Raytheon’s Brand Journalists Bring Technical Topics Down To Earth

“Whenever you’re talking about technology, you risk losing your readers in the science,” said Pam Wickham, VP of corporate affairs and communications at the $22.8 billion defense contractor. She delved into the business value of journalistic storytelling in this exclusive CMO.com Interview.

Raytheon’s Brand Journalists Bring Technical Topics Down To Earth

Pam Wickham arrived at Raytheon a decade ago, with a GE branding and communications pedigree, to head up corporate affairs and communications at the $22.8 billion defense contractor. Digital marketing was a nascent concept, and the barriers to brand journalism had yet to come down.

Today the line between marketing and digital marketing are barely visible, and virtually anyone can publish brand content. Wickham is dedicated to effective communications using both digital channels and content marketing. She has built a communications team with digital expertise and journalism backgrounds to leverage the highly technical expertise housed within the engineering firm—whose 61,000 employees work on everything from missile systems and drones to cybersecurity and radar technologies—for a wider audience.

“Ten years ago, there was a lot of skepticism about the value of digital communications and whether it even applied to aerospace and defense,” Wickham told CMO.com. “Since then, we’ve leveraged both technology and powerful new storytelling techniques to break down the walls between the company and its audience.”

CMO.com talked to Wickham about the business value of journalistic storytelling, corporate communications’ new role as business strategist, the art of “slashing through a jungle of jargon,” and how to build momentum behind a brand journalism approach.

CMO.com: What challenge and opportunities has digitalization created for your group?

Wickham: With social media and other tools, we can speak directly to our target audiences. We can listen to them. We can take them wherever we go, whether it’s showing them around our pavilion at a trade show or live tweeting our CEO’s speech at a conference.

A decade ago that was revolutionary thinking. Today it’s just the norm. What’s exciting is the pace of change and the opportunity it is bringing to communications and effective marketing. We are in a golden age of consumer technology, with supercomputers that fit on your wrist and virtual-reality devices that put you anywhere you can imagine. The sky, literally, is no longer the limit.

This has given communicators a huge opportunity and a challenge to match. The opportunity is that we can tell our story through things like virtual reality—something Raytheon did recently with an app that emulates our new radar’s 360-degree view. The challenge is anticipating your audience, leveraging the new technologies they will adopt, and using them to tell your story.

CMO.com: What are the most important drivers for Raytheon’s business today, and what does that mean for your organization’s strategy?

Wickham: Let’s talk about three key drivers: growing our business internationally, establishing our competitive advantage, and fostering collaboration within the many parts of our company. On my team, we match everything we do to one or more of these areas.

This has given us a voice in developing business strategy. My team used to spend about 90% of its time on tactics—the means to the end. Now we’re spending about half our time helping decide what that end is, and how we develop the content to get there.

CMO.com: When did you decide to pursue “brand journalism”—and how do you define it? Is it different than content marketing or thought leadership?

Wickham: About three years ago we started redesigning Raytheon.com to be bigger, bolder, and more dynamic, and we needed the content to match. We needed stories—real, interesting, entertaining stories that show people what we do and explain why it matters.

Brand journalism is the practice of creating those stories. You need to know what your audience cares about, and you need to contribute something of value to the conversation. Journalists are uniquely qualified for this sort of work. They think as the audience does. They ask the same kinds of questions and explain things in terms anyone can understand.

Brand journalism, content marketing, and thought leadership are really all facets of the same gem: an integrated approach to communications. Brand journalism feeds the multiple channels we deploy to reach our audience and—most importantly—it engages that audience with relevant and interesting content.

We write and publish stories and opinion pieces. We promote them on social media channels and pitch them to specific publications and even specific reporters. From there, the stories we tell take on lives of their own.

CMO.com: Are you hiring freelance or full-time journalists? How do you attract them to a brand journalism role—and what’s the best way to motivate them once they’re there?

Wickham: We have hired several full-time journalists. While they approach their work from the viewpoint of an outsider, they are very much a part of our organization. They lend insight to the decisions we make. They help train our executives to deliver their messages. And they have helped us improve the quality of writing across the company.

As for motivation, that’s easy. Our journalists get to do fascinating work. They write about incredible technology, and they get to interview all sorts of fascinating people, like astronauts, engineers, the father of email [who just passed away], and the people who are bringing the Internet into the future. Last December we had them work a story on having our engineers critique the technology of “Star Wars.” We work on such amazing technology, and we have such amazing people in our company. Who wouldn’t want the job of discovering all that?

CMO.com: How difficult is it to take these very technical topics and make them accessible?

Wickham: The trick is to slash through the jungle of jargon that can choke the life out of even the most interesting story. Whenever you’re talking about technology, you risk losing your readers in the science, or in unnecessary detail, or in unfamiliar terms. The trick is to explain up top why it matters—basically, to show them where you’re going with all this and then walk them through the details in clear, vivid terms.

CMO.com: Can you share some brand journalism efforts that have proved most effective?

Wickham: I already mentioned the piece we did about the technology of “Star Wars” that I loved for so many reasons. Popular Sciencewrote about it. People in our key audiences retweeted it. It started trending on Facebook. Employees came to us saying it made them proud to work here.

But what I loved best was that allowed us to talk about the things we do—cybersecurity, electronic warfare, power management, training—in a context that was fun, familiar, and very much in the news. It also spoke to the strong engineering culture here and how those original films have been such an inspiration to the people who are now innovating in our factories and labs.

Beyond that, we’ve had several stories featured in well-known media outlets: using 3-D printers to create missile parts, putting guidance systems into small munitions, and the team of Hollywood animators we hired to help us illustrate what we do [which was featured in Fast Company].

Imagine my surprise during a recent quarterly earnings call when an industry analyst made reference to the 3-D printing story. That was proof that our brand journalism approach works, and that our microtargeting is effective.

CMO.com: How do you measure the success of brand journalism? What are the goals?

Wickham: There are many measures of success. Maybe the media picked up on the story. Maybe it generated a call from a key reporter. Maybe a customer saw it and mentioned it in a meeting. Maybe a member of Congress retweeted the link. There are lots of metrics, but success really depends on what your goals were to start.

One thing those metrics have told us is that our page views are up 114%, and the average amount of time people spend on a page is up 55%. What that means is our stories—and our promotion of those stories—is making Raytheon.com more useful and more of a destination for our audiences.

CMO.com: How do you rope in your subject-matter experts—some of them rocket scientists—to devote time to this when they’re busy with their full-time roles?

Wickham: Success breeds engagement—no doubt about it. We spend a fair amount of time promoting our success stories and sharing best practices across the company. Competitive advantage is one of our three key focus areas, so we spend a lot of time showcasing how what we do can provide a competitive advantage for our subject-matter experts. When we speak the same language they do in terms of business objectives and goals, we’re on the same page.

For several years I coached my team to stay the course—that we were pushing a boulder up hill, and it was heavy-lifting. But I was confident that we would reach the top of the hill, and, when we did, we had to prepare for that boulder to pick up speed and momentum. When it did, we needed to be well ahead of it so that it didn’t run us over.

And that’s where we are today. We’re no longer pushing uphill against any resistance. We have support from the top of the organization down to the shop floor, which means we have more demand than we can actually accommodate at the moment. That’s a great place to be because it points to a future with more growth potential for our entire team.

CMO.com: What advice would you offer other marketing leaders taking a brand journalism approach?

Wickham: I can’t stress enough how important it is to accept and advocate for change. To be the most competitive and effective we can be, we must stay two steps ahead of everyone else. We need to be comfortable trying new technologies, testing trends, pushing boundaries, and embracing what’s different. I often equate this to being on a high-speed train. You can sit in a comfortable seat in the middle car where the ride is smooth, but you have no clear vision of what’s ahead. If you’re at the very front with your face to the wind, you’re going to have the most resistance but also the very best view of what’s ahead. That’s where I always want to be.

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