PR with a touch of journalism: Vodafone gives Libby Middlebrook a chance to do what she does best

Earlier this week, Vodafone announced the launch of a start-up accelerator, dubbed Vodafone Xone, inside its $50 million HQ in the Christchurch innovation precinct that will from May 2016 offer Kiwi entrepreneurs the premises and support structure to pursue their ideas.

Alongside the announcement of the new initiative, Vodafone released a short video clip explaining the story and motivations behind project.
What was interesting about this clip was that it wasn’t presented as a conventional PR spiel, filled with grandiose commentary on how amazing the business was. Admittedly, the clip was still promotional, but it felt and looked much more akin to a news segment that wouldn’t be out of place on any of the news shows of any of the mainstream television broadcasters.   

Vodafone consumer director Matt Williams says this shift away from self-aggrandising PR was a very conscious effort made in response to the changing media environment. 

“We were not trying to do a PR piece,” Williams says. “We were trying to tell our stories in a new way. One of the things that’s important about this is that it’s about creating brand content that tells a story that viewers and consumers really want to engage with but also weaves into it some of the things that we’re proud of as a brand.”

Williams credits Vodafone’s external communications manager Libby Middlebrook with insisting on rethinking the way Vodafone does its corporate comms. 

“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect at the start of this process, but Libby was quite firm about doing it as a professional journalist,” says Williams. 

Middlebrook joined Vodafone earlier this year after a long TV journalism career, working on Sunday, Fair Go and Campbell Live. And the Vodafone Xone video is the first example of her lending her storytelling skills to what journalists often refer to as the dark side. 

To produce the video, Middlebrook and cameraman Steve Lawton (who worked with her at Fair Go) accompanied Williams on a trip to Christchurch and completed a series of interviews for the production of the video.

Middlebrook then approached some of her former colleagues at TVNZ Blacksand, who edited the footage into the final clip.

Where this becomes interesting is that the footage was made available to various news outlets, which then interlayed it into their reports on the announcement from the telco. 

“A number of media outlets weaved that into their footage and played it alongside their own footage,” says Andrea Brady, the head of external comms at Vodafone. 

Brady explains that Vodafone will in the future be looking into how it can present its stories to media outlets as news rather than standard PR fare.  
“It’s not just about responding to a changing media landscape, but taking the lead in the way we tell our stories. In a way, it’s about becoming a newsroom, so that we can provide news to different media outlets to assist them in their storytelling as well.”

Vodafone isn’t unique in taking a more news-based approach to its PR. In response to the decline in journalists in the industry (so much so that PR professionals outnumbered journalists by three to one by 2013), businesses like ANZ and Bayleys are also taking it upon themselves to write and produce their own news. 

Like Vodafone, these two organisations have also employed journalists and tasked them with telling stories about the businesses in a way that is engaging for a broader audience.

Andrew Cornell, the managing editor of ANZ’s Bluenotes, previously told StopPress that the declines in mainstream media have led to many business stories being untold:   

“I come from a business newspaper and when I started there the paper was probably 140 pages long, always over 100, and today it’s typically only 40 pages or 48 at most. There’s literally not the same space for these stories to run, but there’s still an audience for them.”

Vodafone has not yet launched its own publishing hub, but Williams similarly observes that the mainstream publishers are under pressure, placing the onus on brands to find new ways to tell their stories. 

And it isn’t surprising that many brands are turning to journalists to help them tell these stories. Not only are many journalists available on the job market, but their skill sets are also well suited to the storytelling challenges presented by digital media. 

While in New Zealand for the recent ad:tech event, Facebook chief creative officer Mark D’Arcy told StopPress that we were likely to see a growing trend of journalists using their skills to help brands.  

“Journalism is a creative craft being applied in myriad ways,” D’Arcy said. “You’re going from what you thought you did to something else. It’s brilliant that you can reapply your skills to new tasks as the canvases change and the paint gets richer.”

Comments like these will likely cause the neck of a news purist to stiffen, but they do at least allude to a possible alternative career path for the many talented writers who have been relieved of their duties at mainstream publications who can no longer afford to keep them on the books.       

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