How journalists are helping turn companies into publishers

Companies are increasingly hiring former journalists to work in-house to help get them closer to their target audiences. Sophy Buckley looks at why

The concept of brand journalism has been around since tractor manufacturer John Deere’s corporate magazine The Furrow was first published in 1895. The Furrow and the Michelin Guides, which followed in 1900, used editorial to promote their wares without actually writing about them. All are still going strong today.

The more recent surge in companies cottoning on to this brand-building hack of going directly to audiences with informed, well written and relevant stories follows a steady decline in traditional advertising – combined with the explosion of digital platforms and social media.

These days, if companies have something to say, they can say it directly on their own platforms. But this requires a new type of corporate marketing expert to help turn companies into publishers. And so businesses, from banks to software specialists and retailers to auditors, are increasingly turning to former journalists to develop and oversee the quality of their content programmes.

Says Mark Atkinson, a former economics correspondent at the Guardian who now oversees marketing and communications at an investment trust: “Brands can bypass the whole process of a press office and go straight to the audience. Social media and digital channels are particularly important today. They get the story straight out there. Journalists monitor these as sources as a matter of course now, so they might pick up a story and take it further.”

Ex-journalists working in-house like Atkinson bring an outside perspective, as well as newsroom traits such as a questioning attitude, the ability to distil the complex into something easy-to-understand, and great storytelling. But above all, they have a nose for news. They know what an audience will find interesting and they know how to present it.

Richard Edgar (pictured left), editor-in-chief at Fidelity International, the asset manager, says: “When you’ve been turning it out every day, defending your story to editors and subs, looking at online comments, devouring stats to see how far a reader got, you really learn how to craft a story. You know how to write the hook and to pace the story out. It’s more than that; you know what a story is in the first place.”

Edgar is the first to hold this newly created role at Fidelity International and has been in post for just over two years, having been hired from ITN where he was economics editor for ITV News. Besides TV, his CV takes in print, radio and online video in the great newsrooms of the Financial Times, Reuters and the BBC. He says it’s this training that Fidelity International was looking for.

“We produce video, audio and written content and my background covers them all. As a journalist, as opposed to a marketer, I bring a story-first attitude, not the corporate message – it adds to the marketing mix,” he says.

His team includes a mix of former journalists and investment writers, producers and graphic artists as well as two studio teams – one in the UK and one in Hong Kong. His output rivals independent news organisations for quality.

“We always start by thinking about what people are going to be interested in. Before, someone in investment had an idea and would either write it or summon a writer. Today we have a very clear process – we think about what the client would want to see first and then have the discussion with sales, marketing and PR to flesh out our ideas, before asking our investment colleagues for their answers,” he says.

Proof that this works comes from the sales teams, who get requests from prospects for more of his material. “We’re helping the sales process,” Edgar adds.

Alex Gee (right), VP of marketing and communications at WANdisco, a software company and FirstWord client, also has a media background. A former editor at Al Jazeera, her remit at WANdisco is to run the marketing and communications function in a role that was created for her.

“We had never combined the roles before but it makes sense. If a company is going to present itself in consistent manner to different audiences I don’t really believe that you can do marketing without a hand on communications,” she says.

With Gee on board, the company started a regular ghosted CEO blog aimed at its target market’s decision makers – the C-suite. “We decide the topic based on what else is going on and get it written. It’s good and the C-suite, which had struggled before with what is a very complicated solution, gets it. The blog is a much cleaner way of getting our ideas across,” she says.

She also believes her background means she’s not afraid of opinion and starting a debate, something perhaps traditional communications teams and marketers have been wary of. “When I ask difficult questions I’m doing my job. It makes comment more believable, more valuable,” she says.

Atkinson thinks the ability to get to the bottom of complex ideas and get them across in an engaging way is one of the major benefits of having in-house, newsroom-trained writers.

“Traditional investment writers are technically very good, but their writing is often a bit corporate. The thing about journalists is that they are always translating from specialist to everyday language. They also bring a news perspective. I find ex-journalists write much more engaging copy. They see a story and can bring it out in a way others can’t.”

Atkinson also says that former journalists bring a subtlety that is often missing in advertising and marketing and which audiences appreciate. Where a marketer’s copy is a direct sell, a journalist engages through an interesting idea or thought and with that might lead the reader to a product or service. “Marketing works, certainly. But content is better,” he says.

Like Gee, Atkinson sees his role as one of coordination between the different functions of marketing, communications, PR and investor relations. Edgar has a different take, and thinks it’s important to be positioned outside of marketing to maintain independence. He reports not to the head of marketing but to the head of corporate affairs.

“I have my own budget and am part of a communications strand that includes employee comms, corporate comms and editorial. It’s a novel approach but I’m convinced it’s a complementary way of doing it,” he says.

“Good editorial is always on. It’s a regular drumbeat, whereas marketing tends to focus on brand building or campaigns. Editorial is linked but we’re not directed by these campaigns. That’s another reason why having a journalism background is important, with a strong ethos of independence. We’re not trying to sell anything, just present facts in an interesting and engaging way.”

Having said that, he is adamant that editorial has to support the goals of the business. “It can’t be an ivory tower,” he says.

By having editorial in-house, the writers can build up relationships with the experts and will have a thorough understanding of what is going on in the company. Edgar, for example, believes that the validity of Fidelity’s content comes from the knowledge and experience his team can tap and write about. “We have real experts in-house and we can give them an excellent platform,” he says.

For those not trained as writers, the task can be daunting – so having an in-house former reporter can be a big help. Not only do they identify good topics, but their skills can also rub off on others. According to Gee, the quality of writing in general at WANdisco has gone up since she arrived as staff see the success of the CEO blog and mimic its style.

In the past, publishing demanded serious investment but technology has put it in the hands of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. To make it work, however, you need engaging copy – honed by talented writers and editors – to attract the attention of ever more distracted audiences. And, ultimately, that’s a role to which journalists were born.

Netting sales from the web

When Richard Edgar, former ITN economics editor, arrived as editor-in-chief at Fidelity International in the spring of 2016, the asset manager didn’t have a dynamic, global website for its institutional clients. The company was missing a trick and he was part of a team which set about putting that right.

Existing country websites were often limited, featuring basic company information and ad hoc content. Edgar wanted to launch something far more interesting, a destination that would “add to the sum of human knowledge”.

Fidelity went live in January 2018 with www.fidelityinstitutional.com. It is editorially-led and benefits from a multi-disciplinary team. “I wanted to start building editorial around what clients want to see, rather than what we want to say,” he says. “I’m really proud of the team and what we’ve made.”

Once past the T&Cs, the site is not what you might expect. “It was really important to me to make it as visually appealing as it was worthwhile reading,” he says. “We’re lucky enough to have a very active, thoughtful curator for the Fidelity art collection. He’s been able to influence the digital art on the static content pages, while we are commissioning illustrators for the editorial content.”

The site features video, blogs, articles and podcasts. Research suggested some users are time poor, so there’s clear labelling telling them how long it will take to watch, listen to or read. Graphics and animation also feature, and there’s a section on the company’s annual Analyst Survey. “This has attracted a lot of attention among clients and is actively helping the sales process, triggering a dialogue between us, clients and the sales teams,” he says.

Edgar has also introduced a themed approach, where content is commissioned and published around a topical subject. “I’ve borrowed that from periodicals and magazines like the Economist. It works really well where an individual story might not make much of an impact but grouping several together does.”

It’s early days yet and while he won’t share traffic numbers, he does say he is “delighted” with progress. “It’s not so much about quantity with this audience as the quality of engagement, ” he says. There’s more to do. It’s going to evolve.”

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