Brands

Bizarro Planet: How I Overcame Corporate Constraints and Found a Way to Tell Great Brand Stories

Like most journalists, I climbed the ladder working for established media companies. When I switched teams and tried to build a newsroom for a corporate client, it was a rude awakening.

Whether I was chasing my own stories or directing the efforts of others, traditional media companies always guaranteed a few constants:

1. There was a well-defined church–state division that kept our content insulated from the direct influence of the business side.

2. Everyone from analysts to corporate PR to private citizens were generally eager to speak to my reporters. At worst, PR professionals were compelled to offer a grudging “no comment” when we followed up on our scoops.

3. If a source revealed more in an interview that s/he intended, the quote was fair game. I did my best to avoid running things that could get a source into serious trouble, but it came down to our discretion once the words were on the record.

4. Our legal teams were focused on free-speech rights, and we could generally work out something that let our coverage run.

Bottom line: The content makers had excellent control of the information coming in and the content flowing out.

That status quo changed quickly for me when I first took over a corporate-content operation for a company that provided job listings to senior professionals. Don’t get me wrong: Our CEO was hungry for substantial stories that took the employment concerns of our customers seriously and delivered excellent insights. But creating stories in a brand newsroom is simply different—and more challenging—than in a traditional media company.

This wasn’t totally obvious at first. I was asked to set up a newsroom like others I’d created before. The only difference was that instead of enterprise technology or new cars or fashion, the beat would be our community of six-figure job-seekers—highly trained people with insights into their respective industries and markets. In fact, we explicitly agreed that the news section would focus on their professional aspirations and concerns, not on pitching the product.

Nevertheless, there were some fundamental truths that made the acquisition and dissemination of content much trickier this time around:

1. The whole site was dedicated to the business goals of the company—getting people to upgrade to its services. Our content played a role in acquiring, retaining, and converting readers into subscribers, but we weren’t just judging our success on audience metrics—business goals mattered too.

2. Analysts were likely to consider my reporters to be competition for the attention of readers seeking paid expertise. Other companies’ PR teams were generally concerned about associating their clients with a third-party product, and individual sources often concluded we were asking for a product endorsement. (After all, the company also featured its users in promotional spots, marketing collateral, and even a TV campaign.)

3. Our mission to report on our own customers’ real-world challenges and insights meant handling them more carefully than a publication might treat a traditional source. A company that wants to keep its customers isn’t inclined to hang them out to dry if they say something impolitic in an interview.

4. Our legal department legitimately categorized our efforts as marketing, which meant we needed to secure intimidating written releases from all our sources, avoid making reference to any other companies’ trademarks, and generally get approval for anything that might compromise our company’s IP.

Bottom line: Even with support from the top of the org chart, sourcing stories outside traditional media was a much dicier proposition—from securing the sources to obtaining permission to use them.

So what’s a writer/editor to do? Is corporate content fundamentally different from traditional reporting? And what tactics can you use to get the story within corporate constraints?

For me, getting a meaningful content operation up and running started with understanding corporate sensitivities and articulating the qualities of successful content. Both meant using skills that set my small team apart from the rest of the company.

Setting guardrails and unblocking the publishing road

First, I applied my journalistic skills to interview the company itself. I needed to understand the risks legal and compliance wanted to avoid, the language marketing and support wanted to use when catering to customers, and the intellectual property the business truly needed to safeguard.

There was a lot to learn. The content we proposed to create carried some genuine risk for the company. We fell under the category of corporate marketing, not protected speech, and the legal department was ethically bound to minimize the company’s exposure via legal releases, compliance reviews, and an approval chain that included representatives of the brand and business.

At the same time, once I’d discussed those guardrails with each department, I was able to make the barriers less formidable. Once I’d discussed with the chief counsel her concerns about legal exposure and explained our need for interview subjects, for example, she was able to streamline the company’s intimidating release form into something much shorter and friendlier—making it much easier for sources to understand what we wanted and feel comfortable signing it.

Spreading the content marketing love

At the same time, I had to articulate a different way of looking at the company’s customers: as an audience whose priorities and concerns could be served by content. Our content team scheduled an initial goodwill tour with sales, customer service, and business intelligence (among others) to explain our role and how they could help us to help them.

For instance, the customer-support team was staffed with young, bright, dedicated people who really wanted to help the people on the other end of the phone or chat window. But when questions strayed beyond technical or billing issues into subjects like age discrimination or switching industries, the conversation moved far beyond what the support team could answer with authority.

We explained that those questions were exactly the sorts of subjects content could address; give us your knottiest queries, we said, and we’d create stories to unravel them. The content team gained a rich source of story ideas, and the support team got a fast-growing reference library of content they could share with customers calling about those issues.

Driving back to business results

In time, the success of our content extended beyond informing visitors and supporting other departments; it even formed the basis for some new lines of business.

Specifically, the more we learned about the job search, the more consistency we identified and explained as a coherent methodology for success. The company in turn was able to turn that process into a book and a career-coaching curriculum, all driven by the material we’d gleaned from internal and external sources.

The lesson for content professionals: In a corporate setting, the storyteller is bringing something new and desirable to the table. If you’re smart about it, you’ll turn your journalistic skills to understanding the key players in the decision chain and making your narrative essential to the business.

There will always be strings attached to corporate content, but they needn’t immobilize your creativity.

Image by Markus Spiske
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