Brand Journalism

How can your organization’s stories be told?

Media relations is an important component of what we do here at our Vancouver PR agency. We love developing newsworthy media pitches and connecting with journalists. It’s exciting, interesting and fun. And it’s more challenging than ever to grab the media’s attention – even with a great story pitch.

The world of journalism has changed. There are fewer resources being put towards the types of stories that we, as PR professionals, pitch to media. Good stories aren’t picked up because of lack of space, airtime and journalists to cover them. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had a conversation with one of our media contacts and they say: “I love this story, but we don’t have the resources available.” I have to admit, there are days when it is a little heartbreaking. However, there is a silver lining to this shift.

Organizations can tell their own stories in a compelling, authentic and engaging editorial style. Your stakeholders are out there looking for information about your product, services and brand, and you have the opportunity to provide it to them through your website, your blog, social media and other online sites, videos (and they don’t have to be expensive, slick corporate videos – flip style or editorial style videos can be great and far more reasonable than you may expect), articles, white papers, etc.

We are quite thoughtful about our media pitches. We go through the same process of gathering information that I learned at Maclean’s magazine. We take our media pitches very seriously and our high success rate at getting pick up in media outlets reflects the quality of our work in this area. Although sometimes, there just aren’t the resources available for a media outlet to cover the story. That’s when we take the media pitch and use it to build out an article, a broadcast segment, or a series of blog posts that we share via social media networking sites. This means that if a good pitch doesn’t get picked up, it still has huge value. And I have to say, sometimes the results that we get from the organization producing their own content is more relevant than if it had been covered by traditional media.

How could you tell the stories about your organization? Would it be by using video? A blog? An editorial style article? There are huge opportunities in this area. It’s very exciting for PR agencies like ours, that have writing and storytelling skills, and for our clients.

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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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At AHA, we understand the value of using video in communication initiatives. Some of the work we do in brand journalism has video segments as the central communication tool.

One of the challenges that we face is finding the balance between what the client wants to say and what the viewer really wants to see. And sometimes that is harder to do than it should be.

We have had some passionate discussions with clients about the content and length of their videos over this. (For the record, I believe strongly in passionate discussion – even disagreement. As long as it is respectful and focuses on the topic and not on the people, a discussion where not everyone agrees can be of huge value. Done well, it can create an exceptional end product or result.) It can be hard to get someone to move away from what they want to tell and focus on the other side – what people want to hear, how they want to hear it and when they want to hear it.

In working with clients, one of our responsibilities is to provide a strategic perspective. To me, this means that I must represent the perspective of the community, the audience and/or the stakeholder group during the planning, creative and implementation stages of the process.

During planning sessions, I often ask (respectfully, of course): “Why does that matter to this audience? Who will care about that point? Does that need to be included? Does that need to be said in that way?”

For the most part, at AHA we’re not big fans of overly produced, corporate style videos. It always depends on the client’s objectives, of course, but in all of the research we have done, for all of the videos we have made (as AHA and in our prior lives before we found the happiness of AHA), time and time again it comes back to creating compelling content that the target market relates to. That doesn’t mean you don’t need good production value; it does mean that you need to understand how to tell a story that is relevant to the person you are telling it to.

Too often, video becomes overwhelmed with corporate speak, too many messages and even becomes embroiled in the politics of an organization. (If VP Smith is in the video, we have to include VP Jones. If we film at the East Office, we have to also film at the West Office. And the list goes on.) This dilutes the value of the video and moves you away from the objective – to create relevant, compelling content that connects you to the viewer.


When you are producing video for your organization, it’s crucial to take the focus off what you want to say and focus on what your community wants to hear from you.

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At AHA, we’ve known about the value of video for quite some time. Our AHA Fast Take Fridays are popular and have been successful in opening doors to many new opportunities for us. A great deal of the brand journalism work that we do has video components. And, of course, many of our clients have embraced video and make regular and powerful use of it.

Video allows you to tell a story using words and visuals. It is a highly popular medium and it can be quite budget-friendly. People make a different emotional connection with video than they do with an article or other written information. It can be a straightforward message from the CEO or president or a fun lip dub-style video that showcases the people behind the scenes at your organization.

There is a human quality to video that makes us feel like it is more personal and less corporate. You can see the person and what’s going on with their emotions; you get a feeling from their body language and from their tone and style. It is a very effective medium.

Having said all that, it has to be done well. And I am not just talking about production values – a quick Flip-style video done well can create strong results (in the right context). I am talking about the content.

We had a client many years ago that wanted to try video, but they had real challenges in getting it right. I think one of the first mistakes was that they created a committee to provide input on the video creative. Unfortunately, there were a lot of individuals on the committee who wanted to focus on creating a Hollywood movie rather than an internal video and there was a huge shift from how this video was initially planned to how it ended up.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that being inclusive is a good idea and we have client committees that provide incredibly valuable ideas and input in many cases. In this case, however, the professionally developed video idea morphed into something very different. Several people revised the creative to a point where it was almost unrecognizable and the message was getting lost. Unfortunately, many of the people on the committee didn’t fulfill their role of providing feedback and input. There were strong suggestions for dream sequences, more people in the video than should have been in it (to keep it short and entertaining) and more locations than were reasonable given the budget and timeline. When we put forward the concerns and challenges, it became evident that the now smaller committee was committed to their concept. We had lost them – and they had lost the original objective. They also weren’t willing to listen to the professional video producer and our crew.

This video didn’t get traction. It was too long, there were too many people in it, too many locations and the storyline got skewed because of trying to be too inclusive. With all the people and locations, this should have been a different type of video (a lip dub or a flash mob), not one with a linear storyline. But the committee was… well… committed to their concept and wouldn’t consider a revision to the approach.

At the start of the project, it’s really important to outline what you want to achieve with your video. What message are you trying to get across? What do you want to communicate and how will you do that? Does the creative concept meet the communications strategy? How long is your video? (With few exceptions, if it is longer than three minutes, you will lose a large part of your audience.)

It’s important to listen to the people you hire to work with you on the video. They know what they are doing; they have an in-depth understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the medium. If there is something you want to do, talk to them about the best way to do it. It should be a partnership. I always worry if the client wants control of the entire creative concept and how it could be produced.

Video is a great medium – if it is done right and the client-agency team is truly a partnership.

I came across an interesting piece on with tips on how to produce a good video. It’s worth a read.

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There is an excellent post on the PR Channel blog about how to effectively use video in public relations. More and more at AHA, we are making use of video as a communications tool for our clients. It is one of the reasons that we wanted to have a video producer as a part of the crew. (And we were lucky to get Scott to join us, he’s exceptional.)

Five years ago creating a video was a huge deal. It took big budgets, a great deal of planning and the video came out looking very corporate and slick. Today, no one wants that. For video today, while production value is still very important, it’s not about the slick look. It’s about good lighting, sound and the story.

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