With the rise of company blogs and tweeting CEOs, a traditional press release can seem awfully stale. Many PR practitioners are responding to this by creating content themselves, either in-house at brands or on behalf of clients — using client resources such as data or niche industry expertise to engage directly with users and customers whether they’re spreading insights or announcing news. It often ends up looking a lot like journalism.
Yet PR executive Elinor Mills says creating content for brands is still quite different than being a journalist — which she was, for 22 years. Both roles require a knack for wordsmithing, but even while the necessary skills to succeed are similar, the people who fit best into each role are often very different. The Strategist spoke with Mills, now Director of Content and Media Strategy at PR firm Bateman Group, about what drew her to this content role and what the changes in journalism looks like from both sides.
You’ve been at Bateman for almost a year. What is different about working in PR? How is it working with journalists?
It’s quite a change. I went from working very independently as a journalist — coming in, figuring out what stories to write, discussing them with an editor and maybe another reporter, making calls — but it’s all by myself at my desk. It was really: report, write, edit, move on to the next story.
Now, I’m in an environment where I’m working much more closely with my colleagues and on team, working with clients and thinking more strategically about messaging and what kind of content can we help clients create. It’s sort of stepping back and up in certain ways, thinking about it from a broader level rather than just so focused on the story I’m working on on deadline today.
As I like to say, I’m stretching my brain in different ways at this new job, and I like that — thinking more holistically about content being news or data or reports, indexes, infographics, cartoons — whatever works for that piece of content and for that client.
What type of brands are looking to do content, and what goals to brands have with content?
Content encompasses so many different types of information and nuggets that people come across online, so it depends on the client. Our roster includes mostly technology startups. A lot of startups understand the power of social media and then others don’t — they want to be focused on ROI and lead generation, and appealing to the IT guys or the technology decision makers within companies. They might think, what am I gonna get out of this, generating this content, so one of our challenges is to help clients see that there is a return on investment from non-traditional types of content.
Press releases are yesterday. Google changed the industry in that way; instead of press releases they do blog posts.
Press releases are yesterday. Google changed the industry in that way; instead of press releases they do blog posts and those filter out, and if you’re a journalist and you’re paying attention you’ll see it and you have a news story. Or they would call select journalists to tell them, “Look, we just put this blog post out or we’re going to put this blog post out, you might find it newsworthy.”
But PR companies still do [press releases] because they do get picked up and they get good SEO, and its just another way to sort of distribute information. What we like to do is work with clients and say, “OK, you’ve got this news, or this business or this service or this product, what thoughts do you have that we can share — about the industry that we can do a thought leadership bylined article, or what kind of content or data are you creating, that we can get news stories out of or create an index that will generate stories and analysis on trends in the industry.”
[Companies] want to increase their visibility. They want to get coverage about them, primarily. But then they want to be a part of the discussion and be thought of as resources for journalists. They want to be associated with interesting trends and interesting topics that are being covered in the news. So anything we can do to help them showcase the experts they have in their company, the products they have that solve problems or the data they have that highlights or illuminates interesting things that are going on that readers and journalists are interested in.
You mentioned the switch from press releases to blog posts — was this something you noticed while you were still a journalist?
When I was [a journalist] at CNET, Google really spurred that change, or at least were an early surfer riding that wave. They didn’t want to do things traditionally, they realized that with RSS feeds and social media and people tweeting things and using Google+, hopefully, that they can get their word out to media and influencers in ways that are much more interesting and compelling than just sending out a press release. They really were early adopters of that technique and others are following.
PR is increasingly content and good writing.
When did your PR firm decide that it needed to dedicate someone to content, and what drove this decision? Was this a new role?
It was a new role created for me, but they saw the writing on the wall — that it’s about content. PR is increasingly content and good writing. So they were wanting to expand this part of their business.
A former editor of mine from IDG who had been working with them [as a contractor] knew I was interested in getting out of journalism and had [a case of] burnout, and wanted to try something new.
That’s how we made the connection. I had worked with [Bateman] as a PR firm for security companies — I knew their reputation, I liked them, and the impression I had was very good.
If you were just starting your career now, would you jump into a branded content role, or would you still want to start with journalism?
For me, news was an itch that had to be scratched. I really loved news, I loved being in journalism and getting the scoop, interviewing people and finding out what happened here. Whether it was general news I did for the Associated Press when there was a big fire in Providence, R.I. or a riot in Boston — journalists feed on that thrill. Something’s happening now, find out what it is and know about it before everyone else, and then write about it. I found that thrilling.
Being on top of a story like that, and interviewing people and learning new things from people was a big part of it too. I got to do that for 22 years and that satiated me.
I would say that’s a different drive than just creating content and writing. Now, what I do is severely less reporting and I miss that, actually — calling people up and just asking them questions because I’m curious and I want to know and hear what they say.
Now, I’m working with ideas and thinking high-level about industries and mobile and security and things like that, that don’t have an immediate payoff in an article that gets posted to a website today.
It’s more crafting words and dealing with ideas, being a part of the discussion and communicating that way. So there is a big difference, it depends what drives you as a person and a journalist and a writer. Some people are really more wordsmiths and some people are more foot-to-the-pavement reporting, get the news now.
Any content pet peeves?
I would have to say jargon — and one in particular is, “utilize.” I hate that word. It pops up everywhere, even in newsrooms, and I just don’t like it. I think people need to write in plain English. Use simple terms and make it understandable for a broader audience. So I think in technology circles that is a big challenge.