Before Lucy Kellaway quit the Financial Times to retrain as a teacher, she revelled in ridiculing how companies communicate.
Inventor of the tongue-in-cheek Golden Flannel Awards and the Guffipedia online ‘dictionary of business jargon and corporate nonsense’, the columnist spent two decades “prosecuting corporate crimes against the English language”.
Plenty of journalists share her view. They see companies as spin-merchants and peddlers of jargon-filled propaganda, keener on manipulation and obfuscation than truth and transparency.
Their criticism may go too far. But they do have a point: too often, corporate communications don’t speak to employees or external stakeholders on a real, accessible level. They are not relevant, clear or interesting.
How can we engage and inform if we are serving up dull jargon? Although we might baulk at the reporters’ barbs, might there be something to learn from their own approach?
Engaging and real
Corporate communications and journalism are very different beasts, of course. There are fundamental differences between how their practitioners work and what they aim to achieve. Yet there is much we can learn from the real-world journalistic approach to communication.
We might criticise some media as biased, sensationalist, pushy or ill-informed. However, quality journalism has core strengths that have always underpinned the profession and can instruct corporate communicators.
Good journalism is based on being an independent and objective voice, a trusted source of information. Stories hammer home the key facts - the so-called Five Ws: what, when, where and why (and often the ‘how’ too). They connect with their audience, telling engaging, real stories about real people and often using these as a window on broader, more complex themes.
Language is simple, strong and clear, with powerful headlines and introductions to draw in the time-pressed, attention-challenged reader. As the world becomes more virtual and visual, they increasingly employ great pictures, graphics and videos. They choose the best channel and medium to tell the story for the specific audience - and adapt formats as audience preferences evolve.
So what drives journalists and what can corporate communicators learn from their approach?
First, journalists think from the perspective of their audience. They know the topics and themes that matter to readers, viewers or listeners. They understand their audience’s preferences in terms of style, tone, angles, channels and formats. Their agenda originates with the audience they are trying to inform.
Journalists are not beholden to colleagues who come to them wanting to profile their own department, for example, regardless of whether the department has anything interesting to say at that time – or ever.
That’s because it’s all about the strength of the story. Journalists – unlike business communicators – don’t talk about creating ‘content’ or ‘storytelling’. Yet finding stories that resonate with their audience and telling those stories compellingly has always been their raison d’être.
“Many people in business talk of narratives today. Most of them don’t mean inspiring stories,” journalist-turned-public relations expert Bjorn Edlund wrote in a 2017 blog. “Their mental model is the PowerPoint presentation, a clumsy and often intellectually lazy hop-skip and jump through factoids and opinions.”
Journalists cultivate expert sources, in order to stay abreast of trends, ‘break’ stories, generate quotes and colourful details. They often have specialist areas that they follow. All this helps them produce newsworthy, credible and correct reports.
Journalists must be able to translate complex topics into simple, clear language. They structure and order their texts in a logical, well thought-out way that enhances clarity and comprehensibility. They grab and hold attention through strong headlines and intros, and techniques such as the inverted pyramid.
They make certain they find and explain the key facts, so it’s crystal-clear why the story is relevant and important for their audience, why they need to know and why they should care. That sounds self-evident, but a great story has to be very clear about what exactly it is trying to convey, and why. Look critically at your company’s communications: do they pass this “so what” test?
If you can’t get the ‘what’ and ’why’ clear in your mind or make it clear to your audience, your communications efforts will be wasted. It is harder – and rarer - than it sounds. “Writing any old thing is always a lot easier than thinking first about what it is you are trying to say,” says Lucy Kellaway.
Some major companies are harnessing the techniques of the newsroom to great effect. Many are hiring former journalists and/or adopting journalistic approaches and newsroom-style roles, practices and processes to gather and convey strategic information that engages and informs their key stakeholders.
"Some major companies are harnessing the techniques of the newsroom to great effect."
Take GlaxoSmithKline, which has a dedicated team headed by an editor-in-chief that produces a twice-monthly targeted and tailored global newsletter that has replaced a plethora of smaller newsletters. Each edition contains around 200 articles but is segmented by country, department and discipline so that individual readers see only a small number of articles relevant to them.
GSK has established an editorial board, an editorial process, editorial guidelines and tone of voice. Sophisticated analytics give a granular view of engagement. The approach works: in a survey, 93 per cent of employees said the newsletter helped them understand the company’s strategic objectives.
Similarly, ING has a full-time editorial team that borrows heavily from journalism. This Dutch-born international bank has developed a potent mix of video and written feature articles in varied and engaging formats, with heavy emphasis on human angles that subtly yet powerfully convey the real-life benefits it brings to customers.
Adopting the mentality of the newsroom can drive higher engagement, understanding and trust, which has never been more important.
"Adopting the mentality of the newsroom can drive higher engagement, understanding and trust"
Before you start, however, it is crucial for corporate communications and HR professionals to stop dreaming that employees are motivated by business results. Of course, being part of a successful organisation creates a sense of pride. These days, though, very few people come to work aiming to lift the company’s bottom line.
As social networks keep employees abreast of what is happening in the world and how their peers are treated, they are more interested in how the company’s story develops, what this means to them and what their role is in tackling society’s biggest challenges.
This is exactly why corporate communications professionals need to employ journalism tactics such as telling a simplified and contextualised story of the company. Understanding the emotional reasons people come to work. And acting as the creative conduit organisations need to bridge the gap between what is important for executives and what matters to employees.
Your organisation may not be ready to build a complete corporate newsroom. But you can do so much just by believing in the value of audience-focused communication, and then being willing to taking a cold, hard look at what, why and how your company communicates.
Corporate journalism: Who, What, Why and How?
Journalists are all about the Five Ws – who, what where, when and why. Here’s an adapted version that can ensure your corporate communications have true impact.
What: Find your message and your angle – really think about what you are communicating.
Who:Think audience, audience, audience. Always put yourself in the reader’s shoes to make sure your communication will work for them and achieve your objective.
Why: Which leads us to the why: be clear what your objective is, and - crucially - why it matters to your audience.
How: We all love to read about people: find the human angle to bring your story alive. Keep it short, sharp and clear: you’re competing against a torrent of real-world media for shrinking attention spans. Use professional writers, or at the very least invest in training. Being a comms person or native speaker doesn’t automatically make someone a good writer. Use editors to ensure consistent quality and tone. Use great pictures, infographics and videos to tell or enliven your story. Constantly review and refresh formats, devising new ways to engage your audiences.