At National Geographic, it’s Relevance Over Reverence

National Geographic Partners CEO Gary Knell is guiding the 130-year-old brand through a period of digital disruption and scientific skepticism.

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Gary Knell, CEO of National Geographic Partners, speaks as part of the David and Lyn Silfen Leadership Series on April 3, 2018.

National Geographic is one of the oldest magazines in the United States, with a rich 130-year history—but it’s also the biggest brand on Instagram, boasting over 87 million followers.

That dichotomy is a testament to the way National Geographic has responded to digital disruption, where many media brands have faltered, Gary Knell, National Geographic Partners CEO, told a group of Columbia Business School students at a recent David and Lyn Silfen Leadership Series lecture.

“We like to talk about relevance over reverence,” he said. “Reverence is important and, certainly, over 130 years we've created a legacy [as] one of the most trusted brands in the country and around the world. But, if you don't disrupt yourself to maintain that relevance, you'll go out of business.  We've seen so much of that, certainly, in publishing and in media. It's absolutely mandatory that leadership take action to make that happen.”

Leadership in an era of disruption is nothing new for Knell. He led both Sesame Street and NPR through their digital transformations.

At National Geographic, Knell oversees media partnerships and brand extensions across verticals, while educating editors and publishers on the media consumption preferences of a newer generation of consumer.

“Understanding our planet and understanding the human condition, the species who we live with and share the planet with and the planet itself—these are all things that I think resonate with millennials,” Knell said.

In navigating a new media landscape, National Geographic has not shied away from transparency – tackling its troubled history with race in a recent issue – or controversy, standing firmly on the side of facts in an age where public opinion on science is often shaped by politics.

“Neil DeGrasse Tyson has the best line about this: ‘Science is true whether you believe in it or not,’” Knell said. “That's kind of how we feel. We're going to follow the science. There are issues around climate, there are issues around vaccines, there are issues around GMO's. There're facts and then there're beliefs and a lot of these get conflated in political arguments. To deny the science is very, very dangerous.”

Knell said National Geographic will continue to “push the edges on science” to remain in the public dialogue. It’s a strategy that seems to be working.

“There are people talking about National Geographic. Who would have thought about National Geographic a decade or two ago as something that's a socially relevant enterprise?”

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