When Japanese car manufacturer Nissan hired former Reuters correspondent Dan Sloan as its new editor-in-chief, the company's boss of marketing and communications, Simon Sproule, mooted its plans to 'get into the business of killing press releases and writing stories'. Sproule said the endeavour would be a 'rival to the media...The bottom line is we want to break interesting news about our company.'
Sloan's appointment is helping Nissan achieve its goal; the company has turned its conventional-style press release archive into a mecca for multimedia content enthusiasts. The site boasts images, videos, documentary style films and social media sharing functions. As Japan recovered from the catastrophic earth quake, Nissan seized the opportunity to tell its story. Its chief executive Carlos Ghosn toured the carmaker's earthquake-ravaged plant in Iwaki, Japan last month, hotly pursued by a camera crew, who were not employed by an independent news organisation but by Nissan itself. Ghosn even broke some news in the process, by announcing that the factory was adding a third shift, allowing it to return to 80 per cent of its pre-quake output.
The Japanese car maker is not the first in its sector to experiment in this way. Ford launched its global communications initiative The Content Factory in 2008.
Like Nissan, Ford has put aligning marketing and communications messaging at the heart of its approach. 'Its aim is to centralise the development of messages and materials for a variety of audiences - employees, business and automotive news media, lifestyle and consumer media, broadcast, social media - so that Ford can communicate in one voice around the world,' explains Emmanuel Lubrani, senior manager, Content Factory, media bureau, Ford of Europe. Around 20 people work full-time in the Content Factory in Europe, which is split between Cologne in Germany and Dunton in Essex.
The team also has Content Factory journalists operating in the main European countries helping to shape stories for local needs and translating and adapting what is produced centrally. Their specialties vary from writing to video editing, camera work and graphics.
'It's a newsroom mentality that everybody in the department needs to find crispy ways to tell the Ford story; we have had some tangible success with a few stories that have been heavily featured in print, online and broadcast media. One was the Ford Pregnancy Suit, which was sent across different markets for the media to see how far Ford engineers go to take the needs of pregnant women into consideration,' he explains.
'Key to its success is inclusion in the global launch processes and alignment with marketing,' Lubrani adds. Part of Ford's approach has seen it eschew conventional marketing and communications channels. Last year it became the first car manufacturer to unveil a new model via Facebook instead of the more traditional route of a motor show.
But is this approach practical for all companies? Could a widget manufacturer pull off a similar feat? Not only do cars make great video fodder but they are the objects of lust for millions of motor enthusiasts. Nissan's Sloan thinks it's more borne out of a desire to pioneer right across the company. 'Our marketing communication team wants to be as innovative as its car designers at Atsugi and other research and development centres, and to some degree there is a sense that current methods are not generating the brand results and response commensurate with the resource commitment,' he says.
Nissan's literal interpretation of the corporate newsroom may not be for everyone but it is symptomatic of a wider trend, as companies create more engaging content in a bid to reclaim control of their company's narrative. Steve Dunne, chief executive of Digital Drums, points to the rise of the virtual press office. 'Companies need to make more of an effort to serve their audience 24 hours a day. We are seeing a new type of journalist online. They are more digital savvy, more likely to go on the web than pick up the phone or turn up on someone's doorstep.
'We are also seeing journalists trying to access information from further afield. Increasingly, journalists are writing about UK markets from other locations such as Australia. Companies need to have a better way of serving this audience, and a virtual press office is a good way to do that.'
At the most rudimentary level firms are making improvements to their online newsrooms, including more social media-friendly elements to allow bloggers and journalists to share stories on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google +1 and StumbleUpon.
Samantha Deeks, product director at Glide Technologies, thinks every well-designed newsroom should allow users to share content easily on social networks. 'We are helping clients aggregate their corporate Facebook and Twitter feeds and even their YouTube channel into their online newsroom, which is helping to bring people into the conversation,' she explains. Whatever is happening, the companies need to address the big stories of the day in a timely manner. 'When people search for your company generally the first thing that comes up is their corporate site so you need to have something up there when a crisis happens - if those conversations are happening via social media you need to show you are aware of them and address them in your online newsroom,' Deeks adds.
Dunne highlights the work done by McDonald's, Virgin Atlantic and BP as good examples of virtual press offices, but points out that you don't necessarily need a lot of money to do a good job. 'RSPB and The Terrence Higgins Trust are both good examples. The important thing is navigation,' he says.
If done properly Dunne thinks virtual press offices can help you set the tone of voice for your company's industry. 'Don't just talk about your company, talk about your sector, do it in an engaging and honest way and you are more likely to be able to set the tone of voice for your industry.'
Opportunities outside of tech
Amanda Brown, PR officer at first direct, is proving there are opportunities for financial services companies in this area. The online bank has integrated its Twitter feed, YouTube channel and Flickr images into its newsroom. 'From a search point of view it's gone from being two to three visits per month to about 3,000 visits,' she says. After being one of the early adopters, the mortgage lender is now figuring out how to make its site more useful. 'We want to make the newsroom more dynamic; I think the next generation will provide more instant commentary and response,' Brown adds.
Anthony Devenish, account manager at Wolfstar, who worked with first direct to create its online newsroom, adds: 'We've been looking for better ways to serve online content editors. The Guardian and Independent are always looking for more videos and podcasts. Having more multimedia content in the newsroom strengthens the journalist/PR relationship. As part of our work for first direct, we asked mainstream consumer finance journalists what they thought of the newsroom. Surprisingly a lot of journalists weren't aware of the new features on first direct's site, so it can be a challenge to get people engaging at first.'
Posting video and images are great ways to ingratiate your company with the tweeting masses. SABMiller re-vamped its newsroom last year and one of the most successful areas has been the corporate media image library. 'We now get typically get 1,500 downloads a month,' explains senior media relations executive Briony Clark. Unlike some sites, the company does not force users to register in order to use the images. 'We think it puts people off,' she explains. Empowering users in this way can be worrisome (especially for in-house lawyers) but it is increasingly important for companies. 'Ultimately the people who succeed will be those that relinquish a bit of control,' agrees Deeks.
For those unable to stretch to recruiting scores of video editors and former journalists, there are still plenty of options. After social media elements, image libraries and video content, comes more blogs.
SABMiller recently launched a blog from its communications team called Media Insider aimed at providing extra insight for journalists and bloggers. Brave communications professionals can also try out Mashable (http://mashable.com/social-media/), allowing journalists to gauge the zeitgeist on a story and tailor their angle accordingly. 'Corporate communications teams might find this intimidating at first (especially if no one tweets or likes the stories they produce) but eventually as confidence and capability increases, I believe this will become more popular,' Deeks predicts.
While some predict the death of the press release, others envisage a future where press releases merge with social media where corporate updates have punchier titles and less overt marketing lexicon.
Newsrooms of the future are more likely to actively respond to the conversations people are having. Wolfstar's Devenish adds: 'I don't think the press release is going to die but it's not enough on its own. You have to help the journalist to build the story and having social media elements on your corporate site makes that easier.'
Companies will also need to produce better content - especially when it comes to video, users are unlikely to share videos that don't look like the genuine article. As Sloan told the Financial Times, in-house broadcasts 'won't work if it comes off as state television...' It's got to be much more interesting than traditional marketing communications attempts have been.
Southern Water: case study
The utility company has also dipped its toe in the water with the launch of its new online media centre, which is aimed at mainstream journalists, bloggers and the general public.
'With media interest in water companies increasing, we knew we had to expand this section,' explains Leilah Nicola, press and PR officer at Southern Water. As well as news and statements, the new media centre includes:
- Downloadable photos of latest news and image library
- Audio clips for broadcast by radio stations
- Q&As about major projects, such as the universal metering programme
- Regional information about construction schemes, with links to photos and audio clips
- RSS feed and links to social networking sites
'The main challenges were deciding on the content, and making sure that content was different from that on Southern Water's main website,' Nicola says.
'For the key issues section, the press team discussed subjects that were most commonly asked by the media. These included complex environmental, financial and engineering issues, and things like water resources, leakage and flooding. Some of the issues are technical and need to be translated into laymen's terms,' she adds.
'When working with the designers, we had to keep it simple and easy to navigate. Journalists don't want to navigate their way through all-singing, all-dancing websites.'
'For it to be a credible source of information for journalists, it must be as up to date as possible. Southern Water's main website is looked after by a dedicated web team but because the media centre is managed by the press team, we had to learn how to update the site and make updates part of our daily routine.
'My advice would be to speak to as many journalists as possible before you start designing the website and have a look on other corporate sites to see what the big companies are doing. Make sure it offers something extra to the main company site but can be accessed by anyone. We didn't want it to look like an 'exclusive site' just for the press. All our customers can access the site if they're interested in the information on offer.'
Could these next generation newsrooms kill the press release?
CorpComms Magazine asks Nissan's editor-in-chief, Dan Sloan
What kind of content in your online newsroom is most popular with bloggers and mainstream media?
Why has Nissan chosen this approach?
The Nissan Global Media Center is not putting an end to traditional ways of promotion and advertising; it's more a recognition that innovative messaging and delivery is the main objective, and on occasion cheaper than traditional methods. In-house agencies - so I'm told - don't have tremendous legacies of success, but the team's brief is to yoke a wide field of stories and assets, and in our brief two month history we've discovered a fertile field of content.
What do you consider to be your biggest success story to date?
Numerically, it would be coverage of the electric vehicle racing; thematically, it would be the Japan and Nissan recovery story from the events of 11 March. We have travelled to every factory, spoken with executives and the rank and file, gone places and told stories that Nissan itself may have historically been reluctant to allow access to or want amplification on. The Media Center is intended to change internally and externally how the company is perceived and how it perceives itself - and we think that process has begun.
So is this the end of the press release?
Breaking stories and news are skills that we're bringing. With the press release, you really need to ask for whom is it useful. As long as there's an audience that can be quantified, I'm sure it will continue. However, if I was a company executive, I would measure whether that content is being re-delivered, and if it is worth the resource outlay? We are trying to produce content that will create a desire to return to an on-line platform, to watch twice or to email to a friend. How frequently does that happen with a press release?
How many people have been hired as a result of the creation of the new online newsroom?
So far we have hired five full-time staff, recruited two existing Nissan folks. We intend to use pre-existing Nissan media content pros, set up an international stringer network, and ultimately launch satellite bureaus across the globe. The platform is already in English and Japanese, and likely will be in Mandarin and Spanish in the foreseeable future.