MADISON, Wis. (early 2005)
My 6’5” news director stared down at me, chuckling.
“Facebook? You really think that is a story? For real?”
Al Zobel, a long time TV news vet, had a particularly high standard for what qualified as “news.” He was naturally skeptical.
I was a young reporter, starting my first medium-sized market, on-air job. My story pitch was on the emergence of Facebook at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Students were using the network to organize around State Street Halloween celebrations, block parties and the occasional protest. I needed the TV station’s parent company to “unblock” the social media site for the newsroom.
I may as well have been asking for a Corvette.
“FACE-book?” my news director continued to bemoan, wondering aloud why anyone would care about a digital collection of faces.
But he ultimately got me access to run the story.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way we were consuming, sharing and reporting information in 2005 was about to go through a massive shift in the span of just a few short years.
And this was most certainly driven by the rise of social media platforms.
What I also didn’t know was how my work as a journalist would uniquely position me for a career helping corporations, nonprofits and others navigate that shift.
A Change of Pace
When I first stepped on to the campus of Gonzaga University, I thought I was going to be on “SportsCenter.”
However, my broadcast journalism professor Dan Garrity, a first-year teacher and longtime TV news reporter, pulled me aside one day to offer some advice.
“Sean, TV news is a noble business,” he said. “You’re holding people accountable. You’re responsible for finding the truth.”
From that point forward, I was no longer bound for ESPN. Instead, I was determined to hold the powerful accountable and uncover the truth by working in TV news.
For eight years after college I did just that, climbing my way up the rungs of various newsrooms until I’d reached my news apex.
In 2008 I was working for the Associated Press at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, putting in 16-hour days for a nominal salary while covering tear gassing and Sarah Palin speeches – the week leading up to my wedding no less.
As much as I relished being at the heart of the biggest story in the news, the time had come for a change of pace.
From 1:40 to 140
It was around this time that larger companies started caring about this “social media thing,” and later that year, I made the leap to marketing and communications.
How did I go from reporting on Black Friday sales to developing social media marketing plans for retailers looking to make a big splash that day?
I started by assessing my skill set as a journalist:
- Distillation of information
- Audience intelligence
- Real-time mindset
- The instinct to ask one more question
Looking at my abilities, it became clear: my eight years in TV news had prepared me perfectly for the oncoming digital brand age of marketing.
My marketing and communications career began with specialist roles that morphed into social media management – which turned into evolving social media and leading digital content at places like Target and JCPenney.
It was a quick ascent, and being a journalist is exactly what set me apart. Take a look at how those skills I mentioned above transfer.
Distillation of information: In TV news, stories often run about 1 minute and 40 seconds. Journalists can tell a complete story in this amount of time. In fact many segments you see are even shorter.
This means the best reporters know how to get to the heart of something quickly, and do it in a way that resonates with the viewer.
Social media can further condense the amount of time you have to grab someone’s attention.
It doesn’t take a talent sourcing wizard to see why a reporter – who had to capture the most relevant outcomes of a six-hour city council meeting in a few sentences – might be uniquely qualified to tackle a 140-character limit.
Audience Intelligence: Journalists are as connected to their communities as anyone, understanding the ins and outs of what matters at city hall and down Main Street. A common phrase reporters ask about each story on behalf of their audience is, “What’s in it for me?”
In the same way, brands need to be acutely aware of what’s in it for their consumers, and what matters to them.
Storytelling: Journalists find concise ways to tell stories that resonate with the reader or viewer in the quickest way possible.Capturing the heart of a story in a tweet or 30-second TV segment is vitally important as attention spans shrink and information overload expands.
Real-time mindset: Journalists are always on. From the days of pagers to breaking news tweets, journalists understand stories change in the course of minutes and can react quickly.
Brands need to understand what people are saying about their industry, topics of interest, and competitors at all times. Kind of like how a reporter might work on a “beat.”
And the proof is in the pudding. Journalists see overnight ratings – marketers see hourly social engagement.
Asking the extra question: “What’s the story?” is every bit as critical for brands as it is for a newsroom. Why will people care? Why will they engage?
Asking simple questions like, “What does the viewer need to know and why?” drives every element.
Each element of the narrative arc is purposeful, with different angles for who is watching, where, and when. Every tease asking a viewer to tune in at 10 p.m., every video clip or graphic element, points back to what the story is about, and why it matters to the viewer.
Navigating the Culture Shift
As we’ve written about here on Elevate before, social media demands that brands are held accountable. In return, consumers will ultimately have more trust when brands are authentic and truthful in their marketing messages.
There are immediate benefits for the brand as well, in the ability to gain quick consumer insights.
In 2004, widespread use of smartphones – much less Twitter – was a long way off. But by 2010 social media was a critical part of nearly every TV newscast, newsroom, digital marketing budget and PR plan.
My career trajectory has mirrored the shift in media consumption. I was lucky to be just far enough ahead of the “disintermediation” curve for media, and applied my skills to brand storytelling just as brands were waking up to the idea that they could BE the media.
And while digital communication, technology and networks will only further disintermediate how we get news, learn about brands, and make purchasing decisions – brands will have to adapt to the changing tides of social platforms.
At its worst, social media is an unorganized cesspool of noise. But at its best, social media is the ultimate truth serum for brands and those in power. It’s part of the fourth estate, so it makes a hell of a lot of sense for brands to bring a journalist along for the ride.