Brand Journalism

Trenz_logo_nauticalHere at AHA, we are preparing to head to New Zealand for the 5th year of TRENZblog, the social media campaign that has us blogging and tweeting from the country. First, as we check out areas on a familiarization trip (this year it’s Wellington, the Marlborough region, and the Christchurch & Canterbury region), and then from TRENZ, New Zealand’s largest travel trade show.

We are always excited to head back to New Zealand – it’s a fabulous place. The beauty of the country is breathtaking and each region has its own unique charm. And the people of New Zealand are exceptional. Friendly, welcoming and more than a little bit cheeky.

Five years ago, TRENZblog was a bit of a leap of faith on the part of Tourism New Zealand. In 2008, the online world was just finding acceptance in the mainstream. In fact, five years ago I had the opportunity to interview New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and I was the first travel blogger to be granted an interview with him.

TRENZblog has now become a bit of a “regular” connection between trade media and New Zealand tourism operators. This project is a resource in providing trade media and travel trade professionals with timely and relevant information about tourism activities in the country.

We have recently been working on several proposals and that always makes us take a look at ourselves as communicators and what and how we do things. TRENZblog is a good example of seeing a shift in the landscape and moving that way. We recognized that the online world and social media were game changers when it came to PR and strategic communication and we knew that in order to serve our clients well, we had to evolve. TRENZblog is one of those projects that could have easily slipped by without much fanfare. It’s kind of workhorse PR initiative. It’s not big and flashy and it likely won’t win us any awards, but it gets the job done – and it gets done well. TRENZblog produces results and over the past four years, we have measured and reviewed what we could do differently, what works and what doesn’t, how we can continue to improve.

We’re really proud of TRENZblog. It’s a good project that meets its objective. The fact that we get to spend time in New Zealand while we implement it is a bonus.

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AHA Blog Post ImageHere at AHA, we have always strongly believed in the relevance and value of blogs. Even when it didn’t seem quite so “cool” anymore – our clients continued to see results from blogs. We monitor them closely to make sure that they provide return-on-investment; anyone who has ever had the responsibility to write a blog knows how much effort they take to produce on a consistent basis.

Writing a blog is like writing a newspaper or magazine column – it has to have an element of opinion in it, you need accurate stats and facts if you are going to cite them, the blog content has to be timely and interesting to your readers, and it should provoke thought and discussion. For many of our clients, a blog provides an excellent opportunity to share information and to open a conversation with their stakeholder group(s). But – and I know sometimes our clients get tired of hearing us say this – the blog has to be well-written and it needs to have relevant information that matters to the readers. If a blog is used just to put out marketing and sales information, it’s not going to gain traction. That’s not what people read blogs for.

We live in an incredible era. For the first time, there is an opportunity for people who are not paid by a print publication to have a voice. Media relations is still an important aspect of public relations; however – it is no longer the only option when it comes to sharing an organization’s story with stakeholders. Technology now provides the opportunity to write blog posts, to connect on Twitter and other social networking sites – to create awareness and enter the conversation about the topics that matter in your field of expertise.

Social Media Examiner recently ran an article on the results of Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influencer Report. This report shows that “blogs rank favorably with consumers for trust, popularity and even influence.” And that means something. If you don’t have a blog, I encourage you to consider starting one – but first, of course, sit down and plan it out. Approach it like you would any other communications tactic and define your objective, outline your topics and your target audience, ensure you know what to do if you are put under attack for an opinion or what to do should a blog post garner a great deal of positive attention, and understand how you will measure its success and what success means in this context.

Done right, a blog post is an excellent tool for strategic communications.


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Recently at AHA, we have been doing a great deal of brand journalism work with clients. More and more, organizations are focused on telling their story in an editorial style rather than through marketing or advertising pieces. Quite often, a good brand journalism story accompanies an advertising campaign.

Sunday’s Super Bowl is a perfect example of how brand journalism has slipped into the mainstream, without us really noticing. For many people who watch the Super Bowl, the ads are an important part of the experience. And let’s face it, they are pretty entertaining. And they should be, given how much they cost to air. I think the last estimate I heard was $3.8 million for a 30-second spot and that doesn’t include the cost of producing the ad. It’s a big investment for an organization. And the smart ones are making the most of it by attaching the “real story” behind the ad.

For example, Doritos ran a series of ads and one of them featured a funny little dog that had a lot of character. I happened to see some information about it on my Facebook page prior to the Super Bowl, so I went to check it out. It turns out the little dog in the ad is a rescue dog that was “discovered” – a little bit of a doggie Cinderella story – from being abandoned and in a shelter to becoming a star.

As a dog person, that story caught my attention and it gave me the chance to better connect with the Doritos brand – even though it didn’t promote their product to me in any way. But, as an animal lover, I like that the producers of the ad didn’t go to a breeder or only look for a purebred; they took a dog that likely hasn’t had the best life and they put her in the spotlight. This could lead to people seeing this and maybe thinking about adopting a shelter dog instead of buying one. That makes me happy. And it makes me feel a connection to the Doritos brand. Had they just run a funny ad with a quirky little dog, they would have caught my attention for a moment. Through brand journalism, I was told the backstory – and they engaged me. Smart. There are a lot of dog-loving, nacho chip-eating people in the world and that commercial and the story will get every one of us.

What’s your story? What do you have to share with your stakeholders, your target market and your community that will speak to them? Go beyond the traditional approach and think about what stories you tell your friends and family when they ask you about your organization. What makes people lean in and say: “really, that’s interesting…”

What are the human elements you can share that will engage and inspire people? Those stories are at the heart of your brand personality and they will bring your brand to life.

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We all know that visuals are a compelling part of your communication toolbox. They draw the reader in, they engage the audience and tell an important part of your story. They make a connection between the storyteller, the story and the audience. And thanks to leaps forward in technology, it’s no longer a challenge to create strong visual elements for your communications pieces.

While we are big fans of using professional videographers, photographers, illustrators and other visual medium professionals, the fact is there’s not always a budget to do so. That’s why it is important to identify ahead of time when it is necessary (sometimes even crucial) to bring in the professionals and when you can get away with using an image you took or a Flip-style video clip.

The way we see it here at AHA, if the communication piece is more casual, you can get away with a little when it comes to the visuals. For example, if it’s an update from the project manager, you can likely get away with a more basic shot of this person in action, on location somewhere. A message from the president, managing director, CEO or executive director needs a professional photo – in my opinion.

For social event photos and fun photos, someone at your organization who has an eye for photography can take them. They still need to be done well. I can’t tell you how many times we have had to go back to clients and tell them that they can’t use a blurry image or have important people half cut out of images. Even if you aren’t using a professional – you do need to have someone who has some skills in this area to take the photos.

Newsletters are obvious venues for images; you can also link to an interesting Flip-style video, if that medium resonates with your target audience. A blog needs visuals, as does your website. Don’t shy away from video; it is an effective medium.

Using just images to tell the story is another good way to attract attention. Finding five to seven good photos and letting them tell the story is a compelling way to communicate.

Depending on what news you are sharing, a photo or link to a video, as a component of your news release or pitch to a specific journalist, is also a good thing. We often send out photo releases – a great image with two or three sentences explaining the context. Media love great visuals.

As communicators, we often see ourselves as writers, editors, internal communicators, media relations specialists, corporate communicators and storytellers. At our PR agency, we have shifted that perception. We see ourselves as strategic advisors and storytellers, because at the heart of it all that’s what we do. And that includes a big focus on telling the story through images.

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A picture is worth a thousand words…

Images, photos, illustrations and visuals – they matter now and, the fact is, they mattered back in the “old days” too. When I worked for Maclean’s magazine, standing over the light table going through images was an important part of the storytelling process. You didn’t just hand that off to a photo editor or photographer (no matter how smart or talented that person was). You were involved because you knew that a great photo drew people in to the story; that it communicated what you were trying to share in a different way.  And today, some of our strongest assets at our PR agency are our relationships with exceptionally talented (and reasonably priced) photographers, illustrators and videographers. These creative professionals are an important part of our AHA crew.

These days, images are crucial to telling the story of your organization. Not only do they tell the story in a different way, they help you to humanize your organization, show behind the scenes and engage with your community in a different way. And, if you embrace this approach, your community will use images to communicate with you. It really is a two-way street. User-generated content is incredibly informative and valuable.

On Wednesday, I will talk a little bit about the different ways you can incorporate images (still and video) into your communications initiatives, including when it’s important to bring in the professional photographer, illustrator or videographer.

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