A Colorado university’s robust storytelling turns heads

Metropolitan State University of Denver’s brand journalism approach is engaging readers, grabbing attention and winning awards. Here’s a peek inside its operation.

MSU Denver uses brand journalism to tell robust stories

Campus communication might not be a high-profile beat, but storytelling gold awaits those who dig beyond the often-prosaic crust of academia.

The team at Metropolitan State University of Denver has struck a particularly rich vein of emotion-packed, newsworthy stories by committing to a robust brand journalism approach. It takes more energy, effort and resources to unearth hidden storytelling gems and to mine sources around campus, but the strategy is paying dividends for the school.

MSU Denver recently reeled in a haul of CASE awards, which tout the excellence of the writing, reporting and video content featured on its RED digital newsroom and Early Bird publication.

Ragan contacted MSU Denver’s comms chief, Cathy Lucas, and John Arnold, the editor in chief of RED, to learn more about the team’s approach and strategic philosophy. Here’s what they shared:

Ragan: What’s the secret behind your approach to storytelling?

Lucas: There are many ingredients to our secret sauce. One is an agile and adaptable team that does amazing work. Our team has taken an integrated approach using brand journalism to complement our public relations and marketing efforts that provides relevant content about Denver and Colorado while highlighting a faculty member or university program. Not only is our content relevant to our students, alumni and employees, but our readership has extended to the business community, legislators and the news media.

Ragan: Have you augmented or updated your storytelling strategy or priorities in the last couple of years?  

Lucas: We embarked on our brand journalism program in 2016. By late 2017, the team considered the shortcomings of the publication and brainstormed a wish list for the look, feel and functionality of a completely reimagined and refreshed online newsroom.

As part of the redesign we expanded our storytelling strategy to ensure that every story not only informs, but also engages and inspires our readers. Each story has a direct connection to the role and mission of the university by telling real stories about real people.

Ragan: Our staff writer Russell Working mentioned you were doing a “brand audit” in his previous story on your work. Did you find anything interesting from the audit, and can you share any tips on how you performed the audit? 

Lucas: We did a brand audit last summer, and it determined a positive brand growth in the community, with 84% of external respondents rating MSU Denver as “good” to “excellent” and an increased visibility among business leaders by 8 percentage points in just two years.

The audit participants indicated that a key way they were seeing MSU Denver was through TV advertising, which is interesting because our budget hasn’t allowed for TV advertising. However, our brand journalism program has had a concentrated focus on videos, so anecdotally we are attributing this to our increased video content on RED and social media.

Our brand audit includes focus groups, one-on-one interviews and a comprehensive survey. We do this every two or three years to determine the effectiveness of our brand platform and the many tools we use to support it.

Ragan: Are you willing to share a bit about your editorial and approval process? 

Arnold: Our newsroom really mirrors many of those that I worked in for years as a journalist, both from a staffing and process perspective. Our team—including a couple of staff writers, managing editor, social media manager, media relations director and visual storyteller—meets briefly every morning, with each of those meetings taking on a different focus.

For example, one meeting a week is set aside for discussing metrics, while in another we hold a wide-open brainstorming session where reporters and editors—all of whom work beats—bring story ideas to the table. From some of those ideas, we develop formal pitches and use one meeting a week to discuss those further and to assign them, while taking a deeper dive into how we use visuals, social and traditional media to help tell the MSU Denver story.

Writers consult with their sources to ensure the accuracy of their reporting, and then route their copy to the managing editor and a copy editor. Once the story is edited, the managing editor builds the story in our content management system and sends the build to me for sign-off. If it’s a particularly sensitive or potentially controversial piece, I will have the associate vice president or vice president read it and sign off before publishing.

Ragan: What would you say has been the best benefit you’ve seen as a result of your storytelling on Early Bird and RED? 

Lucas: It’s simple: The best benefit has been not only increased readership, but also engaged readers who enthusiastically share our content with their networks.

Ragan: Do you have a favorite piece or two you’re most proud of?  

Arnold: Hard to pick just a couple, because we produce such a wide variety of content.

Our focus is on telling relevant stories, whether they are longer reads on weighty topics such as human trafficking or lighter fare on cultural trends, food and art. Same goes for our video storytelling. We want to engage readers with content that informs and entertains, while tapping the expertise of our university.

Some of our most popular stories are fun reads featuring faculty experts who offer useful tips or insights. For example, this story about the spooky conspiracy theories associated with Denver International Airport has been one of our most read over the past year.

The piece features an MSU Denver aviation faculty expert—who is also a former DIA assistant security director and author of a book on the history of Denver airports—debunking some of the most popular DIA myths. Not only does this story emphasize the university’s expertise in the aviation industry—something useful to local and national journalists—it continues to generate strong results from organic search, so we’re getting a lot of new eyes on our site.

Ragan: How have you worked to get faculty members on board to participate in your storytelling?

Lucas: Yes, this has been a key element to our approach. Linking our faculty member expert profiles to the story page has been a great way to engage our faculty and allow them to share their expertise. Many of the stories are pitched with our faculty members and their expertise in mind.  Writers consult with their sources, which is often the faculty expert, so they are engaged with the process from the beginning.  We also ask the faculty members to share these stories on their social media channels or through their networks. It has been a great partnership.

Ragan: What sorts of tips would you offer other communicators who are keen to start some sort of brand journalism initiative?  

Lucas: Go slow to go fast.  It took us nearly three years to really get it right, which included a redesign and name change of the initial newsroom. To that point, the name is very important. It needs to be clever but also true to the mission of the organization.

Bringing in a third party such as Ragan [Consulting Group] is helpful, too. Sometimes you’re so close to the way you’re doing business, it’s hard to see beyond current practices. A third party provides honest and helpful feedback on how you can be more innovative in your strategy.

Lastly, ensure you have team buy-in and the right people in the seats to execute the strategy.

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