. That’s an illusion it’s not actually efficient. They’ve just stopped paying for the things that made journalism worth paying for. So it’s like you can say you’re doing journalism but if you’re not fact checking, you don’t have editors and you don’t actually care if you’re reporting it’s true or not, is it really journalism. And what I say in the book is you can have your journalism for free but the cost come from somewhere. And usually that cost is borne out by the readers who end up wasting their time, they make bad financial decisions based on the information they read. You know they have misinformed world views based on this information. We all bare the cost, they’ve just been externalized on us instead of being pay when you purchase a newspaper in the morning.
Jason Hartman: You know Ryan that is a very interesting way that you put that. And it makes me think of a company like Google for example. Google, virtually all their products are free, but the cost that we’re all paying is we’re giving up so much information, you know we are the product, we are the currency. That’s how we pay them with our information with the way we click our mice and our patterns and our communications and our emails. Everything that’s being analyzed by these massive server farms, we’re paying for it. And I don’t think we really understand what the cost of it is yet. Certainly I think it’s sort of a slow burn where things just gradually change and for the worst in many ways.
Ryan Holiday: No, I think that’s exactly right and what you have to understand is that this blog that seems like some sort of democratic institution that where you can comment, you can interact with the reporter, you know they want your opinion, they want you to like it on Facebook, they want you to do all these things. What they’re actually doing is they’re trying to suck you in and capture your attention which they turn around and sell for pennies to advertisers in massive volume and make quite a bit of money from doing so, and then share none of that money with the people who produced it or the people who consumed it.
Jason Hartman: Yeah right. But when you say blogs have this appearance of being democratic, I mean they’re a lot more democratic than the old media, or the dinosaur media where that’s strictly. . .I call this the monologue media versus the dialogue media. And so blogs and talk radio to some extent are the dialogue media where people can talk back. They can post comments, they can decide to circulate things or not circular things and share them easily. They can call into a radio show for example and maybe be heard and influence that opinion in some way or that discussion. But in the old media, I mean you know yeah every newspaper had an op-ad page, but that’s like nothing compared to the totality of it. So it’s more democratic right?
Ryan Holiday: I would just say that a lot of that democratic sense is an illusion. Like no one is actually listening to that dialogue. That dialogue is being put on for the benefit of the advertisers who pay for extra engagement and page views. So when you’re commenting on a news article I want people to think about what was it. . .like a blogger benefits from you commenting, because you have to log in, you type then you want to tell your friends about the article. And what I want people to understand is that the game is now such that bloggers write articles deliberately to provoke you to comment because it helps them hit their page view quota. They don’t actually care about your opinion and they are not listening. They are writing their article in such a way that makes it easier to write. You know a conclusive article that tells you everything you need to know does not elicit many comments. An article that’s massively wrong or frustrating is the kind of article that you’re like oh I have to respond to this.
Jason Hartman: Or inflammatory you know.
Ryan Holiday: Right. So in some ways you’re being baited, and when you go on the Huffington Post and you see an article that has 9,000 comments that’s not an exaggeration, that’s a fairly common number for an article to hit. You got to ask yourself is this a real conversation or was this something that people were baited to participate in. And then sort of rolled up and sold to scammy, you know, spank the monkey kind of advertisements.
Jason Hartman: Right and a lot of those comments are fake right?
Ryan Holiday: It’s not just that they’re fake but they’re internet trolls. When you see a YouTube video that has thousands and thousands of racist comments you’re sort of like what is this cesspool, and then you’ve got to realize that Google has monetized that cesspool and benefits from it and that’s why it’s there and not going away.
Jason Hartman: Yeah it’s mind boggling. It’s so important that we understand the way this new media landscape works. It’s just mind boggling. You talk in the 9 tactics, one of them is use technology against itself. Can you tell us about that?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah I guess what I’m explaining there is people, especially people who have never sort of been in an internet scandal before you know your first instinct is like oh I’ve got to respond, this is so bad, I’m being accused of X, Y, and Z. And what you don’t realize is that a medium that favors newness like the internet quickly forgets and there’s like there’s no trace of this having ever happened. So I just sort of talking about the constraints of the media. So if your average blog post is 800 words, it’s got a flashy headline and it’s got to have a new news angle, you as a marketer or as a person who’s promoting something that’s got to understand that if you can’t translate your message into that format you’re kind of wasting your time even pitching your story to a blogger, because there’s nothing they can do with that. You know I represent a lot of authors as well, and these authors spend 5 years of their life writing a book that they hope is timeless, and then they wonder why it doesn’t get any attention online, it’s like well it’s because your book’s 250,000 words and you’re expecting a blogger to do all the heavy lifting to turn that into a 750 word blog post. And they’re gonna have real trouble doing that.
Jason Hartman: You open the book talking about Tucker Max, who’s obviously a intentionally probably controversial figure, he’s a friend of yours and he’s also pretty funny. But to market books like he writes I mean that seems so easy, it seems like such an obvious thing you know you mentioned you promote authors to create that controversy and so forth. But what do you do with a regular author if it’s not Tucker Max. I mean Tucker Max, of course he’s gonna make women mad, I mean look at the content of his book right.
Ryan Holiday: Sure. I mean that wasn’t an obvious tactic when I came up with it in 2006 and the sort of blogging outlets were sort of just getting rolling and that certainly wasn’t what the publisher was suggesting we do. It was like you know how do we get a book review in The New York Times. And my thought was well it’s going to be a negative review why even bother? Why can’t we go out and sort of create a discussion about this person and see what happens. But your point is well made and it’s something that I deal with a lot. You know people are like oh I heard how you got this boycott going, you know how can I do this for my yoga business or something. My answer is you should hire a different publicist cause that’s not what I specialize in. But I have a more expansive definition of controversy. I think controversy is anything that provokes a reaction. And so everyone’s thing can provoke some reaction from some person. And to get traction online you’ve got to sort of figure out what your reaction is in your particular case and what your tolerance level for doing so is.
So I worked on a very thoughtful book by a formal minister who became an atheist. And that was a book where we leaned into the controversy on both sides. Or you know I did a book recently that was about networking. And there’s sort of a strong man that you can attack whenever you’re dealing with any kind of media narrative. And I just suggest that people really understand that the sort of hey here I am I’m doing cool things, is not what gets people excited when there’s a million blogs competing for attention over another million blogs.
Jason Hartman: Well the minister who became an atheist I could definitely see that one could arouse some controversy, but networking, come on.
Ryan Holiday: If you’re not slaughtering some sacred cow what are you writing this book for, you know. If you’re not saying something different than what everyone else is, you shouldn’t have written the book in the first place. What I do as a marketer is really analyze this product and figure out what is the new thing here, what is different? And how can we lean into that angle and how can we make sure that people understand that this isn’t like all the other things and that’s why it’s worth talking about.
Jason Hartman: Yeah fantastic. The book is Trust me Online: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Great job Ryan. Now I want to maybe wrap up with this. You got a new eBook coming out in just about a month, or Kindle short I guess it’s called. And it’s on the positive side of this stuff. And I’d love to just close with how someone can use this in their business. A lot of businesses owners listening now or people that have charitable causes that they’re involved in. Or whatever, anything they want to promote. And there is a positive way to use some of this information right?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah sure. So the new book is called Growth Hacker Marketing. And what I did was I studied this sort of generation of young geeks who’ve built these billion dollar brands essentially from nothing, you know Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Dropbox, Air BND, these brands that were nothing 5 years ago and now have millions and millions of users and make millions and millions of dollars, and they did it without using any traditional marketing techniques, they did it without hiring a publicist. They did it by sort of making really interesting things. And then understanding who the key influencers were in their communities, and sport of hammering that and then growing from there. The book is how to be this lean sort of entrepreneurial kind of marketer who hacks together their own growth story instead of hoping to have a blockbuster launch the way that far too many people perceive marketing as and then they’re disappointed with the results.
Jason Hartman: Yeah very good point and those are obviously great companies you mentioned. I just used Uber last night. Talk about a company that’s completely shaking up the taxi industry. They’ve been outlawed in Las Vegas and other cities have tried to do it. It’s amazing.
Ryan Holiday: And they’re not afraid of that controversy because they understand that at the end of the day it’s great advertising. There’s nothing like the entrenched players telling their customers we don’t want you to know about this thing to get everyone to flock to your service.
Jason Hartman: That sure is, it’s great. Well give out your website if you would Ryan, and tell people where they can learn more. You got a reading list that you deliver to people’s email boxes every month or so I believe.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah so my website’s RyanHoliday.net. I have a reading recommendation email where I send out 10 or so books once a month. It’s about 8 thousand people that get these recommendations and we have discussions about books and we recommend them with each other and then the website for the book that we were talking about most of the podcast is Trust me Online.com.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic well Ryan Holiday thank you for joining us.
Ryan Holiday: Thank you for having me.
Narrator: This show is produced by The Hartman Media Company, all rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com or email [email protected] Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate or business professional for individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively. (Image: Flickr | wilgengebroed)
Transcribed by Ralph
Brand Yourself With Savvy Online Reputation Management