Not long ago, Metropolitan State University of Denver was facing a set of
challenges familiar to many organizations.
College communicators were cranking out internal and external publications
that were often ignored. They also needed to find a way to better engage
with MSU employees.
“It seemed like we were just spinning a lot of wheels, focusing on all
these different vehicles,” says Cathy Lucas, MSU Denver’s chief
“We were looking for a new, not-traditional strategy and approach on how we
can get our message out, how we can better tell MSU Denver stories.”
The solution? Brand journalism—jettisoning the marketing-speak and
press-release huzzahs to tell the university’s own stories in the style of
daily papers and magazines.
“Instead of putting all this content out there that people weren’t reading,
we wanted to produce really rich content that was interesting,” Lucas says.
More authentic stories
The result was a new internal publication called Early Bird, and the
externally oriented MSU Insider. Together they place MSU Denver in the company of a growing number of
publications that are telling their stories in newsy fashion, and winning
wider attention that way. (Ragan Consulting Group
participated in the project.)
MSU Denver launched Early Bird on Nov. 1, with MSU Insider following on
Jan. 1. To provide fodder for the content beast, it added one new position
and “repurposed” three others.
The brand journalism approach is a great way to tell stories in a more
authentic way, Lucas says.
For an idea of what that means, check out MSU Insider, which includes
stories as newsy as something you’d find in the Denver Post. One of them
features an accounting professor who
plans to participate in the Boston Marathon this year, even though he finished the 2013 event just seconds before the first bomb
“I’d even go so far as to say I’m Boston Strong—and that’s coming from a
Yankees fan,” professor Doug Laufer tells MSU Insider.
A story on the university’s Math Day
describes attempts to build structures out of spaghetti and marshmallows,
raise a marble off a table without touching it and pop a balloon in the
slowest possible manner. For sports fans, there’s a story on a former
college pitcher who has joined the
Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system.
The success of the strategy will become clear in the fall when the
institution does its annual brand audit, Lucas says. Anecdotally, however,
the new approach looks like a hit.
“We’ve heard from people, ‘Hey, I’m going to send it to my colleagues. This
is really great work. I want to hear more about this story,’” she says.
A side door for media placements
One goal of brand journalism is to draw more news media attention.
A recent story tells how the private York Space Systems is moving its manufacturing
facility and mission operations center to the Auraria Campus.
Event: Brand Journalism for the Internal Communicator Workshop
Because of this, “advanced manufacturing students from MSU Denver will have
the opportunity to collaborate on projects and access internship
opportunities, part-time employment and work-study programs to help launch
their careers in the aerospace industry.”
The Denver Post
followed up with stories on the aerospace company’s move. The Post
headlined its piece, “Metropolitan State students will help produce,
control satellites in new program with York Space Systems.”
The communications team also highlights faculty experts in the hope of
getting them quoted in the press. One story, featuring
, even newsjacked the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un in Malaysia.
Lucas will say, “’Hey this topic’s coming up—the Affordable Care Act. Who’s
an expert in the political science department?’ We’ve written a story about
it in the Insider, and then that’s sent out to the news media. And they’ve
picked that up and utilized that faculty member for their expertise in a
The two-wheeled phone charger
Another promising a story, headlined “
When riding your bike also charges your phone,” tells how mechanical engineering technology students developed a
charging device that allows cyclists to charge their phones as they pedal.
It is pegged to the University’s annual Undergraduate Research Conference
on April 21.
“After many ideas, the team landed on a sprocket that attaches to the
bike’s rear spokes,” the story states. “Power is generated as the wheel
spins, which ultimately is transferred to a battery pack mounted behind the
seat. Electronics can be plugged directly into the device via a smart
charger. Alternatively, you can remove the battery pack for a portable
Naturally, Early Bird features stories of greater interest to the staff.
states, “President Jordan to be honored by Colorado Senate and House.” Another,
about faculty honors, urges, “Pat yourself on the back.” (Well, all right!)
One clever tactic to boost internal readership is to shoot fun videos with
employees reading the headlines. It works—people are reading the featured
All in all, the new approach is making a difference.
Says Lucas: “We’re doing this differently than we’ve ever done before. ...
It takes a while, and it takes a lot of staff time, and a lot of pain and
anguish goes into it, but it pays off.”