Welcome to the latest post in our Contently Labs series, where we answer common questions we hear from current or prospective brand publishers. Today’s question: “How do you ease the tension between journalists and marketers in brand newsrooms?”
Ken Kaplan, the managing editor of iQ by Intel, has long had one foot in journalism and the other in marketing. He recalls tensions between the two worlds dating back to his PR days with an NBC affiliate station.
“If we were going to show a product, we’d go to the journalist and we’d have bullet points about the product and how it worked, and then they’d go on air and describe it in their own way,” he recalls. “For the most part, it was right on. It was the way you’d tell your husband or friend about it.”
But it did not please everyone. Those on the marketing side were often upset that the product number or specific features weren’t mentioned on air, making the whole segment a waste. Of course, the journalist thought otherwise.
“Really, if the product number had been in the report, that would have been a waste,” Kaplan says. “People would have been unplugged. It’s about how tell a good story that is important to readers.”
Today, that same tension between journalists and marketers is emerging in a new way as brand newsrooms become the norm across the country.
“For journalists going into content marketing, the first and probably biggest hurdle is the traditional line in the sand of sales and editorial,” explains Rob Yoegel, VP of marketing at Gaggle, and former content marketing director at Monetate. “Any brand journalist who doesn’t understand the value of a sales team is in trouble.”
And that’s just the first point of tension. Journalists focus on storytelling, fact checking, and style; marketers care far less about Oxford commas than reaching their business goals. Journalists tend to be realists; marketers tend to be aspirational.
“They come from different worlds,” says Brendan Cournoyer, former journalist and director of content marketing at Brainshark. “No matter what, it’s an adjustment, and there can be some tension.”
How do journalists and marketers ease those tensions to create a high-functioning brand newsroom? It’s not easy, and it takes some compromise from everyone on the team.
The journalists’ job
Find the story
Kaplan believes that in order for journalists and marketers to form a symbiotic relationship, they first need to come to an agreement on what storytelling means. And that is where journalists have to take the lead.
“You can clearly explain what makes a good story,” Kaplan says. “If I can tell them what I’m looking for, I find that some people just get it and give me everything I need.”
Be a team player
Though journalists might possess the storytelling expertise, that doesn’t make their word gospel in brand newsrooms.
“The writer typically thinks, ‘I know what I need to write about, because you’re paying me not to just write, but also to come up with story ideas,’” says Yoegel.
While great storytelling instincts matter, so do marketing goals. That means a reporter’s instincts have to be tempered with demands from SEO, social, content metrics, and sales goals.
“Then there are the customers,” adds Yoegel. “If the customers have a question about how to to dig a hole, and that keeps coming up again and again, you better write a story about how to dig a hole. It’s not sexy, but if my customers want it, I need to do it.”
If the customers have a question about how to to dig a hole, and that keeps coming up again and again, you better write a story about how to dig a hole.
Being part of a productive team also means that brand journalists must look beyond their byline. As Yoegel notes, developing an identity as a thought leader is important, but so is producing white papers, e-books, and other team projects on behalf of the brand.
“I’d be crazy to say it’s not important for them to be bylined,” he says. “But it’s not just about that person. It’s about the brand.”
Understand your job description
If they want the privileges of being on a good team, journalists must understand that, while what they do for brands is similar to what they did for a media outlet, their job description has fundamentally changed.
“This is the job,” says Cournoyer. “You need to embrace the goals and purposes of the job. It’s not like quality and integrity go out the door, but you’re going to have conversations that you didn’t have before. Requests are going to be different. Be prepared for it and get used to it.”
After all, Yoegel notes, brand publishing may be a bit of a change for journalists, but thanks to staff cuts in traditional media jobs, it should be a welcome one—particularly for subject-matter experts.
“It’s why people like me have jobs now,” Cournoyer says. “And a job is a job. If someone wants to hold tightly to being a traditional journalist, they can do that in traditional journalism.”
Musts for marketers
Hire the right people
For marketers, creating a great brand newsroom means hiring the right kind of writers.
“In a content marketing role, you’re looking for someone with an editorial background rather than a pound-the-pavement writer,” says Cournoyer. “They have a bigger view beyond writing, like editorial calendars, and they have more experience with the sales side of things.”
Let journalists be journalists
Marketers typically have a fairly direct message they want to deliver to a specific audience. When those messages come from journalists, however, the delivery changes.
“Imagine you’re at an event and people are talking about certain topics,” Kaplan says. “Journalists can make your thing relevant to that conversation. Storytelling is fitting in with what people are already saying, and then you add your point of view in there.”
That is a subtle art, and marketers must trust journalists to pull off.
Journalists also know the importance of building their individual identity as a subject expert. And just as those journalists need to adapt to being a part of the team, marketers need to adapt to journalists being the public face of their team.
People aren’t buying the company anymore. They’re buying the expertise and trust and thought leadership.
“You have to let the writer write,” Yoegel says. “You have to allow them to have their own opinion and allow them to be not just a brand, but also a person. People aren’t buying the company anymore. They’re buying the expertise and trust and thought leadership.”
Provide constructive feedback
Even in the best of brand newsrooms, the nitty-gritty of each project still provides plenty of opportunities for tension to arise. Kaplan said marketers can develop positive working relationships with journalists by simply embracing their assistance and expertise.
For example, when he was just starting out as a publicist at KRON-TV, Kaplan brought his press releases to one particular journalist to review. Even if it was all wrong, the feedback he received always moved the press release forward.
“The reporter would take his pencil out and add arrows and start moving things,” Kaplan says. “As much as he ripped what I wrote apart, he took a few minutes, and we’d get on the same page. That’s the kind of stuff we want to help our marketers do.”
Easing the tension in brand newsrooms long-term takes commitment from both journalists and marketers who, after all, are both important ingredients in the same recipe.
The magic happens when you find a way to make them work together.
“You can appreciate their distinct differences, and it’s important to not forget those,” Kaplan says. “But the magic happens when you find a way to make them work together.”
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