WIJ How to work with brands by Sonya Thomas

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There was a full house at  WIJ’s joint event with Women In PR on working with brands, kindly hosted by Ketchum at their offices in Spitalfields. The panel, chaired by Sunday Times editorial director and WIJ’s chair Eleanor Mills, consisted of Jackie Hunter, Managing Editor at the Wall Street Journal’s Custom Studios; Louise Court, Director of Strategy and Content for Hearst Magazines and WIJ committee member; Helena Raven, Head of Digital for the NSPCC; and Jo-ann Robertson, Partner and MD at Ketchum. They answered questions on how they worked with brands, what works well, the challenges, and what opportunities exist for journalists to tap into a growing and lucrative field.

We heard from Hunter that the relationship between journalists and brands works best when the client  knows exactly what they want, trusts that you can create something that meets their needs – and which, importantly, speaks directly to the publication’s demographic. It can go wrong when the message gets confused or there are too many stakeholders who join the process too late. A win-win situation, according to Mills, is when brands want to sponsor content that the publication is already creating anyway.

It helps to start with a shared understanding of what you’re trying to achieve and the desired outcomes. Don’t leap to execution – “right is better than now “ or, dazzled by another brand’s success, try to emulate their strategy without considering first whether it will work for your audience.

Magazines are used to working with brands, according to Court, and the challenge is often getting everyone to agree on what native means. Sometimes native content created for brands is so closely aligned with editorial content of the publication it appears in, it’s hard to spot the difference. Raven agreed. There’s always a risk – over-branding, over-using logos – of crossing over from native to advertorial, which is always more clearly signalled to the reader, so be realistic; set out the red lines from the start so areas of compromise are clear.

PRs work hard to balance the story with the right content and channels, Roberston explained, whether they are editorial, events or social media. And they need to think about how the public will respond, and how quickly, to a campaign and make sure they are ready to respond in turn. Her experience is that stories are more likely to go viral when the branding is subtle, but ultimately, without a compelling story, branded or not, it won’t work. That’s where journalists can use their traditional skills of creativity, storytelling and problem solving when things go wrong, and work in partnership with PRs so the focus is always on telling the best story possible.

In terms of advice for journalists, the message was be prepared to compromise and expect more re-writes – stakeholders can take weeks/months to sign-off. Know the publication. If you want to write for the WSJ, know something about business, economics, and tech. Know who the WSJ reader is, and how to follow a brief. The journalist generating the story must be able to back it up with credible and thorough research.  WSJ has an intelligent readership with high expectations and big brands pay lots of money, so your writing has to be as good, if not better, than the editorial pages. WSJ pays good rates for customised content, but you can expect more if you’re working directly for a brand or writing for an agency, in which case you want to be as close to the initial planning and conversations as possible. And authenticity matters. A journalist working on a branded product that she has no faith or belief in won’t produce credible copy.