Corporate Journalism in the Public Sector

I’ve written from time to time about corporate journalism – the practice of applying traditional journalistic skills (investigating, interviewing, writing, editing) to create more authentic marketing communications, either for internal or external use. There are many flavors of corporate journalism; it can even be found in the in the public sector.

Last week the NY Times reported on a town in Vermont called Starksboro, whose leaders were looking to find a better way to get input from residents on upcoming revisions to the town plan. Most towns convene a series of planning committee meetings that at best a handful of residents attend (usually to complain about something). Starksboro took a different tack: it commissioned students at nearby Middlebury College to interview residents about their vision for the town’s future.

The concept is simple: talk to people about what they do and what they care about, transcribe the interviews, and look for common themes. From the article:

“The key is to project beyond immediate controversies over applications for subdivisions and to say, ‘Let’s envision the future that we would love to have,’ ” said Prof. John Elder of Middlebury, “at which point there is considerable agreement.”

The students … have spent the semester attending town dinners, exploring farms and forest, and visiting dozens of homes.

The objective in Starksboro is to develop a much more accurate picture of the community:

In their work, the students have seen certain themes emerge: Starksboro residents raise their children to leave. Few go to town meetings or interact with people outside their own sections of town. While newcomers perceive a strong sense of community, longtime residents say it pales compared with that of the past.

Any marketer can learn from this exercise. There’s inherent value in talking with your constituents – be they internal employees or external customers or prospects – to find out what they really think about a topic, an issue, a brand, a strategy. The output – interview transcripts, audio and/or video clips – is invaluable for anyone trying to take the pulse of a particular group. It can be used to inform decision-making and in some cases can also be packaged and served back to the community.

Sure beats the usual marketing-driven “thought leadership” that comes out of the executive suite.



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