5 tips for being a brilliant brand journalist

Read voraciously, be persistent in your pursuit of truth, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5 brand journalism tips

The goal of brand journalism is to build awareness of your company by reporting stories focused on your audience, not the company. To get there, communications professionals should act like reporters. That means your job – and your rapport with colleagues – will evolve.

Fortunately, we have Ragan Consulting Group Senior Consultant Tom Corfman to show us how to advance in our careers. Tom is the former communications director for the Cook County Treasurer’s Office and assistant managing editor at Crain’s Chicago Business; his experiences inform the five interviewing tips below. Here’s how to uncover and report the stories that will support your organization’s business goals.

1. Read everything. “I was surprised as a reporter at the number of PR people who were not familiar with information about their own company … or with what their competitors were doing,” Corfman says. “You’d have to catch up the PR person.”

For communications professionals getting started in brand journalism, research is even more essential. Read everything you can – from what’s on your website to SEC filings to competitors’ news.

Make sure you follow pop culture, too. Sometimes there are ways to insert your company’s point of view into a larger trend or discussion. The more you know, the more interesting story ideas you’ll gather.

2. If you don’t understand, ask someone. Let’s say you’ve done your research, but you don’t understand, say, the financials or someone’s jargon.

You might be reluctant to admit you don’t know something about your company. But asking for clarity means you’re inquisitive and you care about quality, which are essential traits of any successful comms professional.

So, find compelling subject matter experts, and ask them to elaborate. In doing so, you’re tapping into basic human nature: People like to talk about their jobs.

“You can’t pretend to know more than you do,” Corfman says. “If you have a report you don’t understand and you find the author of the report, they will want to talk to you … and you’ll overcome your anxiety by talking to them about it.”

Talking also leads to better writing.

“You’ll be a step ahead for that day when you have to put that jargon into plain English,” Corfman says.

3. Prepare and persist. Once you understand the basics, prepare interview questions.

“[Chess champion] Garry Kasparov once said, ‘A bad plan is better than no plan,’” Corfman says. “Really think about everything you can in advance. Sometimes that’s not possible, but five minutes of planning is better than no planning. Take five minutes to collect your thoughts.”

When you do have time to prepare, begin by creating a list of questions. Determine if the topic is part of a trend. If so, be prepared to discuss what’s going on outside your company.

If you’re writing a news story, organize your thoughts along the core tenets of fact-based storytelling: who, what, where, when, why and how. If you’re writing a feature story – say, a profile of a company leader – then make sure to ask about their hobbies and what makes them tick.

“If you need documents, have them handy,” Corfman says. “Even if you’re doing a video interview, ask them to describe their office or the factory floor.”

4. Be present, listen and adapt. As you’re typing and/or recording answers, be an active listener. Your source might tell you something unexpected, or you may need to ask follow-up questions that aren’t on your list. And that’s OK. You’re going to get a better story if you adapt and respond. As you react to what they’re saying, they will see you’re interested; in turn, they’ll reveal even more.

“Don’t be bound to the plan,” Corfman says. “If you’re intently listening, then the person you’re talking to will pick up on that.”

5. It’s an interview—not a conversation. Yes, it is appropriate to provide context for the interview at the beginning of the meeting, and even to exchange a few niceties.

But you’re there to get a story – something you will write when you’re back at your desk on your own. Use your time wisely.

“Remember, it’s an interview, not a conversation,” Corfman says. “An interview is a way to obtain information. You need to make sure you cover the points you need.”

At the same time, keep a conversational tone. “It’s not an interrogation or deposition,” Corfman says.

These tips are good for both you and your sources. Throughout his career, Corfman has heard both reporters and publicists say they had a “great conversation.” But that has a downside.

“The subject didn’t make the points they wanted, because they were having too much fun.”

Tom Corfman is a senior consultant at Chicago-based Ragan Consulting Group. RCG specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your communications and media relations strategy. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.


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