Companies once bought ads or sought free public relations as part of their marketing. Today many want to own the channel with their own form of corporate media, which is expanding in Australia.
Almost 70 years ago General Electric hired Kurt Vonnegut to travel America, “hunt for stories” and “keep a steady drumbeat of good news issuing from the plant”. The work by the author of Slaughterhouse Five is recalled in an article in Brunswick Review, as international public relations firm Brunswick analyses the trend towards corporate journalism.
In “Tales from the Media Frontier” Darren McDermott and Louise Ward argue that the idea of companies owning their own media outlets goes back at least to 1895 in the US when farm machinery company John Deere launched a magazine for farmers. Today companies “have access to the same distribution channels as mainstream media, from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to Reddit and Snapchat. Anyone with a story to tell has the means to tell it-and to have it heard,” they write.
GE’s most recent version is GE Reports, set up in 2008, as a “reactive tool” to the global financial crisis, according to managing editor Tomas Kellner, a former reporter for Forbes. He tells Brunswick Review — itself a corporate magazine: “The company wanted to contribute the GE Capital perspective to the conversation — but there weren’t enough writers around to be picking the story up from every company that wanted to be heard. So we originally built this platform to tell our side of the story, reactively. Now it’s really a proactive tool where we can tell all the stories we think are worth telling.”
Kellner says the site has around 17,000 subscribers who get a daily email. The site (gereports.com) includes stories on three major themes related to GE — what’s new in tech, brilliant machines and advanced manufacturing.
In Australia, the most notable example of “owned” media is the ANZ’s BlueNotes [bluenotes.anz.com] launched last year and produced by the “ANZ newsroom”, a team of three including former Australian Financial Review journalist Andrew Cornell.
Cornell says BlueNotes has seven “topic pillars” including the Asian century, economics, technology and innovation, management in Asia, leadership issues and information about ANZ.
“It is not a retail site,” says Cornell. “We are not out there trying to sell any products. It is about having a high-level discussion about the issues.”
BlueNotes is free and has about 4000 subscribers including people in the media, people working in financial services, stock market analysts, customers, regulators and policy makers.
About a third of the content comes from outside ANZ, some of it specially commissioned for the site. A recent feature was “Metropolis Now” a 10-part series “exploring the next wave of urbanisation as Asia follows Europe and America building the great cities of the future”. Other recent stories have included “Australia’s Latin American oversight”, “Five things mentors teach about leadership”, by ANZ executive Michelle Rayner, an article on the internationalisation of the Chinese currency by ANZ’s chief China economist and another on ways to help small businesses “tap into Asia”.
ANZ head of corporate communications Paul Edwards says the establishment of the website was partly driven by the cutbacks in media. “Traditional media is shrinking,” he says. “There simply aren’t enough journalists to cover all the topics we want to cover from our business point of view.”
Andrew Baxter, chief executive of the Australian arm of international advertising and public relations agency Publicis and regular contributor to The Deal, says BlueNotes is an example of an increasing trend towards “owned media”. In the past companies pitched their wares through a combination of “paid media” — advertising — or “earned media” using public relations people to sell stories to the traditional media. In “owned media” companies produce their own content including websites, blogs and social media feeds. And like, say, Richard Branson’s professional Facebook site, it allows a company to communicate directly with an audience without having to go through gatekeepers such as journalists or advertising schedules.
“The AFL, Cricket Australia and Major-league Baseball are leading examples of sports that have their own media departments to drive their own content,” Baxter says.
He points out that international consulting firm McKinsey has long had its own regular white papers and reports on industry trends and issues available to subscribers and clients. And Huggies has a website with thousands of pages of information on parenting — and very little on their own products, he says.
He says department stores such as Myer live stream fashion launches on their website while stationer Officeworks and hardware chain Bunnings publish do-it-yourself videos on websites and social media outlets.
Cornell says BlueNotes produces around two new stories a day and sends out a weekly newsletter featuring eight to 10 new stories.
The launch of BlueNotes was originally treated with some scepticism by journalists. But Edwards says: “Now there is a recognition that there will be many forms of journalism, There is an appetite online for a smorgasbord of content — people aren’t subscribing and dedicating themselves to only one outlet.”
Cornell says ANZ is regularly approached by other big companies closely watching the BlueNotes exercise. “We average one to a couple of presentations a month [to companies wanting to learn about BlueNotes]. In the first three or four months, it was all about why we were doing it. We pointed out that traditional media was shrinking, that we now had an opportunity to do it ourselves and by being online it was not that expensive. But in the past three or four months the questions have been on how we are doing it. Companies are saying to us that they know, as a corporation, they should be doing something similar, but they want to know how we have done it.
“They are thinking — how do we talk about what we are doing? In the past they might have tried to get an interview with a journalist but it’s very hit and miss. Now they know they have an opportunity to build their own audience.”
Cornell says one of the changes made to BlueNotes from its initial launch was to expand the amount of content devoted to what ANZ was doing.
“Coming from the journalism side, I thought people won’t want to hear ANZ talking about itself. But in fact people do want to hear ANZ talk about itself as we can go into a lot more depth and provide strategic information.”
Cornell says he has found there is also a “huge appetite” for articles on the site about leadership and management.
One popular writer has been ANZ’s global head of human resources, Susie Babani, who writes about human resource issues. One of her recent posts was about how the glass ceiling for women starts well down the corporate ladder.
“She speaks with an authentic voice and has strong opinions which is a good thing,” says Cornell. “You need authenticity. You can tell it is her — it is not something written out of some corporate communications team.”
In their article in Brunswick Review, McDermott and Ward argue that “every company is a media company”. The writers provide advice to other companies thinking of following suit. This includes building a publishing game plan to support the company’s communications goals, developing “an authentic editorial voice”, and not being afraid to “start small”.
BlueNotes will launch its own app soon to allow easier access by mobile phone for subscribers and there are plans for four webinars (online seminar discussions) a year on specific topics.
Cornell says one likely development will be for companies to open up more of their content produced for their internal audience and clients to the broader public.
Glenda Korporaal is The Australian’s associate business editor.