There is no real news in this blog post

November 17, 2016

I’m a ghostwriter.

I do plenty of other things as part of my job, but the core of my professional skill is the ability to take someone else’s ideas and point of view, and write them down in a way that people sort of, sometimes, seem to like. You might have read some of these words. They end up in lots of places: marketing collateral, corporate websites and blogs, email campaigns, social media sites, and print and digital publications.

As a ghostwriter, I write the truth the way our clients see it and in their voices. Maybe they predict a major shift in the way companies consume data, and they want to explain the technology burden that change will create. Or they see a flaw in cybersecurity strategy, and they want to share ideas for addressing it. Or they know retailers are looking at the next few weeks as the make-or-break time for the whole year, and they have actionable ideas for how their prospective customers can sell more stuff.

For the audiences we target for clients, these are valuable pieces. The IT director, the marketing lead, the CFO…they all have to make purchasing decisions based on what they know about their industries and the challenges they’ll face next. When we help clients teach audiences how to do their jobs more easily or more profitably, it moves these folks into the marketing funnel and one step closer to a sale. We call it educational content – and it is – but the end results are ultimately measured on the bottom line.

To convince a tough editor to run a think piece from a client, we know it has to have a strong point of view. It has to come from a credible leader in the industry. It has to have supporting evidence. It has to be timely. And it has to answer the question, “so what?”

Convincing gatekeepers to accept and run these articles is a challenge, but it’s a completely different animal than getting a client into a news story.

Good reporters vet their sources – they make an implicit promise to their audiences to do so. When we pitch executive sources to news reporters, we know those execs need the chops to back up what they say, and we know they won’t be the only voices in these stories. (This is what makes media relations so valuable to marketers – because when journalism and PR work together the way they should, readers get balanced information they can trust.)

I point this all out because the distinction between opinion pieces and news feels less clear these days. It’s hard to blame readers for losing sight of the divide. Take Medium. On Medium, I can write however many words I want about whatever I want – Dog telepathy! The zombie apocalypse! The electoral college! – and I can publish it right now. I can put a click-baity headline on it, include a beautiful, free stock photo and send it off into the world, where it might be shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – and mistaken for news.

I can also write thoughtful (but still opinionated) pieces on Medium, which many organized “publications” are now doing in that space. (While some more recognizable news outlets are there now, too, you see less of them, primarily because independent journalism is pretty insistent on its independence, and Medium isn’t about to give up control of its own platform.) If I do this well, these might get shared a lot, too – but still, it’s not news. The same goes for many other publications that welcome expert contributors as part of their editorial mix.

There is a trope in content marketing that we are all publishers now. Certainly, if you’re building a corporate brand or a personal one, you should be leveraging owned (your company blog, your LinkedIn page, your Medium channel), earned (media placements) and paid (boosted distribution or even native ads) opportunities.

But if you’re consuming information or sharing it widely with your networks, you should be clear about what it is you’re sharing.

Commentary is different than reporting. Contributors are different than editors. Reputable news outlets are different from fake news. Listicle factories are recycling someone else’s assertions. Marketers have an agenda – and so do fringe outlets

Recently, I had to fill out a questionnaire at work about what the people in my life would list as my innate strengths. I asked my husband to weigh in. He told me I was smart and funny (because he’s a smart guy himself), and “highly verbal” (he’s also diplomatic). Personally and professionally, I see value in having a clear, unapologetic point of view and sharing it. But it takes a lot of factual stuff to create an informed point of view. Where can a person go to get all that factual stuff? Legitimate news is a great place to start.

In addition to the links above that lead to marketing content related to this topic, this post links out to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. They’re trustworthy sources worth reading, sharing – and even paying for.

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