7 things we learned from breakfast with the Huffington Post
It goes without saying that the Huffington Post is one of the most important and celebrated publications of our time. Since its launch 11 years ago Arianna’s vision to aggregate news and opinion honestly, candidly and with independence from advertisers has exploded across 15 global editions and many more on a local stage. They have aspirations to be a close rival to the BBC and have given many alternative and marginalised voices a platform.
Remember tube driver Seb Michnowicz whose tube strike blog went viral in 2015 and appeared on Channel 4 news the same day he pressed publish? He and over 14,000 other bloggers in the UK alone have been given a trusted, high profile platform from the Huffington Post. While other media houses struggled with the democratisation of journalism, The Huffington Post made it its business.
So the breakfast meeting wasn’t as intimate as my headline suggests; yesterday we joined 100+ others at a Gorkana breakfast to hear what UK Editor in Chief Stephen Hull and Global Lifestyle Head Poorna Bell had to tell a room of PRs. The packed out lecture theatre scenario didn’t make it any less inspiring or useful. Poorna and Stephen shared lots of food for thought and insights into their unique approach and I thought I’d jot down what we learned in 60 minutes.
1. Video is everything
Yes, yes, you know this already but it was interesting to hear how Stephen and Poorna apply the medium to their stories. They think about the platform first acknowledging that a highly polished end piece isn’t always needed. Facebook Live has pushed us all to be more spontaneous even more so than other social platforms have done in the past. This might be the Snapchat effect and it is inviting brands to be ready to share content and views much faster and not hide behind a community manager. In the last week alone we’ve seen lots of media requests for information in video format – recipes, advice, stats. We all have to learn how to make it.
2. And so is integrity
I tweeted Stephen and Poorna afterwards to congratulate them on bringing their integrity and journalistic principles to the fore so unequivocally (or something like that in 140 chars). What shone through everything they said was that their values are not to be compromised for any brand partnership – they want to be a company that “stands for things other brands don’t talk about”. Bring them a campaign with a purpose and they’ll scrutinise it to ensure it’s not just purposeful comms paying lip service to impact. They’re looking for genuine social change. Bring them a pitch and it has to bring with it value – advice, an opinion, a solution. A much tweeted soundbite on the day was this: they like to think they “deliver content with carbohydrate, not empty calorie journalism”.
3. A good publication lives and breathes its issues
Poorna’s vision for how Lifestyle covers women’s issues is clear: "Feminism is a 24/7 thing and should feed into all stories not just be a special feature”. Again, it’s not about lip service. When the Style section launched a year ago they sought to do a new take on the women’s articles that they wish had been covered differently. No one is immune to getting this wrong as Discovery Girls magazine found out this week. Having not just a clear view on what you cover but also with what aim is helpful to PR teams. It gives us clearer direction on the campaigns that will work and how to guide our clients in creating the right kind of content.
4. Bad news isn't the only news
Stephen gave the example of the plastic bag charge story. When many publications were reporting the negatives the Huffington Post decided to cover the benefits – more money for charity, less plastic hanging around. He explained that Arianna is close to this core philosophy of finding perspective in news, not revelling in negativity.
5. Glossy aspirational lives aren't for them
Poorna made it clear they’re not interested in presenting an aspiration we (the audience) can’t live up to. Not everyone can afford a £600 pair of shoes and they want to acknowledge that. It ties into the bigger news agenda regarding the housing crisis, the London rent crisis, the graduate employment issue… the editorial team want to tap into what we and our friends talk about rather than presenting perfection none of us can identify with. This tone isn’t unique to Huffington Post with others including The Pool, Stylist and Caitlin Moran’s column presenting a much grittier view of our lives.
6. Emotion makes the best blog posts
Poorna felt strongly that “the beauty of Huffington Post blogs is that they are not curated and commissioned by journalists but are written by real people writing about something emotive and important to many others”. It could be anything from sustainable fashion (which was a hugely successful content stream for them last year) through to the impact of cancer. Poorna’s team is looking for emotion and commentary on the human condition - “You being a human being and understanding your life and its counterpoint to others lives is critical to a good blog”.
7. The most successful PR pitches understand what the publication is interested in
But us PRs knew that anyway, right?!
N.B. I didn’t take an audio recorder with me and so have captured the commentary as accurately as possible.