Category Archives: PR

Corporate Journalism: When Marketing and Media Collide

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Our group was asked to audit those documents, weed out the outdated, irrelevant and redundant ones, and add context to the rest.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:

  • Informative
  • Timely
  • Relevant
  • Accessible

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:

  • Q&A’s
  • 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.

    ” … in a Down Economy”

    Trend stories are a journalist’s low-hanging fruit. The recession is a certified Big Event. Combine the two and you get this:

    Journalists aren’t the only trendspotters; PR flacks get caught up in the moment as well:

    How to Market in a Crisis

    How do marketers respond to an economic crisis of epic proportions? You have several options:

    Deny it. Pretend that you’ve done nothing wrong, and affirm that the implosion of your company was, in fact, part of your business strategy all along. From Goldman Sachs’ homepage

    “Becoming a bank holding company is part of our tradition of quick and effective response to market conditions. Our strategy of being an advisor, financier, and co-investor remains clear and unchanged.” – Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and CEO 

    Ignore it. Crisis? What crisis? Microsoft is reportedly spending $300 million on its latest Windows campaign. The theme: Life without walls. I guess if your house has been foreclosed, that might not be too much of a stretch. Think of Steve Martin in The Jerk: “I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. Just this PC with Vista. And this wireless keyboard. And that’s all I need. And this Zune. My PC, my keyboard, my Zune, Mobile Windows, and this XBox – that’s all I need.”

    Reassure. In Ad Age, Weber Shandwick’s Paul Jensen says its no time for marketers at financial services firms (the ones that are still standing, anyway) to hide under a rock:

    “Companies need to rise above fear and continue to communicate. Control what you can and don’t get fixated on what you can’t. The old rules of transparency and consistency still apply.”

    Fidelity gets it. It has devoted the main content well on its home page to the crisis, under the heading “In markets like these, Fidelity can help.” AIG, however, offers no such reassurances from its home page, save for a link to a press release regarding its bailout (placed, ironically enough, above its “Natural Disaster Hotline” number for hurricane victims). How about a hotline for man-made disasters?

    Circle the wagons. Time to pull back the reins on your marketing spend? Ad spending was down 3.7% in the second quarter and 1.6% for the first six months of this year compared to the year-ago periods, MediaPost reports. A TNS VP calls it “collateral damage.” And that was before we found out that our entire financial system is teetering on the brink of insolvency. Online spending is still growing, but that growth is “decelerating,” says MediaPost. Expect more drastic cuts on marketing spend through the end of the year.

    Bend over and grab your ankles. This is gonna hurt!

    Worst Opening Press Release Sentence of the Week

    Arrived in my inbox this afternoon (along with three others, rapid-fire, from the same research firm):

    BOSTON, MA  August, 21 2008  In the newly released benchmark report, Application Security: Protect Sensitive Data while Improving Compliance, Aberdeen Group, a Harte-Hanks Company (NYSE:HHS), found that on average, Best-in-Class organizations were able to realize a 12x greater decrease in the number of successful application security attacks than Industry Average companies as a direct result of incorporating the right blend of technologies and services as a part of their comprehensive application security strategies.


    Clearly, the objective of this sorry attempt at written communications is to send journalists screaming into the streets.

    I May Have to Try This

    From a spam press release I received today:

    David Hancock of Morgan jams Publishing offers the advantages of a New York Publisher without the drawbacks. His entrepreneurial publishing model gives authors control over their own books, influence over cover design, and most importantly, his authors retain full rights to their books and earn a 20 per cent commission on each sale.

    Hancock teamed up with Glenn Dietzel of, whose Entrepreneurial Authoring Program teaches clients to write a money-making book in 12 hours of actual writing time<emphasis by Magnostic>. Clients who complete the program discover how to write a book that is “entrepreneurially sound” and are guaranteed acceptance with Morgan James Publishing, without writing a book proposal or going through years of submission and rejection.

    Dietzel’s Entrepreneurial Authoring Program and individual business mentoring teach clients how to create a book that is an entrepreneurially sound lead generator for a well-structured business. A book that is entrepreneurially sound naturally leads readers to interact with the author and continue to do business again and again. The book is specifically designed as an invitation to take part in the author’s other services. Special offers and free gifts of value to the reader are tucked into the pages of the book.

    I once aspired to write a novel, but an “entrepreneurially sound lead generator” sounds much more romantic.

    Politics and Marketing

    Watching the tail lights of the campaign buses finally pulling out of New Hampshire following today’s sort-of-first-in-the-nation primary got me thinking about the candidates’ marketing machines. Politics and marketing have been joined at the hip ever since the first pre-Geico caveman lobbied to become head of the tribe, no doubt promising something he had no plans to deliver.

    As a New Hampshire resident and registered independent, I’ve been receiving a months-long stream of propaganda from the candidates on both sides of the divide. Talk about multichannel marketing: The local citizenry has been overrun with TV ads, outdoor signs, telemarketing, direct mail, email, live events, and even door-to-door campaigners. Much of it was poorly executed, especially the prerecorded voice mails, the overproduced brochures, and the Christmas card from the Clintons. None of it, with the exception of a truly passionate Obama supporter who rang my doorbell on Saturday and actually asked if I had any questions, contained a whiff of authenticity or made any attempt to understand my concerns, as a parent, as a small business owner, as someone with a $10,000 medical deductible and a knee that needs surgery (they assume they know, but rarely ask).  Though I will say that the candidates’ websites have come a long way in engaging supporters (beyond just asking for money) through various Web 2.0 tools.

    Despite the new channels, the PR machine hasn’t really changed much over the past 150 years or so. There’s a great if little-known show on HBO called “Assume the Position 201” in which Robert Wuhl puts a comedic spin on American history in a classroom setting. The latest episode includes a riff on all the bad presidents this country has endured, perhaps none worse than Franklin Pierce (from New Hampshire, ironically). Wuhl contends that the main reason Pierce was elected in 1852 was the biography that he convinced his buddy, Nathanial Hawthorne, to pen for him. The lift Pierce received from his association with the noted writer carried him to victory. Unfortunately for Pierce (and the rest of the country), his divisive policies and poor decision-making laid the groundwork for the Civil War and made him the only sitting president (before or since) to not be nominated for re-election by his own party.

    Edward Bernays, dubbed the “father of public relations,” also played a role in presidential politics. In what is considered the first presidential photo op, Bernays organized a White House breakfast in 1929 for Calvin Coolidge with a group of vaudeville actors in an effort to improve the taciturn president’s image. One headline the next day read, “President Nearly Laughs.”

    On to Michigan!

    Sock-Puppeting Puerilism

    Normally smart people seem to lose all common sense when it comes to joining an online conversation under a fake name. The cloak of “sock puppeting” (a terrific phrase to describe the act of masking your identity when posting comments on a Web forum) can be incredibly empowering, even for people who already possess gobs of power.

    John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, is the latest poster boy for this inane and brand-damaging behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard the story by now: For more than seven years, Mackey posted comments on Yahoo message boards talking up Whole Foods and dumping on the competition. He posted under the handle “rahodeb” and never disclosed his true identify. Now he has the SEC on his back. Nice leadership. Nice irony too, considering his comments in the current issue of Fortune about his blog:   

    “We want to communicate as honestly as we can. I am talking about the things I most care about. I don’t do what other bloggers do. I don’t post all the time. The great thing about blogging is that I don’t need you journalists to interpret me anymore.”

    Yes, honesty. And integrity. And credibility. When you misrepresent yourself to others, you’re blowing off all three of those traits. I understand the limits that the CEO (or any officer) of a publicly traded company is under regarding what they can say about their business on public forums, but how that leads someone to make the leap to post anonymously on matters directly related to their company and business is beyond me. 

    I guess the Web feeds our subconscious desires to perform uncivil acts without repercussions. Just as drivers hidden safely in their cars do unseemly things without pause – things they would never think of doing outside of their vehicles (cutting others off, tailgating, swearing in front of their kids) – the Internet (and its precursor, the online bulletin-board system) is a playground for drive-by postings from people lacking the confidence (or the balls) to stand behind their verbal attacks or contrarian opinions with their real names. (When I was with PC Week, a reader reacting to a negative column I wrote about Apple posted anonymously to express his desire that I would some day end up in prison getting gang-raped by a bunch of guys named Bubba, though he used far more colorful language to describe his fantasy. But I digress.)

    Just as troubling as Mackey’s deception was his unapologetic response to being unmasked. Clearly, his actions aren’t in sync with the ideals for which his company supposedly stands. His own blog posting about “open, honest, candid communication” certainly rings hollow. When the actions of a company’s employees – from executives down to the rank and file – differ from the company’s brand promise, it will eventually lose the trust of its customers.