Who should decide what counts as ‘news’?
An interesting piece in this weekend’s FT highlighted the challenge that ‘corporate news’ now poses to traditional journalism. By which I mean the trend for companies not only to bypass the media by self-publishing PR stories, blogs or video clips, but also to create their own community news portals in which they present their stories as impartial news.
Some examples are given in the FT piece, which I strongly recommend reading.
Now, I am all for companies telling the best possible version of their story but I am squeamish about them sponsoring community websites which mix only positive corporate PR stories in with other kinds of ‘news’ (which presumably is not so positive). It’s clever and I am probably naive. But as someone who is a former journalist and works with a lot of PRs I’m not convinced this kind of approach won’t backfire in the longer term because it seeks to control the terms of the conversation rather than genuinely expanding it. And that runs counter to the supposedly transparent, inclusive principles, which underpin the digital age we now live in.
That said, companies are doing a sensible thing by taking a more journalistic approach to telling their stories, not least because many of them have been their own worst enemy when it comes to humanising what they do and the broader social benefits they bring.
So, if you are going to do more storytelling for your company or client, here are few tips.
1. Sell the benefits not the product
People working on these stories are frequently only given marketing literature or press releases to draft from. These inevitably focus on what is particularly cool or new about the product rather than emphasising the particular social need it meets. So, for example, if you or your client manufactures a type of handbag that is made from 100% recycled material and still looks good and lasts a long time then you need to tell the bigger story of dwindling resources, saving the planet while looking good etc. Very few people who might read this story will care about the product or its qualities in their own right. But if you appeal to their values, they might.
2. Don’t believe the hype
This also means you need to challenge the cliches which pervade marketing literature but look lazy or over-sold in stories. Usual suspects include ‘innovative’, ‘experience’, ‘unique’, ‘transformative’ and ‘exceptional’. They succeed only in being simultaneously bland yet hyperbolic (and usually unsubstantiated). After all, we are still talking about a cup of coffee or a pair of headphones. Keep your language grounded and make a point of showing (using facts and examples and independent evidence) not telling. If you don’t have enough information, go back to your client or your colleagues and ask for more. This is an iterative process so don’t worry if you think your first effort is a bit thin.
This is a personal gripe but you should also limit your use of compound nouns. Used sparingly they are fine but when I read lots of references to ‘meat-eaters’, ‘coffee-lovers’, ‘tech-aficionados’ etc I can’t help feeling that is a lazy way to try and create a movement around something that doesn’t really exist. Now, I know this is a marketing technique but it doesn’t work for stories, particularly if used too often. I am all for making language interesting but this doesn’t do it.
Here are a couple of traps to avoid. If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.