Former journalists can help brands cut through the explosion of content across the Internet and get their voices heard.
In late 2005, PR entrepreneur and media visionary Larry Weber took the stage at a now-defunct conference called Syndicate and made some outrageous statements.
Weber said the newspaper industry, which was just wrapping up its best business year ever, was on the brink of an epic collapse. He predicted the next milestone The Wall Street Journal would reach would be surpassing 1 million print subscribers -- on the way down.
And in a special act of hubris, Weber said reporters for the Journal and BusinessWeek would some day write for corporations. (Thanks to Doug Kaye and his crew at IT Conversations, you can still hear Weber’s speech here.)
Those ideas were almost unthinkable at the time, but Weber’s forecast about the impending collapse of the newspaper industry proved uncannily accurate. Now the second of his predictions is coming true.
Have a look at Intel's Free Press and Cisco's revamped newsroom, called The Network. These are massive reinventions of the traditional corporate press rooms, and they foreshadow the future of public relations.
Online press rooms have traditionally held an archive of news releases and media citations, but they're now being overhauled as media portals in their own right, in some cases featuring content that was once found only in high-end magazines.
The people creating this content are journalists who would have been out of reach to publicists just five years ago. For example, Cisco's news editor is Wendy Tanaka, formerly of Forbes and Red Herring. The site's contributors include veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Bill Bulkeley, former BusinessWeek columnist Steve Wildstrom, and former BusinessWeek senior correspondent John Carey.
Another BusinessWeek veteran, Steve Hamm, now anchors the corporate Smarter Planet blog for IBM. Contributors to Barnes & Noble's Review site include successful authors, illustrators, and even Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Michael Dirda. The corporate blogosphere is dotted with dozens of veteran journalists, and their numbers are growing.
The availability of this kind of talent, often at bargain prices, comes at an opportune time for marketers who are wrestling with the explosion of content across the Internet. Shouting louder or spending more than your competitors are no longer effective marketing tactics. The new challenge is to attract audiences with content that they will subscribe to and share voluntarily.
Cisco saw mainstream media's disruption as an opportunity to build its image as a visionary company. In an interview on the For Immediate Release (FIR) podcast, corporate communications director John Earnhardt explained that the disappearance of more than 40,000 jobs from US newsrooms created a void that Cisco could help to fill.
Cisco had actually considered setting up a fellowship for laid-off journalists, but why not put them to work instead? “We need to be driving conversations about the things we care about," Earnhardt said. Out of this philosophy came The Network and features like the Network Trailblazers series, which profiles the people who defined the early stages of the Internet.
Intel doesn't identify its freelance contributors, but the Free Press philosophy is similar to Cisco's Network. A few years ago, a story about the lack of innovation in recent tablet products would have been ludicrous coming from a company that does business with so many of those vendors, but the free-for-all of online visibility demands different rules.
The Free Press also displays an unusual message at the top of its home page: "Take Our Stuff." These days, content that can't easily be shared is effectively invisible. As long as there's a link back to the source, the work of these corporate journalists is there for the taking. This is one way corporate marketers are gaining a leg up on mainstream media. While news publishers are busy building pay walls around their content, corporate publishers are freely giving it away.
Corporate publishing is nothing new. Businesses have been producing magazines for their customers for years, and institutions like AARP and AAA send millions of magazines to members every month. What's changing is the conventional wisdom that corporate journalism has to be inoffensive promotional pabulum. Readers never did respond to that stuff in the first place, and today they have more alternatives than ever.
The Free Press and The Network are still a bit too promotional for my taste, but these are works in progress that will quickly evolve in line with audience response. Intel and Cisco are on the right track, and plenty of others will follow. The mainstream media have an important new competitor to contend with: its advertisers. When you think about it, that's a pretty powerful idea.
— Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker, and online marketing consultant. He specializes in social media and the application of personal publishing to brand awareness and business marketing. His latest book is Social Marketing to the Business Customer (co-authored with Eric Schwartzman, January 2011).
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