Social Media

The new breed of ‘brand journalist’

While newspaper circulations decline, many individual journalists now hold more influence than ever — using Twitter and personal blogs to enjoy a greater reach and diversity of audience than their newspapers can offer. Portland’s George Pascoe-Watson considers the ‘gilt-edged’ opportunity these personal brands offer, and how social-media-savvy MPs are applying the same techniques to political campaigning.

The newspaper industry may be dying – but the phoenix rising from its ashes is the new breed of “brand journalist”.

Political reporters like Paul Waugh, Editor of Politics Home, and Ben Brogan, now deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, were the first to spot the gilt-edged opportunity offered by Twitter and blogging.

And they’ve put jet boosters under their careers by turning themselves into brands in their own right.

Other journalists like Caitlin Moran of The Times have followed suit. They have their own followers in addition to those who read the newspapers for whom they work.

In Moran’s case, she now boasts 375,000 Twitter followers, almost as many as the entire daily circulation of her newspaper The Times, officially 384,000 readers.

Savvy MPs have taken a leaf out of their book and have been quick to realise they can build an army of supporters by blogging and Tweeting.

Tory backbencher Rob Halfon has made huge impact on fuel duty by running a one-man blogging and Twitter campaign.

Labour’s Tom Harris and Tom Watson are other notables to have carved out brands.

And, of course, who could forget Louise Mensch — now no longer an MP — but who has a staggering 76,000 followers.

Their numbers are growing, but these MPs have realised they don’t need ministerial office to make an impact on legislation, regulation or social affairs.

There’s another benefit, too.

Sick and tired of unfair attacks about being a lazy politician, wining and dining in Westminster?

Simply Tweet the details of your daily diary to followers and you neutralise your critics at a stroke. It’s hard to condemn an MP when you get the boring — but often exhausting — details of their daily routine.

This new breed of brand journalist and brand MP is a crucial audience for the corporate and NGO world to understand and to work with.

Professional communicators shouldn’t turn their backs on the traditional written or broadcast media.

If anything, we should step up our engagement as the marketing and advertising budgets are clipped.

But brand journalists, in particular, are a powerful bunch with enormous reach to a wide variety of audiences.

They can move fast. They can be irreverent. They can be flippant or deadly serious. They can get their — or your — message out unfiltered.

At this point, I should admit that I was a late developer.

I never once Tweeted in my days as political editor of The Sun. I didn’t blog. Indeed, the culture of most political journalists at the time was to mock those who were early adopters.

But it was Waugh, at the time the deputy political editor of the Evening Standard in London, and Brogan, the political editor of the Daily Mail, who were amongst the first to see the chances.

They embraced the example set by bloggers like Guido Fawkes when the rest of us saw them as a thorn in the side of conventional journalism.

Their numbers grew and grew and they spewed out rumour, claim and counter claim at a million miles an hour. All had to be checked out, diverting we newspaper folk from our own duties.

Short-sightedly, we didn’t see them as allies, as sources, rather we saw them as a burden.

But Waugh and Brogan spotted the opportunity. They wrote frequent blogs, laced with well-sourced and accurate gossip.

Most of us knew the material but judged it not strong enough to make stories in our publications.

But suddenly there was a vehicle for the nitty gritty and they tapped into an appetite amongst politicians, other journalists and the world of public affairs specialists.

Waugh, now says: “I could see the way newspapers were heading and loved the speed and agility of blogging for the Evening Standard so much that it felt natural to go online fulltime.

“I’m a frenetic news junkie at the best of times but as a producer and not just a consumer of news, the internet is a no-brainer for its reach to a crucial younger audience and its speed.

“As for Twitter, I certainly got on board early on because I knew it would be big precisely because of its convenience and concision. In the early days, it wasn’t clear just how big its reach would be but as time as gone on, the UK has proved a huge market.

“What makes Twitter blogging so unique is the personal approach, the individual voice.

“People like to feel they are having a conversation rather than hearing a corporate message. Which is why the journalist-as-brand has taken off in a huge way in recent years.

“Often the best corporate use of a Twitter feed has to have this key personal feel. The NorthernLine and SouthWestTrains for example often have a named individual Tweeting responses to customer queries and it works.

“But online readers can sniff out inauthenticity within nanoseconds, which is why a buttoned-up corporate approach doesn’t work.”

Brand journalists are operating in every sector these days. Brand MPs are flexing policy muscle in a way never before seen.

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George Pascoe-Watson is a Partner at Portland, prior to which he was Political Editor of The Sun.