7 brand journalism lessons from GE

For starters, tell stories through people, not products. Hold writing workshops. And involve your customers.

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When a doctor found a lump in the breast of Ileana Hancu, the General Electric physicist underwent weeks’ worth of inconclusive test results before she got the good news: No cancer.

Hancu, one of the leading MRI researchers in the U.S., didn’t like the prolonged uncertainty. She began working on what amounts to a high-definition MRI, says Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports, the company’s brand journalism platform.

If you think GE touted Hancu’s work in a press release, you’re wrong. Kellner, a former Forbes reporter, phoned her up, interviewed her, and published her story on GE Reports.

“Now, I know GE is full of great stories, like Hancu,” he said. “And I’m sure your companies are full of great stories, like Hancu. But for some reason we are not telling these stories.”

For those looking to change their ways, GE offers these lessons:

1. Tell stories through people, not products.

Journalists don’t want to read press releases, Kellner says. Yet communicators keep pumping them out. GE is trying a different approach.

“We are telling company news not through our products, but through the people who stand behind them,” he says.

Use people to tell about the company’s innovation and research. This reaches not only stakeholders, such as employers and investors, but also journalists and the public.

2. Cover what the media won’t—and draw media interest.

It’s a paradox. Beg the media for coverage, and they’ll shun you. Cover your own organization with a reporter’s eye-focusing on newsworthy stories—and you may win the same snooty reporters who hung up on your pitch call.

Back in 2008, when GE didn’t like a story, it pushed back with press releases like “Forbes, Fortune miss the mark.”

Now, it takes the lead, casting its own net for stories—and ends up interesting reporters.

3. Do writing workshops for comms staff.

Kellner did a series of worldwide writing workshops for GE in Istanbul, Toulouse, Buenos Aires, Beijing, and good old Waukesha, Wis. The primary goal was to get communicators thinking about brand journalism, but the workshops also built connections and generated story leads for Kellner, so he now gets phone calls with ideas (such as the one about Hancu, the MRI researcher).

How did those story leads work out? A workshop attendee called and said he’d just gotten an email from the son of an engineer who helped develop the jet engine. It led to a story on the “hush-hush boys,” a group of GE engineers in a top-secret project that developed engine behind the airline industry.

4. Create bureaus.

It works for The New York Times, right? So what about your organization—assuming it’s a multinational concern. This was one of the advantages of the worldwide writing workshops Kellner put on: They had the effect of creating contributors wherever they were held.

5. Tell stories about customers, clients or those you serve.

If you’re a company, you can thump your chest and shout, “We’re great!” all you like—or you can simply tell customers’ stories, not yours.

GE did a joint writing workshop in Toulouse, where Airbus, one of its jet engine customers was based. Two hundred people attended, and GE has followed up with several stories on Airbus. It did the same with Amtrak and TransCanada.

For example, GE’s builds a LN 2500 gas turbine—”basically a jet engine,” says Kellner. But news? The company has been making and improving jet engines since the 1960s. Old story.

Kellner learned that the turbine would also power the world’s fastest ship, and it had been just commissioned.

GE wrote about (and produced video on) the trimaran, which holds 1,000 people and 150 cars. It travels at 58 knots (about 75 mph), and was being built in Tasmania, Australia. The company also posted a one-minute video of the wake of the boat zipping along at nearly 70 mph. This garnered more than 90,000 views.

What would GE have gotten from a press-release assault on those dullards in the media? Perhaps not much. But the story was picked up by Gizmodo (40,000 views), Mashable (700 “likes” and 1,300 tweets), and even MSN. GE didn’t put a dollar into any campaign.

Kellner adds, “If you have a good story out there, that story is going to stand on its own and travel.”

6. Be topical.

News is breaking. Your product is being used. Hop on the bandwagon.

“When something is going on and you have something to say that’s intelligent and you have something to say, then say it,” Kellner says.

Waiting a week for approval from Legal, the assembly line foreman, and your CEO’s grandmother will mean you get left out in the cold.

7. Decode complexity.

Use infographics to tell people about the complexities of your business. GE noticed that a robust debate was going on about the loudness of wind turbines. So GE released an infographic comparing the noise levels to lawn mowers, blenders, and microwaves.

These days, when you go to Google and search, “How loud is a wind turbine?” you’re likely to pull up GE’s infographic.

You can do the same thing with movies, as GE did with Elysium, staring Matt Damon and his exoskeleton. Turns out GE built something similar back in the 1960s.

What’s your story? Go ask your staff—and your customers.



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