Problems with brand extensions eroding the core brand are not just a problem exclusive to consumer products. Award-winning media brands can also suffer the degenerative effect of a poorly managed brand extension.
This is something Politifact is currently discovering in Wisconsin, where one of the project's most valuable sources has stopped taking its calls, charging political bias.
The website was started by the St. Petersburg Times as a journalistic project where reporters "fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups."
PolitiFact had the added hook of the catchy "Truth-o-Meter," a small gauge that, at the end of the article, rated the fact-checked claim as true, partially true, or, in worst cases, "Pants on Fire," a rating where the meter itself was humorously engulfed in flames.
Politifact was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for "its fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign that used probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters."
Following this success, Politifact licensed its brand to other newspapers, starting with the Austin American Statesman and continuing on to the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others. Then the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got its Politifact license a year ago.
“We just think there’s no utility in dealing with them anymore." That's how the Democratic Party of Wisconsin communications director explained its move to Inside Milwaukee. He added tat the Journal Sentinel's version of Politifact "is an instrument that we don't think profits us anything, because we believe we've worked in good faith with them and not seen fair results."
The Journal Sentinel editor in charge of PolitiFact responded by saying, "anyone who examines the totality of our work will see we do not play favorites and we do not pull punches. We will continue to do items from anyone who is a part of the political debate in Wisconsin.”
In Wisconsin, where a particularly virulent battle over the state budget and massive changes to services rages on, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is well known as a "conservative" newspaper, including endorsing current Governor Scott Walker.
The Democratic Party cites numerous examples to Inside Milwaukee, saying that they represent “pettifogging some of our political rhetoric and leaving these pretty big claims by the Walker administration untouched.”
Wisconsin bloggers have been taking the Journal Sentinel's version of Politifact to task in particularly damaging fashion lately.
Charges of bias and wrongdoing have been leveled against Politifact before, but usually these cases have been beefs between the project and other publications or between individuals targeted by Poltiifact ratings, such as conservative presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and MSNBC broadcaster Rachel Maddow.
As opposed to criticizing the project's ratings after the fact, refusing to cooperate entirely starves PolitiFact of one of its key fact-checking sources and calls into question its ability to effectively function. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, denying access to the project to protest its one-sidedness makes its coverage appear one-sided. And eventually, the brand becomes just another feature of a partisan publication.
On the national scale, these local spats seriously damage the award-winning national Politifact brand, whose creators took a huge risk by putting its service in the hands of unknown editors with unknown biases. Untreated, this cancer of trust could come back to haunt the original PolitiFact brand.