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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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Naming names

We're getting ready to send to the printers the August issues of our Canadian construction newspapers. The lead story, initiated by observations of associations representing general contractors in Ontario, relates to concerns contractors have with extended warranties and what they say are questionable holdbacks improperly tied to the warranties.

Fair enough. Following the usual procedures, I contacted excecutive members of the respective associations for some specific examples. Most deferred -- saying they were busy with their work -- but one proposed sending an email to his association's board members. And that generated an email that, to put it mildly, named names (of two organizations).

As a journalist, I love this type of direct hit, but as a publisher, I receive this kind of information with trepidation. We need every one's advertising support, and I'm not really ready to risk an expensive libel lawsuit (which can happen even if we don't do anything wrong, but the 'offended' organization wants to put a real scare into us -- and drain our bank account with legal bills.

My approach with this type of story is to play it open, and fair. I simply took the email I received, removed the senders name, and sent it to the organizations that the sender had named (I later disclosed the sender's name to the organizations, once I had received his permission). Needless to say, I didn't have to work hard to receive return calls. I received a mouthful from one organization and a very measured (and straightforward) written response from the second.

With this information in hand, my next stage is to write a first draft of the story and send it to everyone. This is unconventional journalistic practice. Journalists are generally not supposed to send 'works in progress' to people affected by the stories for fear that the results will be tainted. But whenever I've done this, I get a much better story. The people involve point out inaccuracies, and tone down sometimes their own remarks,while adding interesting rebuttals to those of their opponents. Coupled with some additional research and interviews, this morning it took only a few minutes to write the revised version of the story. It is now undergoing final review and and editing. I will post the link to it within a day or two, when it is published.

What does this story about the writing process have to do with marketing? In some respects, everything. I've constantly advocated that the best form of marketing is for you to do your job -- to practice your craft, trade or profession -- to the highest of your abilities, and in the process deliver real value to your clients.

We publish construction trade newspapers and magazines. Advertisers give us money because our publications reach qualified readers. Qualified readers read our publications because their is useful content; founded on journalistic excellence; in that sensitive issues are reported with fairness, accuracy and depth. (And indirectly, the people I speak with in writing these stories are key decision-makers and influencers, the kinds of people who can advertise or influence others to advertise.) So the paradox is that the good journalism -- the stuff I enjoy doing the most -- is actually excellent marketing. The same principal most likely applies within your own focuses of expertise and passion.

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