Brands

How the General Mills Newsroom Became an Earned Media Machine

When General Mills recently announced the launch of a beer that would carry the Wheaties name, it wasn’t going to be marketed as a cornerstone of the Breakfast of Champions. Instead, the multinational food manufacturer announced HefeWheaties, made by Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis, with a brand-new campaign full of tried-and-true PR tactics like paid advertising, media outreach, and employee communications.

But more than 90 years after Wheaties produced its first batch of cereal, General Mills also had another tool to work with: the company’s blog, A Taste of General Mills.

Since its launch in 2011, the Taste blog has become a crucial piece of the marketing efforts at General Mills—from helping the company break big news to highlighting its emphasis on corporate sustainability.

“We wanted to use the blog to tell the stories we wanted to tell—the ones the media wasn’t picking up on or that we wanted to give some attention to,” said Kevin Hunt, who founded the blog and acts as GM’s corporate social media manager. “Our team looked at it as a way to keep consumers and journalists up to speed on what’s going on across General Mills. In many instances, Taste gives journalists a reason to pick up the phone and call us.”

In the case of the new HefeWheaties beer, Hunt published an article on the blog about the product on August 12. Within a day, it had already led to placements in national media outlets like NPR, Fortune, and NBC News.

With a commitment to content, General Mills is hoping its publishing efforts will breathe new life into a company that was founded all the way back in 1866.

The newsroom

Given Hunt’s background as a TV news executive producer—he spent time at KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn., and a number of other mainstream media outlets earlier in his career—it’s no surprise that he runs the Taste blog like a traditional newsroom.

With the help of social media specialist Ashley Halladay and his colleagues on the company’s global communications team, Hunt has changed the press-release mentality that used to be commonplace at brands. The team starts each week with a planning meeting where everyone is expected to bring ideas that spur discussions.

“Those weekly planning sessions feel much like a newsroom environment,” Hunt said. “Every single person on our team has a beat such as corporate responsibility, employee relations, [and] innovation, much like a reporter, and they’re expected to pitch ideas in those planning sessions.”

Hunt and Grant Moos, manager of employee communications, also invite other key members from the organization to those meetings, including employees from human resources and investor relations who can speak to topics that wouldn’t otherwise be on the editorial radar.

Since one of the key goals of the Taste blog is to drive external media coverage, the newsroom philosophy has helped General Mills bridge the gap between typical branded content and strict reporting. Over the last four years, blog posts have led directly to a number of high-profile placements, including a post that led to a story in The New York Times.

“We published a post a few months earlier that featured a young inventor and his work with our Nature Valley granola bar team,” Hunt said. “Two months later, a Times reporter calls, and boom, we have a story in one of the largest media outlets in the country talking about this great story of a partnership behind one of our innovations.”

With the publication’s recognition on the rise, brand managers now pitch the global communications team on a daily basis, which wasn’t necessarily the case when the blog went live four years ago. Back then, Hunt remembers doing road shows1 with brand teams to give them a feel for what the blog was all about and how they could leverage it, but very few people pitched ideas. However, once big-time media outlets started showing increased interest in the site, General Mills employees saw the PR potential.

“The brand managers started seeing media placements as a result of the blog posts they were pitching us. They started getting excited about that,” Hunt said. “That sparked momentum. Suddenly, I started hearing brand managers saying to each other, ‘Have you thought about pitching that idea to the Taste blog?’ That was really fun to see. And, as a result, we started seeing some repeat customers.”

Content scores

As soon as the company saw the value of internal content, Hunt’s biggest challenge shifted from not having enough interest to finding a way to handle a flood of pitches and requests. To have a more structured editorial infrastructure, he developed his own content score, a metric that takes into account pageviews, time spent, and social engagement to give the communications team a clear, simple picture of what topics and stories performs best.

Last month’s post about HefeWheaties, for instance, scored seven times higher than all other content in August—and 10 times better than the average content score for all posts ever published on Taste.

The scores may actually be most useful when it comes to making judgment calls on what content not to produce. When internal marketing partners asked the communications team to highlight certain recipes, Hunt turned them down due to the poor historical performance of other recipe posts. Instead, he suggested promoting them on GM’s social accounts.

Hunt got the idea to create his own formula2 after chatting with social media managers from Coca-Cola a couple years ago about how they evaluate their content. Besides having an impact on ideation, that data also gets used in reports to management and brand teams.

“The content score really helps us prioritize when internal partners are pitching us a type of story that we suspect won’t be highly viewed or shared, based on historical data,” Hunt explained. “It’s been an invaluable guidepost as we plan out our content and how choose to spend our content creation time, to get the most out of all the hours we put into writing and gathering the assets for each post.”

G bloggers

The term “G blogger” is a badge of honor across General Mills these days. Just ask any of the company’s 130-plus employees who have written for the blog since its inception.

In fact, these “G bloggers” have been a critical element to Taste’s success. They come from every level of the organization—from Jerry Lynch, GM’s chief sustainability officer, to Susan Pitt, a brand manager for Yoplait. Since the Taste blog rarely uses freelancers, if it weren’t for these G bloggers, Taste might not exist today.

When an employee suggests a topic for a new blog post, Hunt usually responds with one important question: “Would you be interested in writing the story?” Considering that the communications team can’t cover every event, product launch, or story related to General Mills, the G bloggers provide that necessary manpower. They research and write posts, capture photos, and, in some cases, even provide video.

“Some employees blog because there’s that allure of seeing your name in print,” Hunt said. “Others blog because they’re simply looking for a way to flex that writing muscle—something they may not get to do in their day job.”

A Lasting legacy

If there’s one key lesson Hunt has learned over the last few years, it’s that people love to hear when General Mills revives old products. Case in point: The post announcing the return of French Toast Crunch has the best content score of any post on the Taste blog—170x as many views as the average article.

As Hunt has gotten smarter about managing the content program, results have skyrocketed. The Taste blog has seen a 270 percent increase in annual traffic from 2011 through 2014 and a 95 percent bump in social sharing from 2013 to 2014.

To keep that progress going strong, the site has started to focus more on multimedia, adding behind-the-scenes videos to posts and even launching A Taste of General Mills podcast. The podcast’s first episode highlights long-time employee Phil Zietlow, who helped create gluten-free Cheerios. An upcoming podcast will focus on the 50th birthday of the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Whatever the format, GM’s incredibly rich history of products—and the impact those products have had on popular culture—gives Hunt a robust source of ideas to draw from. From cereal to biscuits to even beer, it’s clear that whatever the product, content marketing at General Mills comes down to good taste.

  1. These are presentations describing the blog and how it could help the brands with PR.
  2. He declined to reveal the exact methodology.
Image by Brian A Jackson
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