Please, no more propaganda

How the disciplines and craft of journalism are changing corporate communications – for the better

By Chris Lee Ramsden

This is an exciting time to be in communications.

New opportunities to stand out from the crowd and engage an audience abound, partly because so many companies still seem to believe that talking about themselves is the only way of making sure their target audience will understand the value of their brand. Here are three examples of the opening sentences of articles written by major, global bands:

“We are committed to developing environmentally sustainable solutions.”

“We communicate openly with our surroundings.”

“We are focused on mobilizing our resources across the company and around the world, to create opportunities in the communities where we do business, and to fulfill our commitment to serving the public good through innovative technologies and partnerships.”

As you can see, this approach is likely to push your audiences away. Not through offensive statements or challenging beliefs – but through boredom. We are all subjected to a barrage of messages online every day, and many of them are so flat and clichéd that shutting them out is easy. So, how do you engage an audience and showcase your brand?

Quit writing like a marketer; instead, think – and write – like a publisher

“Businesses and organizations that make a commitment to serving their customers with great content – just as they commit to providing a quality product – create interest and build loyalty,” writes Geoff Livingston, author of Welcome to the Fifth Estate. “They offer value where others simply offer PR messages.”

What is this value, exactly? It seems to lie somewhere within a magic triangle of insight, information and entertainment. And it means writing about – and for – your customers and their markets. “Shine the spotlight on the cause and what others are doing in your industry, rather than yourself,” says Ed Nicholson, director of community and public relations for Tyson Foods Inc. “It will generally reflect favorably back on you.”

So, what do you need to do to carry this off for your brand?

Publish like the hottest magazines

Magazines – both mainstream and trade publications – know how to capture an audience and keep them coming back for more. They know how to generate content that will engage an audience, and they can do it consistently to tight deadlines. However, at the same time, the traditional publishing industry is facing a crisis – and this has presented corporate communications with a huge opportunity that it is beginning to take.

Fact #1: The trade and mainstream press can no longer cover all your industry’s stories. After years of cutbacks, their staff is too small and inexperienced.

Fact #2: Many of the older, more experienced editors and journalists are taking their know-how elsewhere: communications departments and agencies.

Fact #3: These publishing experts are appalled at the lack of an editorial mission, guidelines and workflow behind company newsletters and magazines.

Fact #4: These same people are turning dull company newsletters into tightly constructed, compelling industry magazines that really can engage an audience.

As a result, it’s never been easier to act like a publisher and engage an audience that will have far-reaching benefits for your business. The skills are out there for hire. And there is a gap that your company’s publication can plug, provided it lives up to the standards expected of editorial journalism.

Plugging the gap

Geoff Livingston explains exactly what this gap is, where it can be found and how new company publications can fill it in markets all over the world: “The lack of coherent editorial guidelines in most blogs and corporate publications provides an opportunity for organizations to become authoritative thought leaders if they can transition effectively from PR machines delivering messages into providers of useful factual information. To do this they must become their own corporate journalists.”

Today, company magazines are appearing that use the same approach as the hottest mainstream magazine publishers, such as Wired or Vanity Fair. It’s not just a question of style. There’s a whole strategy and array of disciplines behind the production of leading publications. They work to a strong editorial mission and editorial guidelines, and employ a workflow that can meet tight deadlines time and again. And now, corporations are also beginning to understand the power of a coherent content strategy.

Print media still makes a huge impact with an audience. There’s nothing like leafing through a well-produced magazine with great stories and a crisp design. And there are often opportunities to hand over your company magazine in person at conferences and trade fairs. However, online publications – using the same powerful publishing know-how – can help you reach a wider audience, and get closer to them more quickly via social media and sharing links. It’s vital that companies make themselves accessible to that audience, and there have never been so many opportunities to make an impact and build credibility for your brand.

Working like a marketer, thinking like a journalist and producing like a publisher means that your audience – your customers – will build a powerful connection with your industry, your business and your brand. Indeed, this is an exciting time to be in communications.


Look for more trends in corporate publishing in future editions of WordSpin.


4 Responses to “Please, no more propaganda”

  1. Dan Elloway says:

    All very true. It’s basically the ‘content is king’ argument with added bells and whistles.

    One problem is that companies still believe the content they produce has to talk about their products or services in some way. As a result, too much free content becomes no more than lightly veiled advertorials. Corporate editors have to take a step back, realise that everything they produce does not have to speak about their products (in glowing terms) and simply present useful industry-related information. Do this, and trust in your brand will grow.

    • Chris says:

      @Dan Yes, and the bells and whistles change the emphasis so that ‘conversation is king; content is just something to talk about.’

      I totally agree with your message to corporate editors. It’s a basic rule of good communication: find a common interest and share what you know. No one stays long in a conversation one person won’t stop talking about how great they are. Thanks for sharing your insight, Dan!

  2. Nanette Hale says:

    GREAT article, Chris!! The mindset behind ‘working like a marketer, thinking like a journalist and producing like a publisher’ is also relevant when it comes to CSR. Audiences are savvy and have high expectations. They see through simple propaganda and good-conscience sponsorship. They want to see real commitment that changes the status quo; or a great experience that moves them, or knowledge that make them wiser. The ‘brought to you by Samsung’ approach doesn’t work any more. Only deep commitment to a cause creates credibility. Novo Nordisk is an obvious Danish case in point.

    • Chris says:

      @Nanette Yes, spot on. It never ceases to amaze me how many corporations seem to think their agenda is invisible to the public – especially in the wiki age. CSR can come across as an acknowledgement that the product or service a company delivers is not reason enough to justify its existence… Harsh maybe, but because of the bad behavior of a minority of companies over the last few decades, audiences have good grounds to be suspicious when corporations report on their own do-good campaigns, especially if they take a heavy-handed, propaganda-like approach. Thanks for bringing CSR into the discussion Nanette.