I spoke last night at a CMO Club dinner in Boston on the topic of Corporate Journalism. (Many thanks to Pete Krainik for the opportunity.) I’ve written about some of this before, but here’s the gist of what I talked about:
In early 2002, I was working at McKinsey in a newly formed internal communications group called Knowledge Services. The group formed to develop new methods to capture the intellectual capital the consultants were creating through their client work.
Our first task was cleaning up an internal document repository called PDNet, which contained more than 11,000 documents, most of them PowerPoint decks that were relevant only to the people who wrote them. The problem? The documents had no context, just a bunch of bullet points and factoids. Without the consultant to provide the story around the slides, their usefulness to anyone beyond the authors was limited.
Our group was asked to audit those documents, weed out the outdated, irrelevant and redundant ones, and add context to the rest.
For the latter task, we came up with a basic approach: get the authors on the phone, get them to talk through the slides, and ask them a few questions to fill in any holes. We then transcribed the conversations, edited them, and appended the text to the slides. Instant context. The documents were now much more valuable to new associates coming on board, or anyone else who needed to get up to speed quickly on a topic.
An interesting thing happened during these calls. The consultants we interviewed about documents they wrote 3 or 4 or 5 years ago would often respond, “I’m happy to talk to you about this document, but what we should really be talking about is the current work I’m doing with X client.” We had tapped into a vein of intellectual capital that hadn’t been mined – it was bouncing around inside the consultant’s heads or on their hard drives, and they hadn’t had time to develop it further to make it sharable.
This led us to create a new service line: creating articles and white papers that the consultants could share directly with clients or pitch to external publications. It was basically the same process as described above: We would interview the consultants, have them walk through whatever supporting PowerPoint deck they had cobbled together, ask a few clarifying questions, do some additional research, and deliver back to them a first draft of a paper.
The consultants loved it, because the process was easy for them – spend an hour on the phone with an editor, then review/revise two or three drafts until the paper was client-ready. It was a very efficient way to capture and share the firm’s learnings and enhance McKinsey’s already impressive thought leadership on key topics.
This was the beginning of what I and former colleague David Churbuck dubbed “corporate journalism.” We didn’t invent the phrase, but we glommed onto it as a way to explain to people how our approach was different from traditional mar-comm.
(The phrase may have been coined in a book called “Beyond Spin: The Power of Strategic Corporate Journalism,” by Markos Kounalakis, Drew Banks and Kim Daus in (2000). More recently, consultant David Meerman Scott applied many of the principles of corporate journalism in his book, “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” which talks about new methods for marketers who now have the power of digital media to communicate directly with their target audience.
In a broad sense, “corporate journalism” means applying journalism skills –writing, editing, objectivity, interviewing, research, and a good bullshit detector – to marketing communications.
Corporate journalism is an effective method for uncovering hidden pockets of knowledge within your organization. It can be used to capture the expertise of your subject matter experts – from the CEO down to the front-line worker – and publish that information in ways that better position your company as a trusted resource in your market or industry.
There are three main benefits to this approach.
1. Influence – aka thought leadership. By tapping into the knowledge across your entire organization (not just from your executives), you can develop fresh insights about your company, your products, your customers, and the industry you serve. You can then package this information in a way that establishes you as an expert in your market space.
2. Credibility. The concept of corporate journalism also means unleashing journalists inside your company to ferret out the trouble spots. In this time of transparency and authenticity, corporate journalism means presenting the bad with the good. Otherwise people will just view it as more spin.
I’m not talking necessarily about taking all of this information public, but you’d be well served to uncover pockets of discontent among employees or customers before someone else blogs or tweets about it.
Being open and honest in your communications will build trust among your customers or prospects.
3. Reach. If you create content that is authentic and believable, and you openly share that content with your community, good things will happen:
- Others will link to it.
- They will comment on it.
- They will share it with friends or colleagues.
As a result, your sphere of influence will expand. Your website will become a destination. You can actually host a conversation instead of (or in addition to) chasing it around the blogosphere.
You will give customers, prospects, or any other constituent a reason to come to your site, and a reason to return.
What makes for compelling content?
There’s no real rocket science here. It has to be:
For all of your target groups.
The accessibility piece is key, and often overlooked. It’s often hard to find useful information on a corporate website. That’s why more marketers need to treat their corporate site as a living, breathing media site – lead with your best/most timely content, offer user-oriented navigation, and make it all searchable, sharable, and ratable.
What kind of content can you create?
The good thing about capturing the insights of employees and executives across your company is that it can be packaged and distributed in many ways. In the early days of digital media we called it “skinning the pig” – how many ways can you package a single source of content? For example, from one on-camera interview with a subject matter expert, you can create a video or podcast that can be published on your site. You can also use the transcripts as the basis for:
- White papers
- Website copy
- Articles for external placement
You can then promote and link to those assets via:
- Blog posts
- Twitter tweets
- Facebook groups
- Social networks specific to your industry
That’s a pretty broad set of assets from a single source of content. And it’s a much better approach than sending out press releases and hoping that someone writes a story about you. (A quick aside – journalists generally don’t read press releases – and just because the search engines pick them up doesn’t mean anyone else reads them either.)
This combination of corporate journalism and social media can be a powerful platform for exchanging ideas and information, across your company (internally) and outside your organization and with partners, suppliers, customers.
Corporate Journalism in Practice
I just wrapped up an engagement with Manpower, the global employment services agency. Their corporate website is about as pedestrian as it gets – lots of traditional marketing copy, some press releases, a few white papers or research reports. Nothing inherently current, and nothing remotely compelling to the thousands of temps and contract workers that the company places with clients.
Manpower’s business is fueled by corporate clients who hire Manpower to fill gaps in its workforce, either temporarily or full time; relationships with the individual workers are mostly transactional (give us your resume, we’ll match you with an employee). But the company decided it needed a better connection to these job candidates. Two years ago, it commissioned a new web property that would serve as a career management resource for professionals, specifically those in IT, engineering and finance – a key focus for future business growth.
I was brought in as part of a team of consultants with Truman Company to help Manpower develop the content strategy for the new site.
Our first step was to audit their existing content. We asked the marketing team for their content; they gave us white papers and press releases. They weren’t thinking about content the same way as we did – so we cast a wider net to gather any material that drove their business – executive presentations, the reference guides given to job candidates at local branches, sales support materials, and so on. They had a boatload of useful information about interviewing skills, resume preparation, local job markets, workplace diversity issues, etc., but they had never published most of this material anywhere electronically.
The next step was to re-cast this content and make it Web-ready and suitable for the target audience.
Next, we recruited a group of internal subject matter experts – career counselers, diversity experts, HR professionals – to blog for the new site.
We also filmed corporate executives on the topic of career management, and posted the videos on the site.
We also conducted formal and informal interviews with a broad range of internal stakeholders to identify the top-of-mind issues from their dealings with clients and job candidates – and turned those insights into articles or online discussion forum topics.
The site, called MyPath, is currently in public beta. There are still plenty of kinks to work out, but this site represents a HUGE cultural shift for Manpower. They are embracing the concept of engaging directly with a core target audience. They are attempting to shift their business model on the fly to serve them well into the future. And they’re doing it by embracing the fact that they’re now a media company that can create compelling content to engage directly with the people who use their services.
The last example comes from the public sector and is referenced here.
Any marketer can learn from these examples. 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.
It’s not easy. It often requires a culture change – specifically, how introspective are you willing to be? How much of the onion are you willing to peel back to find out how people really feel about your company and its products or services? And how much of that knowledge are you willing to openly share with your constituents?
Corporate journalism is a great way to:
- take the pulse of your target audience,
- develop insights that can be packaged and served back to the community,
- engage and build credibility with the customers and prospects who will help your business grow well into the future.
The good news: There’s no shortage of out-of-work (or soon to be unemployed) journalists who have the skills to assist any marketer heading down this path.