Andy Bull: How to Get Brand Journalism Right

What is “brand journalism”? Is it content marketing by another name? PR? Corporate communications?

The short answer is that it is a mix: when brands use journalistic techniques to tell their stories instead of traditional PR etc.

We asked Andy Bull, freelance journalist, lecturer, and author of Multimedia Journalism, to tell us more. Andy, based in the UK, has had senior roles on the IndependentThe Times, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express. He relaunched and edited the Times Online and was editorial director of AOL UK before starting his own multimedia journalism training consultancy.

What exactly is brand journalism?

Brand journalism brings together skills from traditional journalism, marketing, public relations, customer service and brand management.

Brand Journalism by Andy BullIn a nutshell, brand journalism is journalism produced on behalf of a brand. But it’s not used just by brands. It can be used by any kind of organisation, or for any cause.

It is as relevant to Amnesty International or the Red Cross as it is to McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. It can be used by everything from a major food manufacturer to a local restaurant; from an educational charity to a particular university or school.

Any of those organisations can employ journalists and/or journalistic techniques to create compelling content — content that uses all the skills and techniques of traditional journalism to craft a memorable story, and present information that a particular audience needs, wants, values or is entertained by.

You can distribute it over the full range of multimedia and social media platforms. These stories can be told in text for print or online, via video or audio, and through stills photography, even games.

And it can dovetail with your presence on traditional media, and your overall promotional and marketing strategy.

Who invented it?

What has become known as brand journalism actually has its roots in marketing.

In 2004, McDonald’s chief marketing officer Larry Light said that mass marketing no longer worked and that “no single ad tells the whole story”. McDonald’s, he said, had adopted a new marketing technique: “brand journalism”.

Light defined brand journalism as a way to record “what happens to a brand in the world”, and create ad communications that, over time, can tell a whole story of a brand.

He was rejecting the then-current orthodoxy of brand positioning, in favour of a multifaceted approach involving market segmentation.

He was taking as his model the way an editor approaches the creation of a magazine, with its array of very different content — hence: brand journalism.

Who needs to understand it and why?

Marketers, PR people, corporate communicators, as well as journalists and anyone working in customer relations/services, because they too are increasingly connecting with their customers on social media. They all need to understand two things — how these platforms are used and who by, so you know where to reach your customers, and how to do modern, social, mobile, multimedia journalism so you can make your communications really interesting.

We keep hearing that every company is a media company– is that true?

Any company could be a media company and, I’d argue, they really ought to be. The reason is that the huge growth in the popularity of social media means that, to reach your customers, you don’t need the old gatekeepers who controlled the means of publication nearly as much as you used to.

Now you can publish your news yourself, and connect directly with your customers, clients, supporters of your cause or whatever directly via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, Foursquare, Pinterest, Instagram and many other platforms.

Access to these platforms is entirely open, and their popularity mirrors a decline in interest in traditional media — and in content on new media platforms created by the old media companies.

What skills does a team of brand journalists need? And who can be a brand journalist?

You need a team that has all the skills of the multimedia journalist, whether you hire journalists, train-up existing staff in marketing or other departments, or outsource. The top six on a very long list of skills are:

  1. Writing hard news stories and feature articles
  2. Interviewing for text, video and audio
  3. Video shooting, presenting, editing and publishing
  4. Stills photography
  5. Audio recording, presenting, editing and publishing
  6. The conversational nature of effective social media communication.

What factors make for successful brand journalism?

  • An understanding of what your customer want/needs to know
  • Superb storytelling skills across all media
  • An ability to spot stories within your organisation and tell them effectively
  • A really good product, service or cause to promote — if you’re rubbish you’ll get told so — forcefully and repeatedly, and your brand journalism will fail
  • Genuine engagement — it’s called social media, not anti-social. If people respond to you and you ignore them, they’ve been snubbed.

What companies and organisations are using brand journalism?

It ranges from the megabrands such as Coke, Starbucks and McDonald’s down to individual retailers. It’s used by sports teams from Manchester United down to the smallest non-league outfit, by charities such as the British Legion and campaigners such as Amnesty International.

Tell us about your new project for brand journalism training.

Because brand journalism brings together skills from traditional journalism, marketing, public relations, customer service and brand management, there are very few people who have all the skills needed.

So I’m creating a textbook, extensive supporting website and a programme of e-learning and face-to-face group and one-to-one training that will equip candidates with all the skills they need.

Could you share some tips on writing like a journalist which brand journalists will need to know?

Multimedia Journalism by Andy BulNumber one is put the person you want to communicate with at the centre of your thoughts. Think about what they want to hear, what will be useful or interesting to them. Put out of your head the stuff that your organisation wants to say about themselves. That is the key to writing like a journalist.

To work, brand journalism must look, feel and sound like traditional journalism, not like PR or marketing guff.

In terms of writing, here are some tips:

Write like you speak – don’t use any words in text that you wouldn’t say in conversation.

Think: ‘if I could only say one thing what would it be?’ That helps you identify the most important element among all the things you want to say. Put that one thing first and you have what journalists call your intro — or, online, it can be referred to as a blurb or sell.

Journalism is about selling stories, just as marketing is about selling a product or service. The sell should be about 15 words long. Boil that down further to about 5-7 words and you have your headline or head.

You can also ask yourself ‘what’s new?’ Or ‘what’s the latest?’ You usually want the freshest bit of information first.

From there try to organise the other things you want to say in decreasing order of importance. Journalists call this technique ‘following the inverted pyramid’ or triangle — they picture a pyramid with the broad base at the top of their story and the point at the bottom. You start with the big things, then work your way down, each item becoming less important as you go. That way, as soon as a reader has satisfied their own personal level of curiosity they can stop reading and won’t have missing something really important lurking at the bottom of the story.

Does content curation fit into the brand journalist’s job? If so, how?

Yes it does. Curation is all about spotting and passing on material that the community you serve and want to be a part of will be interested in. So as well as putting your own content in front of people you can say, ‘take a look at this which x produced, I think you’ll find it interesting’. That can be done as simply as retweeting a good tweet, liking a Facebook post or commenting on it, up to building a topic that you curate on Paper.li or Scoop.it. It all adds to the richness of the content surrounding your brand.

Multimedia journalism lesson: watch this video of Andy giving a talk to journalism students about Web 3.0 and how they can be a part of it.

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