The real story behind brand newsrooms

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

Businesses can supercharge their content marketing by adopting a classic newsroom approach, but they need to stick to some tried-and-true principles.

N othing better screams content marketing success than a company creating its very own “brand newsroom”. In this utopian world, teams from across a business or organisation come together to build a body of content that sits on an authoritative website and is actively distributed at the right time on the most appropriate social media platforms. This business speaks directly to its customers, and produces information that engages and delights, and helps build awareness and credibility for the company.

Inevitably, the business thinks, this newsroom-generated content (“which we sure hope goes viral!”) is a relatively cheap way to gain influence in their industry. It may even lead to more sales or service calls.

Except, it hardly ever works like this.

Australian businesses have a hard time understanding what it takes to build a successful brand newsroom. This is partly because of inexperience – not many company executives, business owners, marketers or copywriters have spent years working at a newspaper or magazine, or in a radio or television studio. They don’t know what it’s like to think and perform like a journalist, who needs to come up with publishable ideas and work in a team that is typically under enormous time pressure.

Often, however, this lack of understanding is because many owners or managers who embark on the brand newsroom path don’t know know what they are actually trying to achieve.

I worked in print and digital newsrooms for decades – firstly in mass-market national magazines and then at Fairfax Media, on The Sun-Herald and The Sydney Morning Herald. I now assist businesses communicate with current and potential customers through content, and this includes helping them set up brand newsrooms. It’s a rewarding and exciting area of work, mainly because any business can generate interesting stories and important information.

Indeed, there’s no reason why any business or organisation can’t have its own version of a brand newsroom – one scaled to fit its corporate goals. It can be enormously powerful when it’s done well. If it’s done badly, though, it will generate disappointment, debt and a list of missed opportunities.

When newsrooms work well

It’s no news flash that audience behaviours have fundamentally changed over the past decade. Digitally savvy people increasingly consume news through social media channels rather than mainstream media, which is struggling to survive on ever-decreasing resources. These days there’s so much media “white noise” because the low cost of entry means countless voices are scrabbling to be heard above the din. Influence is shifting and clearly defined messages are difficult to hear.

All of this is understood. What is rarely said in this context, however, is that there has never been a time when people have been hungrier for news and insights. This is a truly great time for journalism (if not journalists, unfortunately), as people crave fresh, exciting new information through an ever-widening choice of media channels turned on at all hours of day or night.

This offers the corporate community the chance to speak directly to their key audiences. They are able to produce quality content relatively cheaply and publish it on channels they own. They have ready access to subject matter experts, and can let them speak freely and directly to consumers. They don’t have to rely on press releases that probably won’t be seen by time-poor journalists. They can build engagement and trust on the back of relevant and useful content.

This is especially true for organisations that have struggled to get a reliable foothold in the mainstream media but have a following in social media. Businesses looking to build a successful brand newsroom no longer need to appease traditional gatekeepers to have their stories told.

One of Australia’s most successful brand newsrooms is ANZ BlueNotes, which was set up by ANZ in 2014 to provide authoritative news and commentary about the financial sector in Asia-Pacific. In a presentation at the Universities Australia Marketing Communications and Development Conference 2015, former award-winning finance journalist and current BlueNotes managing editor Andrew Cornell said the website’s objective was to enhance ANZ’s reputation as a banking authority. “The idea is to demonstrate ANZ’s regional ‘insight’ in order to create new opportunities for direct dialogue between ANZ and the opinion makers, business clients/peers and other stakeholders,” he said.

Cornell said BlueNotes has four key objectives – to engage directly with new audiences (reducing its reliance on traditional media), improve the bank’s levels of “thought leadership”, contribute to the public discussion and increase ANZ’s brand value. On the back of BlueNotes’ success, ANZ has been able to fundamentally change the way it deals with the traditional media. Video interviews with ANZ executives, the latest reports and other newsworthy items are only released on the website, forcing business journalists who are seeking information about ANZ to refer to BlueNotes for source material rather than an old-fashioned press release.

Cornell said BlueNotes’ success relies on producing content that abides by rigorous editorial standards and “is not marketing driven”. The needs of its influential audience are at the centre of everything it does. With traditional newsrooms stretched for resources, sites such as BlueNotes provide a much-needed source of credible financial information.

When newsrooms fail

There is no such thing as the perfect newsroom. No newspaper or television station does everything right every time. Not everyone is always pulling in the same direction. Egomaniacs rule; meek managers survive; bullies often win. Bad ideas thrive while good ideas die. No one has developed a model that permits unfailing perfection from content conception to audience reception.

But brands that are looking to set up a newsroom face greater difficulties than media companies. The biggest is overcoming an existing culture – “Why are we doing this?” “That’s not the way we do things” – and this is a very big deal for anyone wanting to be a brand newsroom champion. Even with executive support, a brand newsroom will fail before it starts if people continue to work in silos and don’t understand the rationale behind the initiative.

Then there’s the factor of time. Just like any content marketing measure, brand newsrooms are long-term plays. While performance needs to be measured against established benchmarks, managers need to give any content-led initiative time to settle down and find its feet (and, yes, occasionally try things that fail) while slowly, slowly building an audience. Some experts say the window of opportunity needs to stay open for 18 months to two years before any meaningful progress can be tracked.

Newsroom scope

The first step to a successful brand newsroom is having a clear mission statement. This will set out the rationale behind the exercise, what targets it is planning to achieve and how all of this aligns with the company’s corporate goals.

Every business is different, which means every brand newsroom mission statement is different, too. Typically, a mission statement will revolve around increasing thought leadership or brand engagement, but they need to be married to clear measurement objectives. If this is the case, it’s not wise to fall into the trap of seeing an increase in social media shares and clicks as a sign that the newsroom is functioning well. Measuring influence – perhaps through engaging a media monitoring company such as Isentia – is likely to be a more meaningful metric.

Increased influence and credibility are two of the most important (and measurable) results on the road to successful content marketing. A brand newsroom is the engine that helps get you there.

Perhaps the first thing a company that commits to a brand newsroom strategy needs to decide is how big it needs to be. The answer, of course, is that newsroom size will be determined by an equation that takes in factors such as ambition, expectations and budget. Indeed a brand newsroom doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical thing at all – most of the content providers may be working in another city or town or out in the field.

Managers need to decide what the newsroom will be producing – how much content, how often and on which platforms. In episode 80 of Lush Digital’s excellent Brand Newsroom podcast, expert Sarah Mitchell said brands are best to concentrate on what they think will work best for their business and target audiences.

“For years there’s been this throw-away line in content marketing: ‘Be your own publisher’. Now there’s a big opportunity for brands to realise that,” Mitchell said. “They have the chance to set themselves up, not as a full-blown newsroom because that’s really hard, but to pick out one medium – if it’s a newspaper, magazine or podcast – and own that space. And really own it as the subject-matter expert.

“Not only [can] they demonstrate their authority, it gives them the opportunity to go out and contact industry analysts and influencers and get them to [be involved]. That’s where brands have the opportunity now – to quit thinking about ‘how can we influence the media?’ Just become the media.”

What makes up a newsroom?

At its most basic, a newsroom has three functions. It generates material (perhaps through a writer, artist, photographer or filmmaker) which is selected (by an editor or content manager) and made available to an audience (by a producer). But most newsrooms don’t generally function in such a linear way – editors and producers are often content generators, for instance, and editors can curate content from outside sources. The point is that the newsroom is the mechanism through which quality content is planned, crafted, buffed and published.

This means a brand newsroom structure can be as simple as one content manager (editor) who commissions content internally and externally, then publishes what is created on a single platform. But if content is only as good as the way it is promoted, this single manager will be busy generating enough material, promoting it through social media and other channels and understanding analytical data to determine what is working and what isn’t. Even a simple newsroom is likely to have a content manager, who will control strategy as well as write, commission, edit and organise the raw content materials, and a producer who will ensure each piece has good SEO, looks attractive and is optimised for mobile.

Larger organisations will need to consider a structure that includes functions such as these:

  • Content manager – newsroom and ideas champion; responsible for content planning and quality; works closely with social media and promotions managers; liaises with management to ensure content abides by corporate goals and for signoff (when necessary).
  • Content leaders – responsible for managing content creators in their speciality areas; reports to content manager.
  • Producer(s) – responsible for quality and consistency of how content is presented and optimised; liaises closely with content leaders and content manager.
  • Analytics specialist – monitors content performance and how it’s performing against established content KPIs; reports to content manager.

Content leaders perform an important function in this structure, with the size and scope of the business determining what they do. In a car-making business, for instance, individual content leaders will be needed to cover areas such as new vehicles, design, R&D and parts. It’s important that all key business areas are included in the plan; allowing any internal teams to slip through the cracks isn’t good when you want buy-in for your brand-new newsroom!

Good communication is also vital for success, with the content manager, producers and social media teams likely to meet daily, if not twice a day. All key newsroom members should meet at least weekly to determine what content will be produced and ensure agreed plans are on track. The team will also have more formal planning meetings every month and strategy meetings every six months.

Who’s in charge?

Regardless of scale, a major hurdle facing businesses wanting to create their own newsroom is creating a workable chain of authority. This is not only how quickly content can be signed off but understanding the motivations of those with the responsibility for making publishing decisions.

One of my clients prides itself on its “democratic” corporate processes – within loose guidelines, teams decide for themselves what their priorities are. They’re able to generate their own material, in their own way, and do it totally isolated from any centralised process.

The No.1 reason brand newsrooms don’t achieve their objectives is because someone isn’t given permission to take daily responsibility for what is being published. Like a newspaper without an editor, or a radio news service without a news director, a brand without a hands-on content manager or editor will almost certainly produce stories that don’t deliver value for their target audience.

Common newsroom questions

As mentioned earlier, the first thing a business looking to embark on the brand newsroom journey needs to do is work out its content objectives. These objectives need to cover the way the team does things every day, week, month and year. While every business is different, which means no two brand newsrooms are the same, many similar questions arise:

  • Who’s in charge of our content?
  • Who decides when and where we publish?
  • What won’t we publish?
  • Where do ideas come from?
  • How do we react to events that affect us?
  • What do we have in our system already?
  • What events and stories can we plan for?
  • How can our ideas be amplified?
  • What’s the best way to tell stories, by whom and when?
  • How can we harness our corporate “stars”?
  • When do we need to “buy in” expertise?
  • When should we tap into user-generated content?

Other questions need to be asked by a business or organisation that is involved in advocacy, such as a community-based group or business in the not-for-profit sector:

  • Do we want to present content as even-handed and independent?
  • What role does commentary play in our content mix?
  • Do we publish stories and commentary that don’t fit in with our world view?

What is news?

As a senior editor working across seven days in a major newsroom, I became accustomed to the “predictably erratic” nature of news. Random events could never be preempted or predicted, of course, which meant that editors needed to always have a plan (and sometimes a second and third plan) to cover any eventuality.

Breaking news, of course, is as it’s described – events that tend to happen outside the newsroom’s control. It needs immediate attention, and you need to think quickly to make the best of the resources you have to come up with appropriate angles. It also means you need to publish as soon as you’re confident the information you have is correct. This is when a newsroom is in “crisis mode”, and it’s what most great newsrooms say they do best.

Then there’s reactive news, where a newsroom is responding to less urgent events – in politics, sport or show business, for example – or other things you know are likely to happen. You need to report the news as well as develop ideas and angles to push the story along or take it in different directions. This is what most newsrooms deal with most of the time.

The news that is most valued in any newsroom is “original” news. This is the proactive investigation, interview or discovery that unearths something that wasn’t widely known or takes an existing story in a totally different direction. Creating “exclusives” are what journalists live for – being credited with something that changes the way people think or behave, and leads to a better understanding of an important issue. The story that you “catch and kill” is the most prized and valued commodity in news.

A good brand newsroom accepts that they will need to cope with all types of “news”, regardless of whether they’re in the business of selling cosmetics or turbines, or trying to save the Amazon rainforest. Leaders and participants need to know they have to deal with both “reactive” and “proactive” news, and plan for both.

Ideas are the lifeblood of any newsroom. That’s why your content list – which will capture and schedule your best ideas – is the content manager’s best friend. Like any content pursuit, a flexible and comprehensive content calendar that anyone in the team can find and use will keep the content kettle boiling. It will also give certainty when the expected (or unexpected!) doesn’t happen.

It shouldn’t be difficult to find content ideas. After all, you should be able to tap into all of the resources available to your business. Just as ANZ BlueNotes is the only place to find an exclusive interview with the bank’s CEO, any business can use its preferred publishing platform to offer unique insights, news or information that stamps it as an expert in its field. Larger companies and organisations are able to tap into top influencers from across the globe – experts who may be able to offer knowledge that other outlets simply can’t.

Common brand newsroom principles

As mentioned, no two brand newsrooms will be alike. Size and job responsibilities will determine how ambitious companies will want to be in their content endeavours. For any brand newsroom, however, here are seven essential elements for success:

  • Don’t expect perfection – It’s too easy to suffer analysis paralysis and over test everything before giving a new idea a try. Good newsrooms try things, measure their impact and learn from the experience. If things don’t work, try something else.
  • It’s not a physical thing – Relax! You don’t need to clear a whole floor of the corporate HQ to set up your newsroom (though that sounds pretty tempting, doesn’t it?). At its heart, a brand newsroom is a virtual structure that controls and monitors content.
  • Everyone is accountable – Any newsroom requires everyone to deliver or publish content when it’s expected, in the manner in which it was planned. Ultimately, however, a brand newsroom works at its best when one person is given the responsibility to make the whole thing function well.
  • Prepare for the unexpected – The key is to have an agreed content plan (and maybe another in your bottom drawer in case of emergencies) but you need to be flexible enough to react to urgent situations. Good brand newsrooms build in capabilities that allow a quick and timely response to any developing story (or situation) that is likely to have an impact on your target audience. And it has to be about your audience – not you.
  • Apply rigorous standards – Always expect to produce content that is not only useful and relevant but of the highest quality. A style guide administered by the content manager that takes in standardised wording, lengths and formats with clear examples is a must.
  • Publishing is just the start – Good brand newsrooms don’t segregate content and social media into separate divisions – they need each other to thrive. Great content is shareable and an active social media team allows newsrooms to hear what the audience is saying.
  • Seek expert advice – Setting up any newsroom from scratch is likely to entail some trial and error, and perhaps a few failures on the way. You may be best advised to engage the services of a consultant or experienced editor who has the knowledge in building and running news operations to set you on the right path.

Links & references

ANZ BlueNotes

Brand Newsroom podcast – episode 80