Todd Blecher for The Content MarketeerTwo years ago, Boeing’s communications and social media director, Todd Blecher, was assigned a 787-size task: Convert the airline manufacturer’s website from an information-only platform to a vibrant, engaging media outlet for telling the brand’s stories.

“Typically, we would have never thought of storytelling content,” Blecher recalls. “More typically we recited facts and figures with what I call ‘zoom and boom’ images. We would post facts like ‘20 percent more efficient’ and ’30 percent more that’ over pictures of airplanes.”

Unless content is carefully crafted, enterprises the size of Boeing can be especially susceptible to boring audiences with business speak and marketing puffery. Readers want personable content with obvious authenticity. Blecher, a former reporter for Bloomberg News, knew he could accomplish that by telling stories “through the eyes and the words of the people involved” at Boeing.

Today, more than a dozen people update Boeing’s Twitter and Facebook accounts and write news features for the company’s site. Even Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ vice president of marketing, Randy Tinseth, contributes to the writing pool with his blog, Randy’s Journal. Essentially, Blecher has turned Boeing into a publisher, earning plenty of respect for his work along the way (including a spot on our 50 Marketers to Watch in 2012 list).

When I spoke with Blecher recently, we discussed a key component of Boeing’s commendable content marketing operation: journalists. Here, he offers some advice on considering journalists for your own efforts, as well as what to look for when you’re hiring.

Preparing From Within

  • Not all organizations require true narrative storytelling as part of their content marketing programs. Do some soul searching to determine if this is the right approach. (Hint: If you serve a very technical niche, you may struggle to tell a compelling story. Consider a different approach, such as shared content.)
  • Many enterprise-level communications professionals are still deeply rooted in “press release” culture. The idea of covering the story internally might be new, so be sure everyone fully understands the concepts of content marketing and brand journalism.

Before You Hire

Make the “brand journalist” distinction
Those transitioning from traditional reporting, which requires a sense of objectivity and critical thinking, to brand journalism likely won’t be used to creating content with business interests in mind.

“We try to strike a balance between generating content favorable to Boeing and not making the content a puff piece,” says Blecher.

A brand journalist must be willing to do the same.

Weigh reporting v. storytelling
The difference here may not seem obvious at first. Reporters are adept at tracking down facts and relaying them, in most cases, in Associated Press style. They’re not always trained in magazine-style journalism, which entails building a compelling narrative, or story. As Blecher, who admittedly was more of a facts-listing reporter in his former career, puts it, “You’re still a journalist but you’re no longer a reporter.” He also cautions about tipping too far toward the narrative side: Facts are important, and you don’t want a journalist who dips too deeply into the creative.

Establish the “sales” factor
All experienced journalists are familiar with having their work edited. But those new to brand journalism should be prepared for input from a company’s public relations, legal, sales, and marketing departments. This is a major departure from traditional newsroom policies, so be clear about it up front to avoid problems down the road.

Look for multimedia skills
Your journalist(s) will likely need to take photos, shoot video, learn new software programs, and create content beyond writing to fulfill the particular needs of your content marketing program. Be sure they have the skills you need.

Kill the “scoop”
Many traditional journalists, particularly those with a news background, are used to competing with other news agencies for the “scoop.” But brand journalists should never try to scoop the news media. “I have no problems saying I’m a publisher,” says Blecher. “I have a problem with people saying that everyone is a media company now. We’re not a news agency.”