Former CNN bureau chief leads Chrysler’s brand journalism team

Chrysler and Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne was at the company’s Belvidere, Ill., plant, which assembles the Dodge Dart, when he saw a familiar face in the crowd.

Ed Garsten, a former CNN correspondent and bureau chief who heads Chrysler Digital Media, had brought a crew to shoot stills and video, and produce stories.

Marchionne told Garsten with a smile, “You’re everywhere, just like the reporters that hound me.'”

It was an emblematic moment in what Chrysler calls “corporate journalism.” The team looked more like journalists covering a story than PR guys staging an event.

“And that’s exactly the way we want to be looked at,” Garsten says, “as reporters. … We’re covering the story, just like everybody else.”

Early innovation

Chrysler Digital Media was one of the early adopters of what is more widely known as brand journalism. Starting in 2006, Chrysler abandoned video news releases for more journalistic video stories that are spread across social media and Chrysler’s website.

“Doing it this way,” Garsten says, “we’ve had increased coverage with broadcast and on the Web because of the content that we’re providing for the various outlets, especially from broadcasters. It gives them a better idea of what the stories are all about, being able visualize and actually hear from the participants.”

His team’s work is shared on Chrysler’s blog, YouTube channel, Livestream pages, and across its social media. The company is currently blogging and streaming from the Chicago Auto Show, and it produces feature stories designed to interest the media as well as car buffs.

Chrysler produces a weekly news recap, “Under the Pentastar,” which has won multiple awards, as has the media website, Garsten says.

The return? Garsten notes that the company has had 47 straight months of increased sales, “and we like to think we’re a big part of the overall success,” he says.

The approach seems to be playing well in Chrysler’s social media. Its Twitter followers have risen to 150,000, and it doubled its YouTube subscribers. The Livestream channel went from a few dozen subscribers when it started last fall to more than 500 today.

Weekly recap

The weekly recap seeks to interest the media in both major news and under-covered stories. A recent recap discusses a reorganization of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, 2013 financial results, a Viper racing at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, and Dodge’s sponsorship of what Motley Crue is calling its final tour. (The band members even signed a vow that they would stop touring.)

On the blog, Chrysler has responded to current events, such as this winter’s weather. A recent story featured a Jeep owner in Peachtree Corner, Ga., who drove around in a snowstorm helping dozens of stranded people. He handed out food, water, and blankets, and jumped dead batteries, filled gas tanks and pulled cars out of ditches and off the ice. One man he helped was desperately trying to get home to his elderly dog, which had been locked up for 18 hours.

In one area, though, Chrysler follows a corporate formula: Using the little ® mark next to “Jeep” and other brand names. “We use the trademark symbols because they’re required by our brand identity policies,” he says.

Drawing media stories

A video story on the new Chrysler World Class Manufacturing Academy in Warren, Mich., succeeded in interesting media that might not otherwise have shown up, Garsten says.

“We produced the feature … and sent it out to the stations so they would see just how cool the facility is,” Garsten says. “It worked. All of the Detroit TV stations covered the story.”

One example was in the local Fox affiliate.

Garsten’s corporate newsroom consists of eight people works within corporate communications, which has 45 staffers. There’s an in-house studio, and three multimedia reporters are assigned beats around Chrysler’s brands and also subjects such as technology. The staffers handle blog posts, video, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine.

That way, Chrysler is never scooped by the external media on its own stories, and it has plenty of material, Garsten wrote in a guest post for Latergy Video Marketing & PR.

“We’ve long run our team as a real-time newsroom, turning around day-of stories on the same timeline as a station or network,” Garsten wrote. “That’s because most of us are former journalists.”

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Only one staffer has a PR background; the rest are from the news business, Garsten says.

“When I’m looking to hire people now, I’m not looking necessarily for PR people,” he says. “I’m looking for people with video storytelling abilities and editorial journalism abilities.”

Garsten himself spent 20 years at CNN as a correspondent, bureau chief, anchor and producer, with previous experience in local TV and radio. He also was the national auto writer at the Associated Press and General Motors beat writer for The Detroit News.

Chrysler has posted video of analysts about their overall view of the automotive industry. One of these, recorded at the Detroit Auto Show, was about how effective such shows are.

“They don’t necessarily have to do with Chrysler,” Garsten says.

Many in communications have noted how media outlets with declining staffs are increasingly interested in picking up B-roll, and Chrysler makes it easy to download HD video. The stories help TV reporters, in particular, decide whether the visuals are sufficient “to cover stories or, frankly, cannibalize what we’ve done, and pull a video or some sound bite or whatever.”

Because Garsten himself was a journalist, he senses a strong continuity between his former career and his job at Chrysler. His team considers itself to be a news bureau. It adheres to journalistic tenets, even if they are part of a corporate PR department whose goal is to show the company in the best light, Garsten says.

Still, there’s a philosophy at work in Chrysler’s approach.

“Obviously, we can’t be as completely objective as an editorial journalist, but we present the facts in a truthful way and an engaging way and hopefully an informative and entertaining way,” he says. “And just as an editorial journalist will do, to put it in a context and a perspective.”


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