Brand journalism 101: Tell a Better Story

If you want your company to succeed at brand journalism (aka corporate media gone social), you better know how to tell a good story. Otherwise, be prepared to take a lot of heat from its critics who would be elated to escort “brand journalism” out of 2013 STAT.

Brands, of course, love it, because it enables them  to bypass the media and take their message directly to the public in hopes of building a relationship with customers that will positively impact the bottom line. The real win—when done right—is an increased level of trust. Naysayers, on the other hand, begrudge brand journalism for its diminished objectivity and advertorial tone.

Sure it breaks a few editorial rules, but when delivered without the 24/7 sales pitch, consumers benefit by gaining an inside look at the company with whom their spending money, as well as useful “how-to” information, and even introductions to lesser-known causes and non-profits.

Not every company has the budget to hire a trained journalist, however it is much easier to retain a level of objectivity and identify compelling story lines if your writer is fresh to the team. Someone who understands how to work in multiple perspectives, and can lend a consistent, fair voice, is key to attaining authenticity. Avoiding common pitfalls such as bland language; poor grammar, punctuation and spelling; erroneous facts, too much back-patting, limited perspective, and other taboo writing mistakes, is paramount to maintaining a sense of credibility among consumers and third-party media.

Here are several other dos and don’ts to ensure that your words don’t get overlooked, or just as bad, ridiculed by traditional journalists who live and die by their editorial integrity:

  • If you can’t be objective, be transparent.
  • Be relevant… to current events, industry and lifestyle trends, business philosophies and pop culture.
  • Offer worthwhile expertise and don’t tell your readers something that they already know.
  • Ask good questions: Your sources don’t always know how to tell their story. Help them.
  • Uncover stories/angles that inspire readers to broaden or change their perspective.
  • Do your homework: A poorly researched story, no matter how benign the content, will not be taken seriously.
  • Proofread: If you want to wear the title of journalist, then keep an AP Stylebook or other copyediting reference guide on hand, along with a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, a thesaurus and a dictionary. With all the available online and mobile resources, there is simply no excuse for sloppy editing.
  • Make sure that your story is about real people, not a self-serving promotion full of empty words that fail to draw readers in and make them care about your “characters”.
  • Identify the details that will compel readers to share your story and include them.
  • Give readers room to form their own opinions of what you’re writing about.
  • Keep it real: Too much self-promotion pushes audiences away.
  • Put a little skin into your storytelling: Resist the back-patting and open up to your audience by revealing mistakes and struggles, doubts, growth and hard-fought lessons.
  • Show, don’t tell: You’re writing a story, not a resume. Don’t expound on your company’s philosophy; show it with real-life examples and anecdotes.

And finally, always bear in mind the words of my former editor: There are no bad stories; just a lot of bad writers.

Dawn Elyse Warden-Reeder

A former lifestyles magazine editor and reporter covering an array of topics including philanthropy and business, health and well-being, sustainability, fashion, music and food, Dawn entered the public relations and social media field in 2010 as Executive Partner of The Whole Enchilada PR, now the culinary division of The Warden Ettinger Group. You can find Dawn on LinkedIn and Twitter (@eatDEWwrite).

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  1. says

    Great post! I find that asking questions is a great way to elicit engagement. Also, behind the scenes looks at a company really gets a lot of engagement too. Which platform/social network do you find is better for asking questions and getting responses?

  2. Matt Brennan says

    I couldn’t agree more. Business bloggers could stand to learn a lot from journalists, about writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote a guest blog about it as well at ProBlogger: Those are some good tips you listed at the bottom of your blog.