Why (And How) Brands Should Build Newsrooms

For a magazine column last summer about the intersection of technology and publishing, I interviewed a number of smart thinkers about how brands should be self-organizing to create engaging, provoking, and ethical content (as opposed to inane social media filler). 

One of the interviews I conducted was with Neil Chase, former New York Times editor and SVP at Federated Media, now a content strategy consultant (and friend). He had a lot to say on the subject of content marketing — more than I could fit into my column — and his advice still resonates strongly. Here’s the conversation in its entirety:

Content Marketing

Neil Chase, Master Content Strategist 

What’s the point of building a “brand newsroom?”

Most businesses share — and have shared for centuries — the same basic goal: Build a quality relationship with current and potential customers.

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, that was a two-pronged challenge. You attracted people through various forms of advertising, getting their attention by purchasing a presence next to the material they were reading or watching or hearing or driving by. That business of advertising was a specialty best left to professional agencies.

Some businesses created their own media, but that wasn’t easy. The cost of making and distributing it was just way too high compared to the payoff.

Today, a business can create and distribute quality content that engages people, and do it much more easily. But creating content is a new skill for most companies, so it requires new capabilities and expertise. Building a brand newsroom gives the business control over its messaging and content — and the ability to create and distribute content quickly.

How should a brand newsroom be staffed? What are the essential roles?

The staffing will vary depending on the kind of company, but one key role is essential: Someone in charge. It can be a “chief content officer” or a “managing editor” or a head of communications, but there has to be someone with a strong understanding of three related but very different things:

• The brand’s goals, messages and products, and potential audiences

• The art of storytelling, whether from experience in journalism or communications or both

• The technology, tools and partners needed to produce and distribute content effectively

Depending on the goals and volume of work, that person might hire professional journalists — either on staff or freelance — to research, report, write and publish content. Along with photo and video and graphics professionals. And the technical help — again, sometimes in-house and sometimes with outside vendors or consultants — to make the publishing work well and efficiently.

Where should a brand newsroom ideally sit within a large organization? How much autonomy and/or interdependence should it have?

The brand newsroom must embrace and follow the company’s culture, but it also needs the ability to change that culture. To make a closed company more open. To make a company that’s nervous about publicity more comfortable with it. To help a company that operates in a regulatory environment able to do more than it thought possible before. To try new things, use new technology and break bad old habits.

So the brand newsroom needs to be connected to the top level of the organization. Perhaps it’s part of the office of the CMO. If it’s tied to one division or silo in the company, it won’t be able to work efficiently to serve the entire company. This is sometimes a major culture change, but it’s an important one.

What should a brand expect from an operating budget / resource allocation standpoint?

A brand newsroom can often pay for itself. The first step is to look for existing people or resources that might be moved. Perhaps a smart, innovative person working on one division’s marketing can be more effective with a companywide role. Perhaps the editorial and workflow software used in one corner of the corporation can be licensed for the whole company. One department’s photo library and another department’s library of content might be assets that are already owned and can be of use to far more departments.

As long as the key people are in place to run the operation and take responsibility, much of the rest of the staffing can be freelance and based on need or campaigns, to help with the costs.

The best-run operations fit into one of two financial models:

a) This is a branding expense, like every other branding expense we’ve ever encountered, but it’s one that can be more easily targeted and adjusted and measured, so it’s a very smart one.

b) This is a business unit with reasonable goals that translate to revenue. Those goals might be tied to lead generation or online transactions or increasing the sizes of social audiences or other metrics that a properly equipped storytelling team can reasonably expect to achieve.

What are the common hurdles to making a brand newsroom effective?

[There are two things]:

Silos. If a division expects support from corporate for its initiatives but instead senses that the effort is more companywide, they’ll be less likely to participate. So dedicate resources to helping that division make its own work better first, then find the synergies that bring the efforts together.

Dinosaurs. Companies with strict regulatory environments or old-fashioned security rules have those processes in place for a reason. They can’t be ignored or steamrolled; dinosaurs don’t roll over that easily. They have to be addressed by smart, creative, consultative people who go in and understand the regulatory or security issues, learn from the people behind those issues in respectful conversations, and come up with sound, innovative solutions.

What are the common pitfalls you’ve seen brands do with their newsrooms?

The big one is lack of support: Hire a smart journalist or content manager and say “Go be my brand newsroom.” Then give that person a badge with access to all floors of the building and wait for results. This person or team needs to be thoughtfully introduced into every corner of the company, one department or division at a time, with a clear explanation of the mission and goals and how this is going to benefit everyone. Nobody who thinks she’s running a great operation wants to see someone from corporate come in and change things.

Final thoughts?

Don’t think of brand journalism as an ad campaign or a short-term initiative. It’s a cultural change, one that will bring great benefits if you invest the planning and resources and from-the-top support to make it work.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.

Image by David Sim

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