7 pearls of wisdom from the Shell Newsroom

We were inundated with responses to our story about organisations taking a ‘newsroom’ approach to comms (Q4 2016). So we asked Kunal Dutta, chief editor of digital channels at Shell, to tell us how its Inside Energy newsroom works, captivating legions of readers

By Kunal Dutta

As Donald Trump inched closer to pulling out of the landmark Paris climate change agreement earlier this year, debate inside Shell’s London offices over how to cover the announcement was fierce.

The US president had kept everyone in suspense, saying he was listening to “a lot of people, both ways” and promising a decision “very soon”.

For the editorial team at Shell – made up of former journalists from major newspapers and broadcasters such as The Times, The Independent, BBC News and Reuters, as well as titles across the Middle East, Asia and the US – this was a major development.

Chris Logan, Shell’s global head of editorial, and part of the company’s communications department, pointed out that “Shell supports the Paris agreement and has an active voice on the energy transition”. For him, the story was “an opportunity to publish content that would tap into the interest the news was generating”.

Inside Energy is Shell’s digital title. Its aim is to provide thought-provoking content for customers, policymakers, academics and the media, as well as others interested in energy issues.

The title is a key element of Shell’s integrated approach to communications, which includes not only social and digital media but traditional media too. The editorial team consists of staff writers and editors based in London, The Hague, Singapore, Dubai and Houston.

While awaiting the announcement, the Inside Energy team commissioned Shell’s chief climate change adviser to produce an analysis of whether the Paris Agreement could still survive if the US withdrew. When, on 1 June 2017, the US decision to withdraw was confirmed, Shell’s story was already well on its way to publication.

Welcome to corporate newsrooms – an editorially led approach to content that fuses journalists’ storytelling skills with a company’s broader comms and reputational objectives.

Shell, like General Electric, Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Siemens, is integrating the global newsroom model into its communications. But what is the most effective way to produce content? As a former journalist who joined Shell’s editorial department in early 2016, here is what I’ve learned.

1: Tell the human story

One of the biggest challenges for any writer in this field (whether you’re in the mainstream media or part of a comms team) is that the world’s energy system is vastly complicated. Much of the work Shell does is at the cutting edge of science, technology, geology and engineering. So how do you tell stories that resonate?

Joanna Wrighton, Shell’s senior editor and a former correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, believes that “human beings are a lightning rod to a good narrative. They inject a depth and authenticity so that seemingly dry or complicated stories can be told in the language of emotions and ideas, rather than infrastructure and initiatives”.

For example, the decommissioning of platforms in the North Sea might seem like a story of interest only to engineers and technicians. But, instead of focusing on technical detail, in true journalistic style Inside Energy told the personal story of a family in Dundee, Scotland.

The father is a retired engineer who helped assemble the Brent Charlie platform in the 1970s, and his son is involved in its decommissioning 40 or so years later. The story of the family attracted more than 175,000 readers in the first 10 days, as part of a broader communications focus on the Brent oil and gas field that achieved significant media coverage.

2: Timeliness is everything

In this age of social media timelines and instantaneous viral sensations, it is tempting to make everything you do responsive. Yet behind the veil of spontaneous creativity is a need for meticulous planning.

“The best reactive, real-time content may seem like an on-the-fly, spontaneous response to an event.
But it is often based on a pre-planned strategy,” says Eric Fulwiler, executive director at digital agency VaynerMedia.

At Inside Energy, we have two calendars: one that reflects business and communications milestones across Shell, and one that reflects the world at large. “Stories that straddle both business objectives and culture are often the most powerful,” says Fulwiler.

One of Inside Energy’s most successful stories featured an entrepreneur who pitched his idea to bring clean water to Africa to former US president Barack Obama.

Inside Energy acquired a video of that moment, interviewed the businessman about the experience, and then pushed the story on the night of the 2016 US election, when President Obama was trending on social media.

3: Adapt and repurpose

You won’t be surprised that one of the key challenges of a corporate newsroom is securing the necessary approvals, while maintaining a consistent flow of new content.

Starting pieces as early as possible and maintaining a strong pipeline of stories, each at various stages of production, helps to ease the pressure. But there are ways of squeezing additional value from existing work.

“Targeting new audiences and republishing stories that have been adjusted to the context of conversations already happening on social media is an easy way to fill gaps in your editorial schedule, without incurring extra cost or having to repeat the approvals process,” explains Americo Silva, Shell’s global head of digital and social media.

Inside Energy’s story about how Shell’s underwater robots have spotted sleeper sharks deep in the Gulf of Mexico is one such example.

“Shark Week is huge in the US,” says Silva. “Last year we were able to revise that story, develop new social collateral and then target it in local regions that we knew were already engaging with Shark Week content.”

The headline was changed to a digital-friendly teaser: ‘How underwater robots are shining a light on sharks’.

4: Write and curate for each platform

“Content is no longer just about the destination. It’s about fostering connections between people,” adds Silva. “In 2017, there is no excuse for matching luggage across digital platforms. Those who publish the same boilerplate content across different channels are wasting time and money.”

Each digital platform has its own editorial requirements, and writers should know how to optimise content to ensure the greatest levels of engagement. The Shell editorial team is still finding its way with this. Facebook is about content that will engage emotion and encourage sharing. Twitter is about short-form writing and timeliness. Instagram is about artistic, visual storytelling, and LinkedIn is about business and careers.

Videos should generally be short, front-loaded with the most arresting content, and subtitled for mobile users.

Prioritise quality over quantity. A study by Kantar TNS, a global market research company, found that many consumers feel bombarded by branded content on social platforms, with 26% of respondents saying that they “actively ignore” brand posts or advertisements.

Be warned: the demands of platforms constantly change. For any digital editor, staying ahead of those trends is vital. “Test your hypotheses furiously and don’t leave what you learn in a bottom drawer,” says Silva. “Make sure it is implemented.”

5: Cultivate sources

No journalist can survive without contacts. They play a key role in the quality of stories by providing
timely leads, passing on nuggets of information that might broaden out into a story, and alerting writers to off-diary developments. In a corporate environment, the same applies.

Business communications advisers, campaign leads, media and global relations, as well as local contacts in regions around the world, have an enormous role to play in a company that operates in more than 70 countries.

At Shell, we have an editorial board that meets once a fortnight to ensure writers, editors, social media producers, interactive designers and the video and photo department can feed into the creative process and are aligned in their planning schedules.

“We encourage writers to network and cultivate their own contacts too,” adds Logan.

Thanks to this approach, Inside Energy grew its audience from 25,851 readers in February 2016 to 169,558 a year later.

6: Huddle, don’t meet

Corporate meetings, with their timetables and agenda items, set a certain rhythm that may not be conducive to producing content quickly. Rather than hour-long meetings each time, the Inside Energy team comes together for 15- to 20-minute ‘huddles’ three times a week.

“These shape the production process while maintaining momentum,” explains Logan. “The writers and editors also meet weekly to go through the content calendar and check the status of projects. And, fortnightly, three executive editors meet to scrutinise forthcoming ideas.”

We keep group meetings to a minimum. Inside Energy has a project manager who acts as the focal point between writers, editors, photographers, graphic artists, video departments and media agencies.

7: Comply but don’t get tangled in red tape

The demand for content, and proliferation of digital channels, means streamlining procedures, and getting people with authority to act fast. “We are constantly looking at ways of developing a faster and more nimble environment for producing content,” says Logan.

Shell has a clear disclosure standard that any piece of external communication must follow. Inside Energy stories are subject to a full approval process that comprises editorial, media relations, the experts quoted and involved in the piece, communications leads, legal and investor relations.

The key to speeding up approvals is deciding early on where the lines of accountability lie. “We need to ensure we have the right level of sign-off from the right people and at the same time keep the process agile,” adds Logan.

Kunal Dutta is chief editor of digital channels at Shell and was previously
a desk editor at
The Independent

This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q3 2017.


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