As floodwaters threatened California’s Oroville Dam this month, an editorial team hundreds of miles away in Denver gathered to discuss the danger.
As in many newsrooms nationwide, the staffers were looking for a local angle.
Never mind that they worked for Denver Water, the public utility that serves 1.4 million people in and around Colorado’s largest city. They approached the news as journalists might, wondering how safe Denver Water’s 20 dams were, a question that surely had occurred to others in the Mile High City.
Denver Water published the story, “How safe are Denver Water’s dams?” on its new brand journalism website, “Tap.” The story—along with a follow-up—quoted a dam safety engineer who reassured readers that he and five others continually monitor, inspect and rehabilitate the dams. In doing so, Denver Water got out ahead of any potential stories by news outlets.
The new website exemplifies a content approach that encourages organizations to develop their own media outlets. They can tell stories they wish to tell, rather than forever relying on journalists’ priorities.
‘Be the trusted source’
“It’s important to us to be the trusted source on all things water,” says Stacy Chesney, manager of media communications.
(Ragan Consulting Group participated in the project.)
For many organizations, the problem with pitching reporters isn’t just that journalists’ priorities differ from yours. It’s also a matter of labor efficiency. Researching and writing a pitch takes time and effort that is wasted if the reporter hits the delete button on your email. Why not put all that work to use?
“To pitch a story to the media, you basically have to do that story in advance,” Chesney says. “So this actually takes it a step further. We really are writing the stories ourselves and putting them out there, and we’re still having the media pick them up.”
As news outlets become shorter-staffed and hungrier for content, they are willing to publish content created by Denver Water and other organizations. Newspapers run photographs, and TV stations broadcast B-roll and even interviews. It’s all a question of whether organizations understand the news media’s requirements.
“By telling good stories and not being marketing- or PR-focused … we’re seeing the media pick up content,” Chesney says.
Page views spike
The new approach resulted in a huge increase in page views. From 2014 to 2015, the increase over 300 percent, Chesney says. That amounts to nearly 80,000 additional views.
On the current website, the organization leads with a story about how a $100 million upgrade of the water system boosts Denver’s economy, supporting thousands of local construction jobs. The story was accompanied by a video featuring two ironworker brothers who were helping build the foundation of a water storage tank.
Another story asks the question, “Will water get too expensive for some Americans?” The story cites a Michigan State University study that reaches the conclusion that water bills eventually could rise beyond the means of about 40 million people.
It notes a slower increase in Denver and quotes the president of the Denver Board of Water Commissioners, who says, “The mission of the board is to keep rates as low as possible.”
Last year Denver Water wanted to pitch a story on its caretakers who live in the mountains, take care of reservoirs and check snowpack measurements.
“That would be a pretty big trek for a reporter, a pretty big time commitment to go get that video,” Chesney says, “so we decided to do it ourselves.”
Tracking the snowpack
A staffer went up into the mountains, interviewed a caretaker and shot video of an interview an expert in Denver. Denver Water then spread word of its story through social media.
The story interested the local Fox affiliate, which reported on the snow trackers’ work amid an above-average snowfall. Denver Water supplied the B-roll and the interviews with its snowshoe-wearing Jeremiah Johnsons up in the mountains.
“We’re seeing it pay off,” Chesney says. “I think people are really interested in the behind-the-scenes working of a water utility, and we’re able to help take them there when they don’t have the time or resources to do it themselves.”
Brand journalism—or “content journalism” as Chesney calls it—won’t replace traditional media relations. PR will always have value, and reporters still come to Denver Water with ideas of their own. By getting its own stories in the hands of journalists, the utility has seen increased exposure.
Not all the stories have been delivered in somber newscaster tones. Denver Water had fun producing a “Twilight Zone” parody to report on its underground vaults. In a public service video, an employee in a toilet costume punches a man who tries to flush expired medication down the john.
“Never flush expired pills,” the utility warns.
The images worked well for TV. The local NBC affiliate picked it up under a headline, “Flush old pills, get punched by toilet.”
Piggybacking on Jay Z quote
By taking a newsjacking approach, as with the Oroville Dam, Denver Water has dramatically increased its reach. When the rapper Jay Z told The New York Times that “water is free,” the Coloradans saw an opening.
Denver Water published a lighthearted open letter reminding the recording artist that water does cost money. “We thought it was a great opportunity to talk about the value of water,” Chesney says.
The post went viral. Time magazine weighed in (“Jay Z Is Singled Out for Saying Water Is ‘Free’“). The grumps at USA Today held that “The city of Denver scolds Jay Z for saying water is free.”
Denver Water’s post was viewed 22,000 times in one week alone. By comparison, over the entire previous year the blog got 24,000 views.
The newsier approach has brought about a change in the way Denver Water thinks about its overall content strategy.
“We’ve flipped our approach into saying: What are the stories we should be telling?” Chesney says. “What are customers out there talking about? What is in the media? What do employees care about? What is happening in the world?”