Diverse group of people listening to a podcast in a cozy living room, depicting audience engagement.

Why Brands Need Journalists to Grow Your Podcast Audience

By

Cultivating Podcast Audience Connections With Authentic and Transparent Storytelling

When I discuss making a podcast with a brand, I will often start by telling the brand that I bring a “journalistic perspective” to the process. This isn’t something I can help. It’s the way I look at the world, the way I’m built. It’s just a product of having worked in radio journalism for many years. I spent nearly 20 years working as a writer and current affairs producer for CBC radio and Roundhouse Radio. Based on this experience, I would go so far as to say that if you are considering making a branded podcast – you NEED to think about hiring a company that brings a journalistic skillset. It’s not just about meeting deadlines. It’s a philosophical approach.

So what does journalism bring to the branded podcasting space?  

A journalistic approach emphasizes authenticity, truth-telling, fact-checking, and deep podcast audience engagement. It involves listening to voices historically underrepresented and expanding the narrative to include their stories. Adopting this approach in your branded podcast significantly enhances your chances of making a meaningful impact with your podcast audience.

Podcaster setting up for a recording with notes on audience engagement.

Some key elements of journalism that are also critical in branded podcasting:

1. Authenticity and truth-telling

This is the reason many journalists go to J-school in the first place: they want to tell real stories about real peoples’ lives. They want those stories to make the world a better, fairer, more humane place. While journalism has evolved over time, the concept of truth-telling has been central to its mission for centuries. One of the earliest influences on the idea of truth-telling in journalism can be found in the concept of a free press as a check on government power, a notion dating back to the Enlightenment era. 

In branded podcasting, tapping into this spirit of authenticity and truthfulness can only help your brand. If you can make a show that’s honest, or perhaps one that tries to hold your industry accountable, and answers peoples’ concerns and questions with sincerity, you come off better than the brand who sticks their head in the sand or only shares one side of the argument. For instance, Why We Mine is a podcast by Teck Resources hosted by journalist-turned-comms-pro  Robin Stickley that looks at the connection between mining and the green energy transition. While the show is ultimately pro-mining, Robin spends time addressing common questions about community impact, lack of public trust, and exploring concurrent solutions to mining, such as metal recycling. Because the show takes its critics seriously, and approaches these concerns with respect, it has an excellent “consumption rate,” meaning audiences stick with the content to learn more.

2. Responsible Fact Checking

In 1923, Time magazine introduced a rigorous process to verify facts before publication, which set a standard for accuracy in reporting. This approach helped to distinguish Time from other publications and contributed to its credibility. The rise of investigative journalism saw journalists such as Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair conduct in-depth investigations and expose corruption, often relying on meticulous fact-checking to substantiate their reporting and gain public trust. 

Given the plethora of false information that exists on the internet in the age of AI, including widely accessible video, image, and voice cloning, the need for responsible fact-checking is more profound than ever. Companies in the branded podcasting space are at risk if they fail to prioritize brand safety by adopting a rigorous journalistic approach to both fact-checking and IP attribution.

3. Audience Engagement 

Radio journalists long ago mastered the art of call-in shows, audience feedback lines, contests and polls, community events and outreach, on-location broadcasts, and listener fan clubs. The addition of social media channels in more recent years is simply carrying on this tradition of engagement. In addition to all of this, journalists are trained in the art of storytelling, using tried-and-true narrative tactics that keep audiences engaged where they might otherwise drop off. 

Many brands today think of podcasting as a 1-way medium, but this is a mistake. A journalistic approach can help you think of your podcast as a vehicle for engagement, the centre of an active community conversation. For instance, Amazon’s This Is Small Business podcast recently engaged in an innovative collaboration with Rice University. The podcast did a special This is Small Business: Next Generation miniseries profiling college business students as they pitched to win big prizes at the Rice University Business Plan Competition. This, in turn, brought the regular podcast front and center for a younger subset of entrepreneurs, the core target audience of this show.

4. New Voices & Fresh Stories 

Many journalists take pride in their coverage of underrepresented issues such as social justice, human rights, and environmental justice, and choose to shine a spotlight on stories from the margins. Furthermore, journalists are used to viewing hundreds of story pitches from PR companies, businesses, independent storytellers and citizens, and then evaluating which of those stories are “fresh” enough to be of interest to an audience. 

Journalists are trained to spot new voices, and to uncover perspectives that have been historically ignored. For instance, Tori Weldon, the CBC trained journalist behind Staffbase’s Infernal Communication, recently stickhandled an episode for the Internal Comms company’s podcast that questions the validity of the Hero’s Journey. She also produced an episode about the power of oral storytelling from an Indigenous perspective, featuring the voices of three Indigenous podcasters. Her approach brings the brand into line with contemporary views about alternative narrative structures, and the re-centering of Indigenous women’s voices. The brand appears relevant and up-to-date. A journalist can really help a brand evaluate if a story is old, tired, or uninteresting – and can suggest new angles that may garner more attention. In an attention economy, this is a good thing. 

For all of these reasons and more, it’s worth thinking about hiring a company that can bring a journalistic perspective to the process of creating your branded podcast. Of course, you may encounter some resistance… 

Journalist interviewing diverse individuals for engaging podcast content.

The J Word and the B Word: Bridging the Cultural Divide: 

There can be a certain amount of concern expressed on both the branded and the journalistic sides when I bring up “the J word” in conjunction with “the B word.” Traditionally, journalists have viewed branded content – if they thought about it at all – as a kind of selling tactic. Something closer to advertising than journalism. Journalists refer to advertising as “the dark side.” And for their part, brand content marketers have taken a dim view of journalists in their midst, fearing an encounter with either “gotcha” journalism or naive idealism. 

“Given recent upheavals in the world of journalism, there are – for better or for worse – many journalists currently looking for work. To me, this is a huge opportunity for brands. Because at heart, branded content and journalism are more similar than they are different.” 

Jen Moss, Chief Creative Officer

Both brands and journalists operate within editorial parameters: 

Brands have more obvious limitations as to the kinds of stories they are able to tell. A brand might set parameters such as upholding its values, pleasing its customers, or avoiding political or religious controversy that might limit sales. Brands can’t advertise falsehoods, but they may pick and choose the stories they tell.  In journalism, the parameters are more oblique – but they exist nonetheless. Journalists can theoretically tell any story that is true. But in their search for truth, a journalist is almost always operating within the prescribed style of the show or publication they are working for. The press is free – but they are neither objective, nor neutral. 

Both brands and journalists are image-conscious:

Brands create an image that caters to their customers’ expectations. They choose their words and visuals carefully, sometimes too carefully, and tend to bring a high level of control to all their output.  Similarly, journalists consider how their words and images will appeal to an audience, though their approach may be a bit grittier, more “of the moment,” or more down to earth. In both cases – both branded and journalistic – content creators must bend and adjust their presentation to meet external expectations. 

Both brands and journalists strive to be relevant: 

Here is where brands and journalists have the most in common: Neither wants to miss a scoop.

Brands need to be perceived as relevant and in-step with their existing customers, but they also need to keep a weather eye on the needs of newer, younger customers. Brands need to offer something special that people can’t simply buy elsewhere. They need to be in touch with the whims of the wider culture. Journalists need to do the same. They must fight to find fresh angles, new “takes,” and to surface information that the public wants, but has not already heard. They must do so in an entertaining way that holds audience attention and touches on themes that are burbling away just below the surface in the Zeitgeist. In this way, a brand’s and a journalist’s needs are perfectly in-sync. 

If pressed, I would describe branded podcasts backed by journalists as content marketing that is “journalism adjacent.” While these podcasts do operate within the confines of a brand’s pillar values, they nevertheless offer authentic value to an audience, and — importantly – they tell the truth. A journalistic approach brings insight and fresh perspectives, rigorous fact-checking, audience engagement, and authenticity to the world of content marketing. These things are all critical for brand safety in what has chillingly been described as a “post-truth” era, and will never fail to be important to an audience.

5 Key Takeaways:

  1. Journalistic Perspective is Crucial: It’s important to have someone on your podcast team with journalism skills, or hire a company with a journalistic skill set for branded podcast production
  2. Authenticity and Truth-telling: Authentic stories help enhance brand credibility, illustrated by the example of the podcast “Why We Mine” by Teck Resources.
  3. Responsible Fact-Checking: Its crucial to diligently fact-check to help with misinformation to maintain credibility and trust.
  4. Audience Engagement: It’s important to demonstrate podcasts as a two-way communication channel for building a community around the brand.
  5. Incorporate New Voices: Include underrepresented voices and fresh stories to keep content relevant and engaging.

By: Jen Moss, Chief Creative Officer

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