One of the challenges of working in branded content is that you’re constantly chasing down and interviewing senior executives — important, busy people who absolutely must not be offended, and who may not consider an owned content piece to be any kind of priority.
But for you, it’s a priority. Unlike in features journalism, a placement on the company website is not a coup for them. And also unlike in editorial, you need to get their approval before you publish.
Similar to the editorial world, you may also have to track down photos or third-party sources that they mentioned… and whereas the communications team would be extremely helpful if you were writing for an editorial outlet, in this case, the comms team is probably you!
OK, breathe. Here are tips we’ve learned over dog years of doing this to track down senior leadership without annoying them, put them at ease to give you their best words and then streamline the rest of the process.
1. Give them lots of scheduling options.
Any time that works for them, make it work for you. Offer them the alternative of doing this via email if necessary. (People usually prefer the phone.) Leave a cushion around the time window so if they need to move the interview up or down, you can accommodate.
2. Have an executive summary at hand and include the name of the lead who commissioned the piece.
An executive summary is a short synopsis of what you propose to do, and what kind of support you’re asking for. Basically, it’s a pitch of why their involvement is needed. Or in some cases, it doesn’t need to sell the idea but simply provide context and a reminder of the genesis of the assignment. Have this ready regardless whether your client tells you it was already arranged and they’re expecting you to make contact. It’s always better to have it and provide it.
Absolutely never assume that the executive remembers why they’re doing this or what it’s for, or who you are. Assume they don’t know you, but know and trust the head of your department.
3. Prepare questions/discussion points in advance, share them and be prepared to revise or toss some out.
I actually always say, “Consider these just a jump-off and while we do need to cover Point A, Point B and Point C, if you want to take a different approach, that’s fine.”
Former editorial writers come into content marketing fundamentally opposed to letting the interviewees dictate the questions, but in any situation where you want a subject to be comfortable, the discussion topics need to be fluid. This is even more important when your expert is the head of a department or company, and therefore the de facto expert.
Also be mindful of the way you pose your questions, as they can make all the difference in your answers. Opt for open-ended questions when you want more thoughtful answers, and used closed-ended questions to elicit factual statements and quick yes/no replies. Please read my in-depth post on open-ended vs. closed questions to learn all the nuances, complete with 30 example question sets comparing the two approaches.
4. Keep everyone involved in the assignment on the email CC line.
This is for accountability and traceability but also because, while executive assistants typically schedule meetings for the C-Suite, it’s good to have someone else you can nudge if two attempts to contact the boss have gotten no response.
Or maybe on the flip side, the boss works around the clock and will call you when he’s en route to pick up his kids from school without telling anyone else. No matter what, everyone working behind the scenes to pull this interview together should be kept in the loop.
5. Speaking of those unannounced, unpredictable calls… Keep close tabs on your email and phone.
In fact, maybe switch to a temporary routine of answering unknown phone numbers if they come from your client’s area code. A surprising number of bosses are prone to calling and texting unannounced when they have a few minutes free.
One principal of a multinational engineering firm I interviewed recently is constantly on job sites, moves around the larger office nomadically when he’s in and is therefore never up for scheduling a call. However, he will dial my cell from his cell and give brilliant extemporaneous interviews while stuck in traffic.
Further to that…
6. Have your notes and discussion topics easily available.
Should the call you’ve been waiting for come, you have about two minutes to make small talk while scrambling to pull your documents and devices up and get to business.
And you will be fully responsible for getting the questions answered that you need and for taking notes on statistics and past coverage that your interviewee may mention off the cuff with no memory of where they were published.
7. If other people from your team want to sit in on a call, accept it with thanks.
This is another one that former journalists have a really tough time getting used to. The stereotypical nosy publicist wanting to listen in and steer conversations is the bane of all former news and investigative reporters, in particular.
But in the branded content world, it’s a blessing to have someone else listening, clarifying things if necessary and generally providing support. In many cases, it’s someone who’s more familiar with the company and product than you are and who may have media trained the person you’re talking to. They can help clarify points either in the moment or after the interview… and save you from having to ask followups that the interviewee may feel you shouldn’t have to.
Speaking of which…
8. Do extensive background research beforehand and find some piece of backstory to compliment them on.
This is another strategy that has so many similarities and yet also fundamental differences to features reporting. Even more than in editorial features writing, it is crucial to know your topic and your expert when you head into the interview. The executive will assume you know their product or company better than any other writer — otherwise, why would you have this assignment?
But where it diverges is, in editorial — especially investigative and features, but really all kinds of journalism — you do the background so that you know the truth, and can’t be easily fed a PR talking point.
In this case, you do it to prove your expertise about the company, skip any awkward topics and get your subject totally comfortable sharing new information with you. One of the easiest ways to achieve the latter is to identify a nugget of company history that your subject is proud of and compliment them on it.
9. Figure out who gets to review the draft or first cut and make sure anyone involved gets a copy.
People who come from smaller editorial outlets are often surprised and put off by how many people get to weigh in on corporate content. They may find it an affront when someone entirely outside the communications/content team requests revisions.
This kind of protectiveness is something to let go. In my career, I have gladly let the heads of warehouse operations and directors of food safety and even oil rig bosses have a look at my creative before it was finalized. These people are known in business lexicon as stakeholders, as well as bosses, and if your client contact says they get to approve the content, that’s all you need to know.
Note that if your interview subject was at the SVP and above level, they may not need a look at the first draft. Find out from your client at what point to share the content for their approval.
10. Expect revisions and requests that have nothing to do with the facts.
Yes, fact-checking is often important in branded content writing, and companies typically have more resources to put toward making sure they get facts right, especially those involving laws and codes.
But that process may have nothing to do with positioning the brand in the best light. You’ll need to learn how to be vigilant about facts AND flexible about changing your copy to please the interview subject. It’s complicated, but actually a fun skill to add to your toolbox… and it pays off.