A year into DC's New 52 initiative, and I still haven't posted my analysis of DC's frankly atrocious communications strategy regarding the relaunch. So here it is. This isn't about whether or not any of the books are good or bad, or whether or not they're selling (DC did get an apparently sizable sales bump, but of course, kept it going with press releases announcing what I would consider non-events and spoilers). No, this is about how DC Comics handled its message over the past 1+ year since it announced the New 52. I'm drawing on my own experience in communications to relate 5 basic rules that I like to adhere to at work, but that DC has most definitely broken. See if you agree.
1. Do what you say
When you say you will do something, do it. When you give a reason for doing something, prove it. Your message has to be TRUE. Sounds simple and obvious, doesn't it? Not for DC who let the hype take over their message. When the relaunch was announced, DC claimed that the new line would attract new readers, revitalize the DCU and provide more diversity, while doing away with a continuity that had "run its course" and was an obstacle to new readers. The books came out and few could actually have been called innovative. Many were STILL heavy with the "continuity" DC had criticized, and featured characters only the fans DC already had would know. No real thought or work was put into attracting new readers, that is to say, readers from the pool of non-comics readers. They no doubt attracted Marvel readers, or former readers who prefer the digital medium, but if they've drawn in readers interested in other media like novels or films, I would guess that to be incidental. As for diversity, it's not even obvious what they mean by the word. Books featuring straight white males was still the norm and only a few books strayed from the superhero genres (and even those made sure to feature superheroes in some way), and many of those that weren't straight white male-dominated superhero books didn't survive the first 8 months. DC was also criticized for under-employing female creators.
DC never in fact proved continuity was an obstacle to new readers. The publicity around the re-numbering got readers to pick up a lot of new #1s, but file off the numbers, and you still have books using the old continuity (only now, it doesn't quite make sense), and books that could have been published as is in the old DCU continuity (most of the good ones, truth be told). What's worse is the message communicated as a preface to the relaunch, which many fans of the current output took as an insult to their tastes and interests, and in many cases, a punishment rather than a reward for supporting certain books, characters and creators up to that point, especially in cases where stories were left unresolved in the wake of the Flushpoint and/or weren't followed on in the new continuity.
I will give credit to DC for sticking to their pledge of never allowing a book to run late again (each was published every month, if not day for day after the previous issue), though it has meant a revolving door for creators on many books, i.e. fill-in artists or outright changes in writers/creative teams. DC has stuck to its commitment to a regular publishing schedule, but not to many titles having any kind of coherent look, story or feel. DC is saying that you should follow the characters, not the writers or artists, which has been more disappointing to readers than having to wait a couple extra weeks, and led to the same kind of revolving door for the readers. Throughout the year, DC has announced creative teams on books and failed to produce them on the due date, either to avoid lateness, or because those creators left the books, mysteriously or publicly.
2. A single spokesperson - a single message
It's getting more and more difficult to keep to this in today's world of social networking and easy access to communication tools, especially in as big an enterprise as DC Comics. Editors and creators alike are called upon to talk about the output for marketing purposes, often live and unprepared at conventions, and others like to chat about what they're working on on Twitter, Facebook, etc. However, when it comes to your comics company's editorial direction, a single person should be in charge of the message, and that person should be briefed and educated by communications professionals about how to best communicate the company's message. Even if that's not possible, the message should be coherent across the whole staff, and if many people are allowed to transmit the message, they should ALL be educated the same way. Instead, the relaunch was plagued by contradictory statements (was it a relaunch or a reboot? And when you announced it wasn't a reboot, why were characters rebooted?) from the Editor-in-Chief, the "Architects" of the relaunch, and various editors, writers and artists. The value of having a single spokesperson (or several, but each attributed a certain area, for example, hiring practices to the Editor-in-Chief, and creative matters to an Architect) is that you can work with that person to fashion and mold the message into its best possible shape. When DiDio lashed out at a fan for asking why there weren't more female creators working on New52 books, does anyone really believe he was speaking for the entire company? He certainly wasn't coached in how to respond to fan questions, or prepared for that particular line of questioning (see Rule #5). The way information was given about the New 52 shows how easily your message can be lost, diluted or diverted.
3. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety
My old Ethics of Communication professor used to say "Not seen, not caught. Not caught, not guilty." What he never said and let us discover for ourselves is that in media, you're always seen. There's nothing like being caught in a lie, error, bias or offensive blunder to make you lose complete control of your message. You don't decide what they talk about if you give them a choice of what to talk about. So to stay on track, you have to keep the journalists (and in this case, highly verbal fans) from talking about something other than your message. Much of the news surrounding the New 52 has been about fans' outrage at the treatment of female characters as sex objects, or DiDio's aforementioned blow-up, or writers leaving in a huff, or negative opinions of new costumes (slow news day). Why the negativity? It's not just "human nature" or some other pablum I could easily have answered. No, it's that if you seem insincere, if things don't feel right or fair, you're cultivating mistrust. The media will smell the blood in the water and treat everything you say and do as suspiciously as your actual wrong-doing.
Case in point at DC's New 52: Readers who were denied comics they really did enjoy certainly weren't inclined to embrace a new way of doing things unless it really did mean something better. But could they trust the hype when some of their favorite writers weren't even asked to pitch for the New 52? When characters no one asked for were given the spotlight for no better reason than they were owned by co-Architect Jim Lee? When many of the writers and artists invited to play seemed to share a connection with Lee and Johns, including much-ridiculed artist Rob Liefeld? When some of the only characters not forced to reboot were under the control of co-Architect Johns? There does seem to be a bias there, and it's not helping the company's reputation either as a product maker or an employer (throw in Before Watchmen as a non-52 example of even more ethical controversy). Now, for all I know, there might not be anything hiding behind those decisions (but if not, still see Rule #5), but it LOOKS BAD. And in the communications business, the way it looks might as well be the way it is. Media/fans may decide that if some decisions were unethical, they all were, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any publicity is good publicity.
4. Cultivate transparency
One way to implement Rule #3 is through transparency. If you're honest and open about what you're doing, then people will understand why certain unwelcome things happen. (It doesn't mean you have to run massive spoilers in the media about what happens in your stories, so stop doing that already!) If a book is late, let us know why. If there's going to be a change of artist or writer, let us know in advance. If you made a mistake, ADMIT IT. And never ever lie about any of it. See, transparency is more than being honest with your constituency, it's also about keeping YOURSELF honest. If you have a clear policy to be transparent, you then have to adhere to the other 4 rules, and to other principles of integrity, much more tightly, because you KNOW you're accountable for your decisions, words and actions. DC has failed in this respect not only in regards to the readership, but to its employees as well.
DC had writers pitch ideas for relaunched series while others, writing books at that very moment, were kept in the dark, unaware until the last moment that their books were going to be cancelled and their services dismissed. They lied to readers too, perhaps in fear of a mass exodus away from books that were about to be invalidated anyway. Just look at the comics published in the months leading up to the New 52 announcement. How can Geoff Johns, an Architect of the New DC, have written Brightest Day, an event that set up story strands to be abandoned weeks later? And if he wasn't in the know, at the time, how can DC say they made an informed decision re: the reboot, conducted research into what readers want to see, etc.? If it was well-prepared for, why did the new DC logo come out only months later? Even after the launch, we hear reports of DC Editorial not being honest or fair with its creators, meddling with their work, requiring last minute changes, etc. I don't put a lot of stock in Liefeld's comments given his diatribe on Twitter, but I'm more inclined to believe George Perez who had a similar experience.
5. Analyze your message
What are you saying? Do you even know? A lot of communication problems are caused by people not even asking that first question. When you write Starfire as an amnesiac girl who gives sex away like candy, do you know what that says about your opinion of women? When your latest Green Lantern is a ski-masked, gun-toting, dark-skinned, Muslim car thief, do you know what that says about your opinion of Muslims, Arab Americans, dark skinned people? (This from a company who refused to publish Chris Roberson's Sinbad story.) When you turn Amanda Waller into a thin, sexy woman, or get Barbara Gordon out of that wheelchair, do you know what you're saying to overweight or handicapped readers? Writers may or may not realize that their depiction of minorities has an impact on how the comics company is perceived, how they are perceived, or how they are nudging social norms one way or another, but since these were pitched to an editor first, there's obviously a message control that's missing at DC. And you'll find it in editorial lines too. For example, DC made a big thing of their female heroes now all wearing pants, as if bare thighs was the great sexist evil, only to have Catwoman falling out of her top throughout her first issue, and Voodoo stripping for her villain du jour in hers. Did anyone think about this and what supposed new readers would think (unless they were aiming for that all-important pornography fan demographic)? The dissolution of the Superman marriage (and of any relationship between Superman and Lois Lane) is another botched message, this one smacking of ageism (all heroes much be young and unattached) and of a particular hate for couplehood that could arguably be chalked up to a kind of misogyny (no balls & chains!). The idea that stories can't be told about married heroes didn't work when Marvel was pushing it about Spider-Man and MJ either.
Am I actually calling DC Editorial (and by extension many of the creators working there) misogynists or racists? Of course not. I'm only saying that had they analyzed their message, they might have realized that they were saying something disturbing about women and minorities, and saying it to the teenage boys whom they actively sought to turn into new readers. Especially when you look at the New 52's cumulative treatment of women and minorities, both on the page and writing/drawing it. If you take the time to ask pointed questions about the meaning behind your message, you might not have to apologize for it later.
DC isn't the only culprit when it comes to mismanaged communications, but it's outrageous to me how a media company hasn't been able to control its message better than it has.