Curating corporate content

Why companies of all descriptions are becoming their own publishing houses

Regardless of their industry or field of business, companies today are becoming media companies, producing blogs, news stories, magazine articles, television, radio, video, music, advertising, photos, web pages, and social media en masse. In a way, corporations are filling in the gaps created by the seismic shifts in traditional media. But how should communication directors navigate this growth industry?

The pioneers of brand journalism are closely tied to the corporate communications function. David Lichtneker is an editorial manager in AkzoNobel’s corporate communications department in Amsterdam, where he  writes and edits the company’s annual report as well as being responsible for the A Magazine platform, the global company magazine launched in 2008 and which is about to become exclusively digital. “I’m officially part of the corporate branding team,” he explained to Communication Director, “but I also work closely with our colleagues in internal and external communications.” On the other side of the Atlantic, at the headquarters of GE at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, Tomas Kellner is managing editor of GE Reports, the company’s hugely ambitious web site and companion YouTube channel. He is part of the external communications team at GE, ultimately reporting to the company’s vice president of communication, Gary Sheffer (who came up with the idea of starting GE Reports). Tomas describes his role to Communication Director as “a journalist inside the company. I try and find interesting stories, interesting people, and publish them in story form.”

One-stop media shop

Perhaps most impressively of all, Nissan Motors has established a comprehensive media centre, including a full scale television studio which produces news programmes presented by veteran journalists hired from bastions of traditional media. Its news stories sometimes features competitors and controversial topics such as Chinese protesters attacking Nissan and other Japanese cars. Tom Foremski, the former Financial Times journalist behind the popular Silicon Valley Watcher blog, wrote that Nissan’s media centre “represents the leading edge in the rise of corporate media.” According to Simon Sproule, Nissan Motors’ vice president of global marketing communications, the media team is “fully integrated into the Nissan global marketing communications team” – this means that that the centre is able to take full advantage of their access to the company when sourcing stories and topics. Despite this proxmimtiy, Sproule says that the editorial process is “very hands off in terms of executive involvement or directions.” Nissan’s management is supportive of the centre’s work, up to the very highest level in the organisation. “Our president and chief executive officer, Carlos Ghosn, was personally very engaged in the creation of the centre,” says Sproule, “and we have incredible access to him when we need to film an interview or story. We have regular presentations on marketing communications to our executive committee and that includes the work of the media centre.”

The examples of Nissan and GE suggests an executive-level appreciation of the strategic value of corporate media. This is also true of AkzoNobel, where, according to Lichtneker, “we have people from our businesses asking to be included and suggesting content ideas because they understand the value of being featured in the magazine. It has earned a very strong reputation and has been positioned as a high level resource for connecting with customers, the media, investors, key influencers, students and anyone else who might have an interest in the company’s activities.” But what is the strategic value of brand journalism? GE’s Tomas Kellner describes it as an opportunity to open up dialogue among parties traditionally barred from the debate: “As more and more publications have moved online,” he says, “it has removed a barrier that stood between traditional print and television media, and people and companies, who, if in the past they wanted to get a story out, would have to go through the gatekeepers. Now everybody can go out and tell our stories, and we have plenty of them.”

Digging up stories

But what of the quality of the content itself? AkzoNobel’s A Magazine is a intensely stylish product, taking on a different theme each issue – “Discovery and Exploration”, “Youth and Culture”, “Performance” and so on – and using these as a springboard to explore some pretty diverse avenues. For example, the Youth and Culture issue had a manga-style cover and had to be read back-to-front, Japanese-style. It featured a profile of legendary animal expert Jane Goodal and articles on business etiquette in Asia, the social significance of a New York neighbourhood’s community murals, the use of colour in Indian design, and a look at the cultural life of the inhabitants of Brasilia – all elegantly presented and accompanied by gorgeous photography. According to David Lichtneker, the strong visual element has a serious purpose:  “It’s about making a real connection, fully engaging the reader and ensuring that they start to understand what the company is really about…So if it’s smiley men in suits talking about creating synergies and adding value that you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place.” He explains that the theme is chosen first, and then relevant internal stories and global issues are found to fit the theme which, he admits can be a challenge. “First of all, we like to be different, so if we do find a subject we want to talk about, we often try to tell the story in an unexpected way (using the Beatles to explain open innovation for example). We also try to interview at least one famous name or leading expert.”

A subtle approach

Almost counter-intuitively, David’s team has “a deliberate policy of not talking about ourselves too much...we’ve always been of the opinion that A Magazine isn’t about forcing AkzoNobel on our readers. So the company’s link to whatever we are writing about is usually introduced in a very subtle way, rather than ramming it down people’s throats.”

This subtle approach is also favoured by MediaSource, a media relations and content production firm that specialises in brand journalism tactics. According to Lisa Arledge, president of MediaSource, “One important thing to remember about brand journalism is that a brand journalism story isn’t necessarily a branded story. In fact it’s just the opposite. The less branding in the story, the better it fits into the brand journalism category.” Perhaps this has to do with making sure that the story can connect with as many readers a possible, without turning them off with heavy-handed use of self-promotion. As Lisa puts it: “The key to successful brand journalism is the ability to produce your story for your target audience instead of for the brand.”

That’s not to say that readers are automatically put off by any signs that link a story to the company, as Tomas Kellner explains: “If you see how stories move online, people do not care as much where a good story comes from. When we read stories online and we like that story and we want our friends to know about it, we don’t care whether it was published by the New York Times or whether it was published by GE Reports, we share it because it’s interesting information. This is one of the big driving forces behind companies jumping into the content area and hiring experienced journalists and editors.”

Like A Magazine, GE Reports also reports on broad themes that affect society and appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Tomas Kellner attributes the ability of his team to sense which themes will work  to journalistic know-how. “All of us have a sense of what a good story should look like. Before I came to GE I spent eight years at Forbes, I have a deep journalistic background, so I try and find stories that would appeal to readers who do not necessarily own GE stocks or are employed by GE.” The kind of topics that GE Reports features include  economic growth or energy independence, climate change, natural gas, healthcare reform. “These are big topics that society is talking about in general,” says Kellner. “So by having access to industry leaders in GE you can get that front-line view of what the future is going to look like.”

With 300,000 employees working globally, and with business interests ranging from jet engines to healthcare, there is no shortage of internal sources for GE Reports to draw from. Other companies may choose to look to external help for content creation. MediaSource, for example, was formed by news journalists and creates video, audio, graphic and animation content on behalf of organisations, in particular health companies and hospitals. However, whether the content is created inside or outside the company, the approach is the same, as Lisa Arledge explains. “Just like news media outlets do, our team has regular story pitch meetings with our clients where everyone pitches their ideas. Then the content team vets them and decides which make the brand journalism cut. We have a creative process where we put the stories through the MediaSource ‘brand journaliser’ which is a list of criteria that helps us decide which ideas are most appropriate for this approach.” Again, just as in the case of GE Reports and A Magazine, nothing beats having experienced journalists on your team: “The biggest piece of advice I can give any brand who wants to create brand journalism” says Lisa, “is to have a team with real journalism experience vetting and developing your story topics. There is no other way to do quality brand journalism that will get results.”

Checks and balances

If companies have a license to create and manage their own stories, where are the guarantees that what they produce is factual, balanced or even newsworthy? Isn’t this the real cost of corporate media’s usurping of the role of traditional media? Tomas Kellner stresses the importance of following the traditional processes that would take place in any media outlet before the publication of a news story: “Just as you would have inside a newspaper or magazine, a story gets edited and fact checked. There is a rigorous internal process around how the story travels. I write it, it goes to the communicators who provide me with their feedback, and the legal department has their input as well.” Nissan’s Simon Sproule describes the idea that corporations are taking over the role of traditional journalism as “nonsense”, explaining tha “each medium – whether brand created or independent editorial – will live or die based on the value it delivers its audience. If the content created by the Nissan media centre is boring or seen as marketing speak, its impact on the company will be quickly negative.” It’s this focus on results that provide the best safeguard for quality, says Sproule: “If the content we create is not getting the kind of viewership and exposure to justify the investment, then we will make the necessary changes to ensure it delivers the expected results.”

Centres like Nissan’s that hire journalists that were trained in traditional media institutions are becoming the norm. In 2011, LinkedIn strengthened their ambitions to become more than a professional networking site and move into media creation by hiring Daniel Roth, formerly digital editor at Fortune magazine. This year, another Fortune alumnus, Michael Copeland, joined venture firm Andreessen Horowitz to lead their content strategy.  With more and more journalists being lured over to corporate media, and companies investing in their own self-produced publications rather than advertise in magazines and newspapers, does this mean that the growth of brand journalism is detrimental to traditional media? Lisa Arledge is of the opinion that “corporate media journalism and brand journalism can live side by side together. The fact is, the traditional news media outlets and websites have the most viewers and highest value to brands. So in a perfect world brand journalism stories can and should be used to sell the media on your story. At their greatest value, the media may even pick up pieces and parts of brand journalism stories provided by brands.”

In the meantime, perhaps the rise of brand journalism signals some kind of hope for professionals with expensive journalism degrees and decreasing avenues where they can ply their trade. According to Lisa Arledge: “The growth of brand journalism means that corporations and companies like MediaSource will be looking for people with journalism experience and storytelling skills to fill what may have in the past been a traditional public relations or marketing job. I think the public relations person of the future will need the storytelling and general media savvy skills of a journalist.” Words of hope for those traditional journalists who are looking to transfer their skills in the exciting, if uncertain new world of brand publishing and content creation.

David Phillips

David Phillips is editor in chief of Communication Director.