How To Produce Killer Brand Journalism

I’m not sure if brand journalism is the new PR, or if brand PR is the new journalism, but both seem to be gaining traction. Some still say the term is an oxymoron, since the line between thinly veiled PR or marketing and content that’s truly relevant can be a fine one.

But a recent case that demonstrates the power of quality brand journalism is the dramatic success experienced by Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. Using a head-mounted computer and camera device, the Center produced live video of the first Google-Glass-assisted operation, scoring exclusive features with top-tier press, including “CBS This Morning” and The New York Times.

Talk about “surgical” use of PR strategy! Of course, Google Glass is still a hot wearable technology story, and the inside-access aspect made it something the media couldn’t replicate or get on their own. Still, kudos to the Wexner team for its focus on quality storytelling and video production.

For most companies who don’t have an exclusive story about the latest wearable tech, however, brand journalism can be a challenge. It seems like everyone’s trying to do it, but few are doing it well.  In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), most businesses feel they’re not very good at it.

This is understandable.  First, there’s that glut of content, so it’s hard to stand out.  Second, some feel pressured to generate brand exposure, or they don’t grasp that it’s secondary to quality and relevance.

What is Quality Brand Journalism?

Marketers, take heart. There’s plenty of mediocrity out there, but there are also best practices that serve as guidelines to producing high-quality brand journalism from those who have done it. Here is our take:

More journalism, less brand.   Shane Snow, founder of content platform Contently analogizes to conversations we have in the real world. If you want to make friends and influence people, you ask others about themselves.  It’s not so different in the digital world.  When it comes to your content, marketers should learn to be other-centered instead of focusing on their own needs. It’s just not about you.  That’s one reason that keyword-stuffed blog posts or educational pieces that are really sales pitches have fallen out of favor.

Go small or go home.  Yes, we want to trade in big ideas, but the broader the material, the more likely it is to move beyond a company’s core expertise.  It’s natural to think that more topics translate into more prospects, but that’s not necessarily the case. Niche or long-tail content born out of deeply held opinions or experience is likely to resonate with your most valuable audiences. 

Make it part of a brand communications strategy.  Most marketers know this, but only 44% of those responding to a CMI’s survey say they have an overall strategy.  To be effective, brand journalism should be part of a broader communications program that delivers relevant stories to the right audiences through the most suitable channels.

Think like a journalist.  Or, hire one. Real journalists quote sources, back up assertions with data, and in general, don’t editorialize.  Brand journalism doesn’t have to hew to those standards, but supporting conclusions with sources and tapping outside experts adds credibility to the narrative.

Study the experts.  Plenty of businesses are doing a good job with content.  Many are large companies: American Express’s Open Forum for small business is a pioneer and a good role model. So are Cisco, Adobe, Virgin, GE, Red Bull, and Coke. Of course, these are huge brands with budgets to match.  But for small business examples, look no further than Birchbox, CorePower Yoga, Jeni’s Ice Cream, or Gibson Guitar’s Lifestyle blog.

Slow down.  Google’s new algorithms favor deeper, long-form content with original material. Yes, “snackable” content still has its place, but a single high-quality piece is sometimes worth ten” me-too” blog posts that regurgitate what’s already out there. 

This post was adapted from a similar one that appeared November 20th on MENGBlend.

"Brand Journalism" and Storytelling: How PR Pros Must Adapt

We in the public relations agency biz have spent lots of time debating whether journalists make the best PR people. It used to be that ex-journos were hired in narrow roles based on skills or pedigree. At a large agency where I once worked, they were invited to the big pitch to weigh in on story potential, drop names, and wow the prospect. Others were installed in editorial spots where they could wield a blue pencil but otherwise stay out of the fray.

But recently the conversation has shifted to something that professional communicators are doing more and more often – brand journalism. Though the term is controversial, its practice – corporate storytelling through compelling and relevant content – really isn’t.

So, is there anything new here?

In my view it’s a matter of approach, and commitment. In the past we were identifying and telling client stories, but the typical PR approach lacked a true journalistic sensibility. A press release is not a story.

Today, with the influx of traditional journalists into the profession and the rise of digital and social media, the emphasis is more on getting it right. And, without question, someone with experience spotting news, shaping a story, and writing against hellish deadlines has the requisite skills. But here are some guidelines for better storytelling for all communicators.

Is it a good story? Obvious, yes. But how often have we been pressed into putting out irrelevant, underwhelming, or overly commercial content? As storytellers, we need to help clients understand the need for higher-quality content that’s designed to build a brand over the long term, not generate a “quick hit.”

Does it offer real expertise? Good content must be credible, and credibility rests upon expertise. The good news is that most companies do have legitimate, deep, and relevant expertise to offer. Where they don’t, it must be “borrowed” from third parties. Telling people what they already know doesn’t get us anywhere.

Show, don’t just tell. Corporate values and philosophies are terrific for internal consumption, but many companies tend to get too caught up in message delivery without the real-life examples that make all the difference. The classic novelist’s rule to “show, don’t tell” is a useful mantra here.

Is it high quality? Well-written copy and well-produced (but not necessarily polished) video content are absolutely critical to good storytelling. Empty words, bloated corporate-speak, and padded narratives are not.

Does it inspire action or change? Truly compelling content should  leave the reader with a changed or broadened perspective, or with a clearer idea of action that should be taken. Change should be a goal for every narrative.

I’ve often said that in the ideal world, every PR person would spend a year as a journalist to strengthen skills and deepen our perspective. Maybe now, we will.