This is the first article in a three-part content series on brand journalism. This series, in partnership with MediaSource, a media relations and content production firm that specializes in brand journalism tactics, offers tips to communications professionals.
The words “brand” and “journalism” may not seem like they go together—and the goals of the people who work at either end of this communication spectrum may seem to be at odds. But when thoughtfully practiced, brand journalism provides meaningful, relevant content to media outlets that need it, while (sometimes indirectly) burnishing a brand image.
At Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, the PR team defines brand journalism as blending actionable content with expert guidance from the hospital’s sources.
“For the most part, we focus our brand journalism stories on information that parents can use,” explains Pam Barber, director of media relations. “We’re striving to be a news source.”
Barber has seen an increase in the range of media where the hospital gets placements—for instance, national media outlets such as CNN, as well as parenting blogs—but the big change has been in the inbound requests.
“We’re averaging nine times the media placements we’d get several years ago—but we’re also hearing from national media looking for sources on news that we haven’t pitched to them,” explains Barber. “That tells us that they’re seeing us as a trusted source.” It’s a direct impact of the hospital’s heightened profile thanks to the trusted brand journalism pieces it has created, she says.
In some cases, this means creating news articles or videos that downplay the brand and put news value at the forefront. For instance, the hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy produces reports on topics such as amusement park injuries, and Barber and her colleagues will create articles and broadcast pieces about injury treatment and prevention.
“It’s a subject that doesn’t fall into our signature product lines, but it’s very much of interest to consumers,” she says.
Although brand journalism doesn’t “sell” the institution as much as a standard press release or bylined article does, it can generate more powerful placements. “During flu season, we created stories on common myths about the flu and flu shots, and they received great pickup,” Barber says.
Lisa Arledge Powell, president and co-founder of content provider MediaSource, explains that brand journalism involves simply giving the media what it wants.
“It’s content created for a brand, using journalistic techniques and style,” she says. Brand journalism pieces look and feel like news stories—they don’t overemphasize the brand, they have useful takeaways for the reader, and they are not “sales-y.”
In a perfect world, PR pros will find stories that both emphasize their products and services, while serving consumers. Barber and her colleagues just put together a package of video, audio, and articles on arranging gluten-free summer cookouts, which taps into the hospital’s expertise in treating pediatric celiac disease.
Keep it simple, and tone down the marketing-speak
What sets apart brand journalism from content with more of a marketing bent?
“You have to keep it simple,” Arledge Powell explains. “We do a lot of work with hospitals, so we focus on taking something like a complex medical study, and making it easy for consumer audiences to understand.” Because brand journalism is developed in a format that resembles a news piece, “the stories have credibility with readers and viewers,” she adds.
Brand journalism also requires careful attention to toning down marketing-speak—if, in fact, it’s in the story at all.
“We work hard at avoiding the brand voice that we would normally use in marketing,” Barber says. That might sound like obvious advice, but it’s essential, she adds. “Base your news on facts and real information.” (That’s what ratchets up credibility.) Cite sources and use third-party research, just as journalists do.
To launch a brand journalism initiative, your PR/marketing departments need two elements in place. First, says Arledge Powell, you need buy-in from leadership that it’s OK to create and pitch news stories that might not talk much about your brand. “It can take a while to convince marketers that brand journalism works—until they see the results,” Arledge Powell says.
Barber agrees: “It requires a culture change—you have to set expectations for what’s going to be pitched,” she says. She said her colleagues will occasionally get pushback on stories that are initially perceived as not serving the hospital’s brand and products (pediatric care, with specialties in cancer and prematurity), but this becomes more rare as the PR team delivers coverage.
‘Beating the bushes to get story ideas’
The second element for brand journalism is a process for tossing around story ideas, similar to the way it’s done in a newsroom. At Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the PR team has a “content core group” that “spends time beating the bushes to get story ideas,” Barber says.
Not every piece of news will fit the brand journalism format—and that’s perfectly OK, say Arledge Powell and Barber. “You want to bring enough stories to the table so that you can say no to some of them,” Arledge Powell says.
Adds Barber: “We’d never say we are going to devote ourselves entirely to brand journalism. You always have things like new executive announcements, or research that is too high-level for consumers. We still do news releases; we find something to do with everything that comes our way.”