Brand Journalism

I spent last week in meetings with journalists in Vancouver and Toronto. Here at AHA, we regularly meet with writers and editors and TV and radio producers so we can keep informed about what they are looking for; how we might be able to provide them with information about our clients that they would see as relevant, valuable and useful; and how their jobs have changed. (They have changed a lot in the past five years and continue to change.)

We’re quite fortunate that we have built up solid relationships with some of the key journalists in Canada and the U.S. and that they take our calls, open our e-mails, and agree to meet us for coffee when we are in town. This is an important activity for us and for our clients. It is a priority for us.

I heard something very interesting in the meetings last week. Toward the end of our meetings, several of the journalists who deal with sections that are not breaking news brought up sponsored content. They made it clear that a good story is a good story and they would run it, but added that there is an opportunity for sponsored content that is written by editorial staff and is like editorial, but paid for by the organization.

This is interesting to me on several levels. When I was at Maclean’s magazine – there was no way that any journalist would have brought up content that was paid for by the interview subject. But that was a different time and the media world has changed completely over the past decade. We used to call this type of content: advertorial. It was more of an article than an ad, but was developed and paid for by the client organization and you paid ad rates to run the piece.

Now, there is a hybrid – you are paying for space but a journalist writes the content. And it is crucial that as communicators we realize that this is now our reality. The question is – how do we best manage the process now that PR or communications is no longer just about earned content, but includes paid content as well? It changes our strategy and our approach.

This is yet another canary in the coal mine, in my opinion. While media relations and generating editorial coverage (and now potentially paying for some of it) will always be important to many organizations, it is also a wake up call that organizations (and their communications teams) should be creating their own content. You need good editorial writers who can authentically tell your story – and not make it feel like a marketing piece.

This is another signal that content is crucial, and that the way we create and share information and our organizational story continues to change. The train has left the station; it is important that you bring your organization or your clients along for this amazing adventure. An adventure that continues to change and evolve – meaning that as communicators, we need to adapt and grow.

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http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-media-word-hook-written-tag-caught-blue-background-image30580237We all know that media relations and publicity are an important component of public relations. Prior to social media, these areas were at the heart of many campaigns. Getting an unbiased third party (a journalist) to speak positively about your organization, its services or products was crucial. Many, many hours of my PR career have been spent defining a good story pitch, specific to the media outlet we wanted to “earn” coverage in.

Fast forward to today. While media relations and publicity are still important, there are more opportunities where public relations professionals should be involved. These days, the range includes earned (editorial media coverage), paid (advertising and marketing) and owned (channels and content that you produce and share) media.

Earned media is one component of connecting with stakeholder groups and a very important part of most organizations’ communications strategies.

On the paid media side, it’s vital to realize that advertising has changed drastically. Think about some of the ads and marketing campaigns you see now. First of all, quite often the ads have a media relations or publicity component to them that outlines their creativity and shares results. Many ads or marketing campaigns also have an interactive component, asking the target market to participate in some way (create a new flavour of potato chips, for example). Some of the commercials we see on television that are shared on Facebook and other social media networks, tell a story (like a mini-movie) that doesn’t just inform us of the product or service benefits, but also engages our emotions. It isn’t just about informing you of a product anymore – it’s about creating a feeling.

Owned media falls into the area of brand journalism, where you produce content that is shared through your own distribution channels (website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) that you hope will be shared by your followers. This is a growing area and one we are seeing more and more organizations choosing to focus on. With a solid editorial approach, creating great content means you have to think like a producer. Here you can build strong relationships with your community that are supported by earned and paid media. It has to be about creating engaging content, and can’t been seen as “selling” anyone on anything.

It’s an exciting time to be a communicator when you understand all of the opportunities we have for authentically engaging and connecting with stakeholders.

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video cameraBrand journalism has been around for a while now. Here at AHA, we’ve been using brand journalism to tell our clients’ stories for several years. As a communications tool, it does seem to be gaining traction. Which is a very good thing.

The Public Relations Society of America listed brand journalism as one of the top 12 trends in PR for 2012 and it was included in sessions in 2011 at SXSW. (I think, like here at AHA, this may have been a little ahead of the curve. We’ve been watching the use of brand journalism for quite some time and it is just starting to emerge as a key communications tool.)

The core of brand journalism is storytelling – and when it comes to marketing, we know that good content is king. Brand journalism is an approach that provides brands with the opportunity to tell their story in the context of their industry, area of specialization or field. It can’t be marketing or advertising content – although it can link to those areas on a website. It has to have an editorial approach, which means providing balanced coverage. This demands a paradigm shift for some who are so used to selling, promoting or marketing that they don’t quite understand how to do this.

In our initial brand journalism planning meetings with clients, we spend a fair amount of time discussing this area and outlining the necessary steps to move into an editorial-focused, brand journalism strategy for content. It’s always exciting to see them “get it” – even more exciting when we review web stats a month or two after they have begun sharing stories through their brand journalism approach and they see the increase in readership, shares and engagement.

I was fortunate that my first career was in journalism. I learned the art and craft of storytelling and journalistic integrity from some of the best journalists in the country. Brand journalism allows an organization to tell its stories in a compelling, engaging and authentic manner. While it might feel like it takes a leap of faith to shift into this type of storytelling, there are so many rewards.

A great example of brand journalism is being done by Alabama Gulf Seafood. Take a look. It will give you some great ideas on how you can use brand journalism to tell your organization’s story.

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who, what, when, where, whyThere are many social media platforms out there. I have seen some organizations attempt to use them all and the fact is, I have yet to see anyone accomplish that. Unless you have a huge communications team, a big fat budget and are all things to all people, it is strategic to identify the right platform or platforms for you and to limit them.

For our clients, we often review their social media platforms as a part of the planning process. Depending on the size of the client and the scope of our work with them, we make recommendations on changes and additions in this area.

We develop a great deal of content in a brand journalism style for our clients. The fact is, I believe communicators and public relations professionals have been using the brand journalism approach for decades – we just called it “content.” Today, we call it brand journalism and we use that content in a variety of ways, including on social media platforms. But before we do anything, we define where the organization’s stakeholders/community/audience hang out on social media platforms, we spend time understanding their needs, wants and expectations regarding interaction with brands and organizations (and often the world as a whole), and we develop a strategic editorial plan and schedule. And that plan and schedule is reviewed and revised on a regular basis as trends, interests and expectations shift.

I was fortunate to work with some incredibly talented editors and journalists back in my journalism career and they taught me a great deal more than how to write a good article. There is so much that goes into developing compelling content that speaks to the reader, listener or viewer. As much as each piece should be able to stand alone in its value, it’s also important to understand how all the pieces come together.

The content that is put forward in newspapers, magazines, in online publications and in broadcast news isn’t randomly pulled together. There’s a plan. As much as the media follows the news of the day/week/month, the content as a whole is strategically planned out with themes, context and flow. How pieces reflect on each other, what the sidebars attached to major news stories can communicate, how all of the images/visuals and articles/segments flow, what kind of follow-up or updates are expected, what time of year it is, whether the information will be important to people today, what the other seemingly unrelated events and news stories are, etc. All of these elements need to be taken into consideration when developing an editorial schedule/plan and when writing or producing the content.

It’s a thoughtful process and when it is done right, you can engage your community in meaningful and valuable ways. Not only is this approach important for which social media platforms you use, but also for the content you will share on them, including how often to share, what the themes are, the style and tone, how often you will self-promote (please, not often – it’s annoying and you will lose your community), what your level of engagement is, how much you will repurpose or repeat content from one platform to another, and – at the heart of it – what you have to say that matters to the people you want to connect with.

Working all of this out is one of the most interesting, exciting, challenging and rewarding parts of the work we do. When a client is committed to doing it right and puts in the effort, the results are often incredible. Their followers multiply, their web visits increase and they find themselves in authentic conversations with their key target markets, which – depending on their ultimate goal – drives sales, increases brand awareness, changes behaviours or perspectives, informs, educates and engages. But it all goes back to knowing who you want to connect with, why they would want to connect with you, where to connect and when.

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AHA works with clients in a range of sectors – consumer goods, technology, post-secondary education, health care, fitness, law and the judiciary, fashion, not-for-profit, insurance and, of course, travel. We provide a range of services for our clients including promotional public relations, community relations (including social media), strategic communications planning, writing and editing services, messaging and positioning, crisis and communication planning, and issues communication management.

We have extensive travel PR experience and a strong skill set in this area. Our clients range from tourism boards to hotels to airlines to tour operators and local activities. We have spent a decade building positive relationships with traditional and online journalists, bloggers and editorial content creators. AHA works in the world of travel because we love it, we’re really good at it, and we continue to grow and evolve our skill set in this ever-changing world.

Recently, we decided to put a little more focus on travel PR. Believe me, that doesn’t mean that our non-travel clients will get any less attention. Each one of our clients knows how important they are to us – and how dedicated we are to providing world-class client service and generating exceptional results. What it does mean is that we are going to get a little more proactive in the area of travel business development. We’re a little spoiled here. We have been incredibly fortunate that colleagues, clients, former clients and professional acquaintances recommend us and refer new clients to us – and that has kept us pretty busy. However, we have a kick-ass crew across the country and it’s time to reach out and connect with some great potential clients.

As a part of the launch of our increased focus in the area of travel, we worked the fabulously talented, incredibly professional, and delightful to work with Tanya Gadsby of Drawing Out Ideas to produce a short graphic recording video that highlights the benefits of working with AHA for your travel PR. We hope you like it!

 

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