In what seems like a move of sheer, brazen nepotism, today I bring you the wonder that is Ted Iliff.
In tight circles, he is more affectionately known as “Cousin Ted”. Or as my friend and colleague Kristen deemed him (after leading us on a 15-hour private tour of Venice, Italy and enlightening us at every water-laden turn), “Encyclopedia BriTedica,” or “B-Ted” for short.
Growing up, the stories of Cousin Ted were as legendary as they came. He was elusive, and clandestine, and I thought that maybe one day I would be as cool as he was, or at least as interesting – minus the mustache.
His resume ranged from CNN and USA Today to TV channels in Montenegro and Albania. He inaugurated a nonprofit’s international division, introduced TV news to the Voice of America, professionalized official news media in Iraq, and designed a Web-based radio news service in Kosova. He taught journalism in Turkey and Armenia, mentored counselor educators in Afghanistan, keynoted conferences in China and Malaysia, emceed conferences in India and China, and conducted media relations seminars across the United States.
How could a twelve year old possibly live up to that?
While I’ve gotten over my initial feelings of intimidation – growing up does have its advantages – I haven’t gotten over my perpetual need to listen to and learn from this amazing man.
Fresh on the heels of the recently released “Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis”, where he sheds light on his path out of journalism to teaching and consulting with author Celia Viggo Wexler, here is B-Ted’s take on everything from journalism, to news media, to the definition of PR.
When did you get bitten with the journalism bug?
Ted Iliff: I knew when I was young that I wanted some kind of career path that would take me overseas, specifically to Germany for family reasons. I nibbled the journalism bait in an introductory course at Kansas University (KU) my freshman year. The first semester of my sophomore year I took the beginning news writing class, and that was it. At the end of that semester the Topeka, Kansas paper hired me as its KU freelancer, and I spent the rest of my college years concentrating on freelancing, the school newspaper and summer internships. I left without a degree (I got one years later) because I just wanted to work in journalism.
Did you always know you were a storyteller/writer? What were some early signs?
TI: I always did well with writing in school, but I didn’t think about it much as a career path until college.
In your opinion, has the practice of journalism changed since your days at CNN? How so?
TI: First, I have to say that I consider myself an “old-school” dinosaur in the profession. I worry about (and teach) language precision, accuracy and fairness. Those principles appear to be pushed to the background in favor of personality, opinion and “sizzle.” I understand how audiences are attracted and held, but broadcast business models don’t seem to have much room right now for important issues and events unless they raise blood pressures or activate sweat glands for viewers. And most of all, accuracy (facts and language) seems to be optional. At least there is plenty of evidence to support that allegation.
How do you define “news media” versus “media” in all its varying degrees?
TI: “News media” are supposed to offer content with a motive that says, “You should know this.” That covers all kinds of news, including sports, financial and even entertainment. “Media” in general merely says, “Here’s something we hope you’ll like.” There’s no public service aspect, nor should there be. The motivations are entirely different.
What news organizations are still pushing out the best content? What makes one better than the other? (CNN vs. Fox vs. MSNBC)
TI: Fox and MSNBC have staked out positions on the right and left politically, so they serve those audiences fairly well. CNN is not sure where it fits in the TV news landscape, so while it strives to stay in the middle, it seems unfocused and struggles in times of relative tranquility. PBS and NPR cover plenty of topics with plenty of context, but they lack broadcast discipline and tend to ramble. For TV, I like BBC and CNN International (one of my former workplaces). In print, the Economist is the gold standard. Those three still strive for accuracy and balance while keeping news the main attraction.
Do you believe in the liberal media conspiracy?
TI: I do not believe in “conspiracy.” I do sympathize with perceptions that more journalists lean left in their personal beliefs. As noted in several books on the subject, many journalists are drawn to the profession because they see an opportunity to “make a difference in the world.” That activism has tended to be liberal. However, the rise of conservative media is changing that. In any case, how well journalists recognize and confront their biases determines how well they offer the public a balanced news product. Too few journalists do that, so they leave themselves open to allegations of bias.
In your experience, what is the fundamental difference between the American “news engine” and more restrictive new environments like Baghdad and Kandahar?
TI: We are very spoiled and very myopic. American journalists have the luxury of worrying about the finer aspects of professional ethics and industry practices. The journalists I’ve worked with in Iraq and Afghanistan worry about staying alive. And that’s not an exaggeration. Weak economies and poor security prevent neutral media entrepreneurs from entering markets in conflict regions. So journalists work mostly for news organizations owned by people (not always nice ones) with political agendas who overtly use their media outlets to advance those agendas. Even if they have learned universally accepted methods and ethics, those journalists adjust to workplace realities to stay employed and stay safe while practicing the profession that they truly love as best they can.
In terms of PR, what do you think it means? By the way…the PRSA has spent years trying to define it, so if you come up with a better definition I will move to have it instituted.
TI: I haven’t thought too much about how it’s defined, but let me give this a try:
Public Relations is mission-guided advocacy of an individual’s or organization’s activities, achievements and aspirations.
Mission-guided means there has to be some kind of motivation for the entity’s existence or actions. That is usually explained in the mission statement. Beyond that, you get the Four A’s…
Advocacy: PR pushes out information or concepts that promote acceptance of (and even enthusiasm) for the entity and its endeavors.
Activities: PR offers positive promotion of the entity’s actions, but it also deals with activities that might have harmed the entity. PR seeks to minimize the negative impact while accentuating positives (transparency, contrition) that may mitigate the harm.
Achievements: PR does not just list these; it magnifies their importance, value and impact to maximize positive reaction.
Aspirations: PR shows how the entity is not just interested in the status quo but is striving for higher goals to fulfill its mission.
Well, I think you did it. I like that definition. I’m starting a PR campaign to push this out. I’ll call it the “4A” campaign. Do you mind?
TI: Not one bit. Let’s shake things up.
About Ted Iliff
Ted Iliff has worked in the international arena for more than 30 years, as an executive, journalist, consultant and teacher. He blends the analytical skills of responsible journalism with the organizational skills of practical management. His specialties are start-ups, reorganizations and international expansions. He is certified in career guidance, trained in mental health facilitation, an Emmy citation recipient and has appeared in two Who’s Who registries. He is a career editor and English language expert, fluent in German, the author of a historical novel and the co-author of a travel/history guidebook. He has written chapters for books on international certification and on career counseling in China.
Learn more about Ted Iliff: http://www.TedIliff.com