6 content lessons from Gannett’s USA Today Network

A VP at the iconic multimedia company tells how to find your story and make your message stick.

Content lessons from Gannett

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

When you talk about a content-producing machine, there aren’t many with the storytelling power of Gannett’s USA Today Network.

Yet the company’s corporate messaging team didn’t always have a unified content strategy, says Amber Allman, vice president of corporate communications at the multiplatform news media giant.

In a new video, she describes the transformation and offers tips in her talk, “How outstanding content can help reinvent your brand, change your culture and more,”

“Be your own reporter,” she says.

The company was the first to do storytelling in virtual reality, with a story on the Blue Angels—the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. (Mark Zuckerberg posted it on Facebook.)

In 2017, Allman’s team drove nearly 200 billion in earned media impressions worth just under $1.5 billion from tailored storytelling, secured interviews and speaking opportunities, she says. Yet the organization didn’t always have a consistent corporate content strategy. When she joined the organization from Yahoo, she noted several problems:

  • Most consumers and businesses did not even know what Gannett was. At least half the people Allman spoke to mispronounced the name.
  • Gannett was a holding company with more than 100 local newspapers and properties but no cohesive story.
  • The flagship brand under Gannett, USA Today, had lost its mojo. This even though USA Today had been groundbreaking in its time—providing “internet news before there was an internet,” she says.
  • Few communication efforts were proactive. The staff would field calls from, say, a TV news producer saying they would like to have Susan Page, a political reporter, on the show. “But there was no strategy, no proactive effort at all,” Allman says.

Allman established a strategy to create outstanding content. Here are a few tips:

1. Prioritize for multiple audiences.

What are your discrete messages for your consumers, businesses, employees and investors?

Investors tended to think of Gannett as a newspaper company. Communications pushed the message, “We are so much more than that, and here’s our story.”

This meant defining the USA Today Network—taking the brand of USA Today and its 100-plus assets and making them a media network. Communications had long dealt with reporters who cover the newspaper industry, so of course these journalists thought of Gannett as a newspaper company. The network started to pitch stories to a wider range of publications that would appreciate its role as an innovator, among them Digiday and TechCrunch.

2. Be a reporter.

When searching for stories to tell, “go look under rocks,” Allman says.

“You’ve got to act like you’re a reporter. If you were pitching this story, what would you need to know?”

In an organization with 20,000 employees in multiple locations, it is easy to lose track of what’s happening out there. Even in the corporate headquarters, there were “product guys” in a different tower. Some people found these tech geeks rather intimidating.

“But the stuff they were doing over there was super cool,” Allman says. “And I was like, ‘Why aren’t we talking about this? It’s amazing.’”

3. Craft your story.

Find your differentiator as an organization. You might offer the same product as 20 competitors.

“What do you bring to the table that’s unique?” Allman says. “What are you going to be the expert on?”

One thing USA Today Network did was create a branded content studio, telling advertisers: “You don’t have to go to a third party anymore. You can come to us. We’re a content creation company. We kind of know what we’re doing. We can help you tell your story to our audiences.”

4. Offer a consistent message.

Gannett and USA Today Network constitute a large organization with thousands of people. Some employees figured they could do a quick interview with a media outlet without clearing it with communications, telling themselves, “Oh, no one’s going to see this, but it’s really important to my audience,” Allman says.

Not OK.

Allman would get a phone call from the CEO, saying, “Hey, did you see that Joe was out there doing an interview. I don’t know what he was talking about. That’s not the message we’re trying to say.”

She had to make it clear that if somebody want to give an interview, they had to come and chat with communications.

Be consistent across the company, Allman says. Clear your communications with all relevant people, rather than, say, just one person in sales. Finance, investor relations and legal all might have thoughts on a message.

“Heaven forbid you say something in a press release, and 30 minutes later there’s an investor call and they’re saying something different,” she says. “That’s going to put you in a little bit of hot water.”

5. Know your ‘one number.’

At Yahoo, Allman says, everyone knew what the company’s most important number was: “How many people were we reaching, and what was the value of that?”

When she came to Gannett, a lot of people had “data” in their title. They were scattered across departments, however, “we did not have a consistent story or data point to talk from.” She got them to form a task force and collaborate, using data to support a greater company story.

6. Amplify.

Bullhorn your message repeatedly—perhaps more than 100 times, Allman says. Look for different possibilities and audiences, such as industry events.

For a series of VR stories about aircraft carriers, the company partnered with the Navy, taking its show to museums in San Diego, New York and Florida.

Allman’s team has also partnered with an event where there was a single panel on virtual reality, but it didn’t dive deep in a way that specifically addressed advertisers. Her team proposed adding a day to the conference and bringing in several cool brands and partners. The event was such a hit that Google and others asked to sponsor it the following year.

Don’t be afraid to feature your clients.

Allman says, “We are huge proponents of going to those clients and saying, ‘Can we tell your story? Do you want a little free PR? Let’s go out together and hold hands and tell this story.’”

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