Denver university taps brand journalism to tell stories better

Metropolitan State University of Denver revamps its approach to create newspaper-style stories featuring its successes. Readers are noticing.

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 communications officer.

“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 exploded.

“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 and several other news outlets 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 faculty members , 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 story.”

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 energy source.”

Naturally, Early Bird features stories of greater interest to the staff. One 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 stories.

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.”

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