Dogs of war: Wells Fargo tells brand journalism stories

A financial company wins shares and praise for stories about bringing a dog home from Afghanistan and donations to emerging scholars.

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

A bank’s website, eh? Must have plenty of stories about checking accounts and ATM locations.

Actually, Wells Fargo & Co.’s brand journalism site is full of livelier fare on topics such as a surfer veteran recovering from a brain injury and a donation of guitars to a children’s epilepsy unit at a hospital.

Launched in 2014, Wells Fargo Stories offers news about employees, customers and nonprofit partners beyond the usual corporate promotions or news covered by financial journalists. The strategy pays dividends internally and externally, says Arati Sontakay Randolph, the bank’s head of enterprise and executive communications and new media.

“Finally! I’ve been trying to share some of these great stories with family, friends and customers,” she quotes an employee as saying. “I’m so excited to finally be able to show off the wonderful company I work for.”

In the Ragan Training webinar, “Create, market and measure brand journalism: Lessons from Wells Fargo Stories,” two key figures running the site offer tips for those with similar ambitions to extend their organizational voice.

The session is also led by Heather Sheriff, who heads content strategy and execution for Wells Fargo Stories.

The website not only broadens the reach of Wells Fargo’s messages, but it also draws an enthusiastic response from those featured in the blog, such as customers or nonprofits that receive donations.

“When we publish a story that they feel proud enough to share with their customers and their business partners, that’s the true mark of our work,” Sheriff says.

Mining for stories

At Wells Fargo, content creators are assigned to a beat so that together they can keep track of all areas of the company, Sheriff says. The team selects stories based on factors such as their alignment to themes important to their audiences and the potential to tell a human narrative, not just a dull corporate message.

The bank already had in place an internal communications team of writers, video producers and other content creators, so it was able to harness their skills. Participants meet weekly to go over story ideas.

Among the questions they ask are, “What’s the potential in a given story idea to tell the human story versus the public story?” Sheriff says.

She contrasts the bank’s prior approach to the new brand journalism style of content. Before, a story on a donation to Clemson University scholarship program would have led with the company’s $500,000 gift and quoted an executive high up, she says. The piece also would have linked to a page with more perspective from the company.

Under the new approach, the story focuses on the recipients:

With tears, hugs, selfies, and promises to stay in touch, it looks like any other graduation.

But this one is different. Twenty-eight rising high school seniors celebrate the completion of the Emerging Scholars program at Clemson University that’s lifting graduation rates and creating a college-going culture in some of South Carolina’s poorest communities.

Wells Fargo’s involvement isn’t mentioned until the eighth paragraph—in a quote from the university program director. The link for more information now goes to a personal account from one of the students.

Marketing the stories

Wells Fargo is promoting the content beyond its website, Sheriff says. Its ATMs highlight stories, and users can print out a summary with a URL directing them to the full piece.

“We’re not just pushing the content out to the site and calling it a day,” she says. “We’re making sure to then get that content in front of our audience in the channels where they are.”

One such story tells how a graphic designer with Wells Fargo volunteers with The Puppy Rescue Mission―a Texas nonprofit that reunites military personnel with their pets from war zones abroad.

The story leads with an army sergeant who brought home her dog, Poptart, a stray she encountered one day while meeting with tribal leaders as an advisor to the Afghan army.

“She walked up to me and was so hungry,” Wells Fargo quotes her as saying. “The only thing I had on me was Pop-Tarts, so I broke off a piece and shared it. She gobbled that one, and then another, and then another, and I thought, ‘Poptart is your name, girl!'”

The company invites employees to share its content with their social networks, and more than 120 corporate communications team members actively build relationships with stakeholders via Twitter. Customers, nonprofits, community partners and others also share content. Naturally, the company pushes stories through its social media channels as well.

“They are not just pushing out company and branded content day in and day out,” Sheriff says. “They are having real conversations. They are sharing news and personal accounts and insights from around the country. They’re weighing in on conversations.”

@ByWorking

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