- Brand publishing teams must strike a balance between creating valuable, interesting content and protecting the best interests of their companies.
- Review processes can help ensure their work doesn’t cause unintended friction or consequences.
Creating interesting, differentiated and high-value content is crucial for any brand publishing endeavor, which is why a growing list of companies is looking to journalism — and often former journalists — to spearhead their content efforts.
But one challenge brand publishing groups face is that they operate within the boundaries of broader business in a way journalism traditionally does not. Meanwhile, journalists typically operate in a manner that most companies are not familiar (or in some cases, comfortable) with.
As a result, brand publishing teams must walk the fine line between creating impactful, attention-grabbing content, and protecting the interests of their broader companies.
Content can hurt business interests in a variety of ways:
- A story or article could name a current client or business partner of the company in an unflattering way
- A piece could focus on broader issues that draw attention to a company’s clients or partners in a way they do not want
- For an investment firm, private equity company or venture capitalist, a story could expose certain gaps in their portfolio — or inadvertently criticizes certain investments
- Articles with certain tones or angles could be perceived as offensive by someone within the company
- Specific stances around issues such as racial justice, health or vaccinations can be polarizing, both within the company and externally
- Publishing certain pieces could “cannibalize” existing monetization or revenue lines — offering for free certain insights or knowledge that the company normally sells to clients
Problems like these can often do lasting damage to relationships and how companies present themselves. It can also simply be bad business — publishing is intended to be a value-add to the core of the brand’s own work, not detract from it in any way.
What makes this issue even more tangled is that correcting, clarifying or consistently “pulling” certain content offline are reactive measures that often do more harm than good. Pulling content is often a knee-jerk reaction that can lower reader confidence in what is being published. Altering content after publication is often necessary if certain facts are wrong (and should come with a clearly written disclaimer) but doing so too often can result in lasting damage.
It can be tempting to not think too much about these types of “hypothetical” problems upfront. After all, people assume that teams are staffed with experienced and talented people who will intrinsically know how to present information in a way that’s interesting but also palatable; and won’t hurt larger business interests.
But the better solution is pre-emptive: A clear process that brings in all stakeholders to ensure no harm is done but maintains the independence of the publishing team.
What causes friction and potential conflicts?
There are multiple reasons frictions can arise between publishing arms and companies’ broader business or financial interests.
While publishing teams should operate independently and have their own processes, writers and editors can be almost completely removed from connecting the dots between their work and how it may (or may not) jive with the company’s business or work.
In other cases, there may be a sense of separation between the company’s business work and its editorial work — the proverbial firewall that supposedly exists in journalism, for example. This kind of misplaced judgment can result in outright issues when writers or editors think they can operate entirely independently from the wider company.
But the fact is that even in the most evolved of businesses, brand publishing’s first and foremost goal is to improve the company’s overall business — whether through smart thought leadership, driving and building an audience and growing the bottom line. When writers and editors don’t put that mission front and center, one of the side effects is an unclear or vague understanding of how to ensure that the content being produced is actually additive and doesn’t hurt the business.
When any business decides to go all-in on brand publishing, executives have to be cognizant of the downsides and risks of making good content. For one, someone, somewhere is bound to be unhappy with what the company is putting out. Consumers may not like certain stances or topics; clients may not either. But good, effective publishing strategies can build real audiences and real authority — when done right, the upsides will far outweigh any potential downsides. But having a clear understanding that risks do exist, and trusting those who manage the publishing endeavor to manage those risks, is paramount for leadership.
That being said, a clear and well-thought-out review process that catches issues before they happen, instead of putting teams on the back foot if they arise, can go a long way in ensuring interesting, valuable, and business-friendly work is created. It’s no different from a newsroom legal team that ensures that a reporter’s work passes muster (and won’t get the business in trouble.)
Creating an effective content review process
Content review and editing processes for brand publishing can become particularly problematic when the publishing operation isn’t given leeway to operate, or is considered simply part of the marketing arm. But once those boundaries are set, teams should attempt to stem issues before they occur by implementing a sturdy and thoughtful process.
Build a framework of trust
Without trust between the publishing team, its writers, its editors and managers, and the wider organization, there runs the risk of an internal suspicion that can cripple the publishing team’s momentum. Without trust, executives will, for example, insist on seeing every single piece of content before it is published, or foresee problems or challenges where there may be none. This in turn will slow down output and not let the brand publishing operation work effectively.
Teams should ensure that the entire group, including key executives, collaborate on the development of the editorial strategy, including the editorial mission. Early buy-in can mean goals are shared throughout the organization and lay the groundwork for a trusted relationship. Trams should also spend time upfront on educating editors and writers on the business’s wider strategy and goals, particularly in the case of new or just-launched publications. While editorial teams should work independently, they should also have training and information on where the company is going and how their work fits into this.
Put publishing leaders in management positions
Relatedly, issues can arise when those doing the writing and creating of content don’t have a clear view into the wider business. While upfront education is important, editorial directors or editors should also have a seat at the table and spend time with wider company leadership on an ongoing basis. This allows them to share what they are working on and hear about sensitivities on industry issues and clients from subject matter experts. These can be effectively communicated to the wider publishing team if its managers sit within bigger business teams and are privy to wider business discussions.
Don’t ask for permission to publish
At the same time, brand publications have to operate independently from the wider team. This means instituting their own operations and ways of working: From pitching stories and coming up with content ideas, to evolving the editorial mission, to, ultimately, “pressing publish.” Firms can run into trouble when every piece of content has to be reviewed by someone outside the publishing team in order to be published. On a basic level, it can cause bottlenecks. On a more strategic level, it can relegate publishing teams to simply executors versus making them a part of a wider company strategy. This can lead to content that is simply a press release, heated over, or simply just create work that’s unreadable. Ideally, review process catch issues before they’re published, not after.
Create an independent review committee
Brand publishing is different from journalistic endeavors in many key ways. One big one is that the “sources” the publishing team relies on are usually within the company — executives and experts within brands lend their thoughts and experience to the development of stories regularly. There simply isn’t an adversarial relationship at play. In order to maintain this relationship, and to prevent small review problems from turning into big ones, it can be advisable to create an independent review committee that all parties can rely on. An internal team can be responsible for receiving potentially sensitive stories or articles through an independent channel, investigate if this can be problematic by speaking to other stakeholders, and then deliver recommendations. The idea would be that the publishing team can then implement those resolutions.
Create a list of sensitive topics in advance
It can be hard to know where problems may crop up if one doesn’t know where to look. For most issues, publishing managers should work with wider leadership to have an agreed-upon list of topics that could cause issues or harm. These can be subject-based — for example, pieces around climate change, policy, politics, or race. Or these can be specifically company-based — competitors or clients that the company needs to be careful about including. This list of topics should be refreshed every quarter or year. If a story or piece of content covers these topics, editors can, at their discretion send these along to the aforementioned IP team to be read over and changed if necessary.
Just as publishing teams track pageviews, podcast listens and video views, it is worthwhile for editors to also track how many pieces of content get corrected or clarified after publishing, and how many times issues of a sensitive nature crop up. The goal ultimately is to get to a point where even if content is created that can cause issues, it is caught before publishing, while also respecting the independence of the publishing team so it can tell impactful and valuable stories, not become a company mouthpiece.