By Erin Rodat-Savla published April 1, 2015

Tell Corporate Stories Like a TV Producer: Inform, Inspire, Engage

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The brick building that houses the heart of EMCTV could be any other building in any other corporate office park. In fact, Maggie Burke, Senior Director of Corporate Marketing, seems impressed that I’ve managed to find it among the dozen others on this cul-de-sac.

She leads me through a rabbit warren of decommissioned cubicles, empty offices and miscellaneous storage stacks to a dimly lit corridor lined by metal mesh walls. A banner overhead suggests we’ve arrived: “EMCTV – Inform. Inspire. Engage.”

Despite the fact that I’ve already seen some of EMCTV’s programming, it’s still surprising to see a fully operational TV studio in this former warehouse. Behind these walls, there’s a Hollywood makeup mirror. There’s a small, nicely appointed seating area – the green room, of course. And there’s the multi-camera production booth, with its bewildering array of buttons and screens. I’m told it’s fully portable, giving the team the ability to mix and cut video on the fly, even as it streams live from any site.

Turn a few more corners, and I find myself under a fully outfitted, 24-by-36-foot lighting grid, facing a standing news set. (I half expect to find Diane Sawyer testing her mic.) Towering over me is a newly acquired 14-foot camera jib. I no longer feel like I’m in an office park.

Although they work there every day, no one is more surprised to find this studio in place than Senior Manager Dave Ross and Chief Technical Engineer Glenn DiTommaso. The original two-man team has produced video for EMC for 14 years. With no small amount of wonder, Ross struggles to express the turn of events, “Ten years ago, I would never have predicted anything like this. I figured we would just keep doing what we were doing. The stuff we’ve done over the past four years? This warehouse? I never, never saw it.”

Going from corporate videos to network-quality news

Burke, a former CBS network news correspondent and producer, made the leap from broadcast to corporate TV 14 years ago. A decade later, she joined EMC at a time when the former sales- and engineering-oriented B2B company had just appointed its first chief marketing officer. CMO Jeremy Burton brought Burke in to create video communication for executives and interject the news-style commentary into EMC’s corporate video. (Prior to this, Ross and DiTommaso – who also started out in network TV – produced mostly customer testimonials and the occasional executive interview with just a couple of cameras and a computer between them.)

Burke says her charge was general, “Get executives out in front, so the whole company can see them, understand them, and engage with them. We need video.” They started modestly with a single serial program called Bill’s Breakfast Club, a chat show for the sales force featuring the head of worldwide sales. Today, as a semi-autonomous arm of the corporate marketing department, the 10-person EMCTV team is averaging a show a week, about eight product launches per year, multiple mini-documentaries for brand awareness … all on top of producing TV news-style coverage of the company’s quarterly meetings, the innovation conference Launchpad, and the IT conference EMCWorld. This success – and the still-increasing demand for its work – is what led the company to agree to EMCTV’s proposal: Convert unused warehouse space into this dedicated, on-site studio. It opened in February 2013.

Burke contrasts EMCTV’s approach to traditional corporate TV: “For many organizations, the gold standard is still some talking head executive shot on a green screen. It’s understandable. It takes money to create our kind of content, but the things you can do with new, lower-priced technology make it possible to produce richer stories.

“We tell stories that are definitely not your norm. We do mini-documentaries … and think of them the way Dateline, 20/20, or 60 Minutes would. We try to find really fascinating stories, then tell them well … to evoke positive feelings about the company.”

This story-and-news approach helps cut through the fact that, as Burke admits, “EMC sells something that, quite frankly, is a little difficult for people to understand. Our job is to build an awareness of everything that ‘data storage’ really means.”

The videos dovetail into the company’s brand awareness, thought leadership, and audience engagement efforts by broadcasting interesting characters and fascinating visuals to its core external audience of engineers, data scientists, security officers, and CIOs – as well as its strongest brand advocates: its 65,000-person global work force. “These are the people who are going to tell your story with a real emotional connection to it,” Burke explains.

A small, nimble production team, coupled with employee experts as on-air talent, the team operates in Massachusetts and California. In addition to Burke, four team members serve as producers and directors, with two cameramen and editors on each coast, and additional roles to support the team’s operations.

For the volume and complexity of what EMCTV produces, it’s still a pretty lean team. The key: Recruiting EMC employees as on-screen talent.

Looking inside and out for the best team

Several times a year, EMCTV runs internal auditions, identifying EMC employees – be they systems engineers or vice presidents – to be event reporters and anchors, as well as the hosts for recurring programs. These recruits then go through reporter boot camp to develop research, interviewing, teleprompter, mic, and other on-screen skills.

“We’ve now got about 24 people who are really, really good at this. We couldn’t do what we do on the budget we do it without them,” Burke says, pointing out the main advantage – they already know the products and messages. “The on-air parts are far easier to teach than how to portray your company.”

EMCTV also supplements its field crew with employees from other divisions, often younger members of departments like IT or educational services, who bring introductory video or technical skills and a real desire to learn. Ross explains, “Managers are generous with their time because they learn a tremendous amount on set. It becomes an informal apprenticeship.”

When it comes to creating your core team, however, Burke advises, “Look for TV people. There’s no real replacement for experience. Everybody from my team comes from TV, not corporate marketing – BBC, Smithsonian, Lifetime, A&E, CBS. They know visual storytelling.

“And don’t assume that corporate work isn’t attractive to creatives; there’s something to be said for stable benefits, corporate budgets, and the lack of dubious assignments, like covering the sinkhole eating a supermarket parking lot.”

Certainly the energy of Burke, Ross, and DiTommaso isn’t that of creatives being quashed by corporate life. They’re eager to tell their own story in hopes it encourages more organizations to redefine and push the boundaries of corporate content. As Burke says, “We’ve put together a team of unbelievably talented people … and EMC leadership has let them blossom. This is a dream job for us. We’re making TV and having fun.”

Building your own studio?

If you’re wondering whether to go in-house for video content, Burke asks just how much video is on your road map for both marketing and internal communication. If it’s still only a handful of videos, stick with agencies or experiment with new hybrids like YouTube’s playground studios in New York City. If it’s much more than that, Burke says, you will be surprised how small you can start – and how worthwhile it will be.

It’s less expensive than you think. You don’t need to start with a full-blown studio, of course, and prices have plummeted on the basic equipment. The EMCTV team estimates that the roughly $50K invested four years ago is almost 10 times more than what you’d need to spend today for basic cameras, a TriCaster Mini, and other starter infrastructure. Ross points out, “You pay that just walking into the door of some agencies.”

Don’t discount executive cost, convenience, and comfort. If your executives are the stars of the shows, the ease of getting them into the studio, as well as working with familiar faces, can also contribute to significantly lower costs and higher-quality productions.

Thinking like a TV producer

Burke also shares eight tips to help corporate marketers start thinking like TV producers – whether you have your own studio or not:

  1. Have a wow factor that makes ’em sit up and think

The best content makes the audience feel something. So find and focus on the emotive stories, be they informative, inspiring, surprising, or shocking.

  1. Lead with the stories, not with the brand

One of the easiest ways you can go awry is to talk too soon or too often about your company … and kill the audience’s interest. If you’ve done your homework, and dug up the right story, bait your audience with the elements that make them want to hear more.

  1. Build an arc

The best story arcs comprise four elements: a challenge to overcome, a sense of urgency, a champion, and, of course, a payoff. These elements offer both a litmus test of whether you’ve identified a good story, and a tried-and true-structure for presenting it.

  1. Feature interesting characters

People are compelled by other people. We like learning about someone interesting. In the context of your story, who are the interesting characters? Ask yourself, who would I want to meet? Why? How can I get them to convey that on screen?

  1. Let your characters tell the story in their own words

You’ve followed tip No. 4 and nabbed some interesting characters. So, now, let them be interesting.

  1. Find the most visually compelling location

As human beings, what we see impacts us first – so your cubicles and conference room may not be the best first impression. Where you shoot impacts the kind of story you want to tell. What, exactly, are we going to see? If your own offices don’t match the narrative, is there a compelling client or partner site you can use?

  1. Give the audience behind-the-scenes access

People are fascinated to be allowed into places they otherwise wouldn’t see or let in on details they wouldn’t otherwise know. EMCTV has given viewers glances into the Vatican Library, ring-side seats while the Lotus F1 racing team broke a Guinness World Record, and insight into how the CIA’s information security officer thinks. Who are your most unusual customers and partners? Where does your work bring you that not many people go? What details might surprise folks not in-the-know?

  1. Keep control of the message

Internal clients will make demands … and many think they already understand video. They come to you and want a music video with a gorilla costume. They want 10 people included in a two-minute clip. You need to keep politics to a minimum by educating customers in a diplomatic way. But never cede creative control.

Specify everyone’s involvement in writing. Allow internal clients or the subjects of your story to look at the rough cut for accuracy and how they’re portrayed, but don’t allow them to make creative decisions, like what’s included in a shot, what colors are forbidden, or what music is used. And, particularly if you’re partnering with other organizations, don’t forget to get written approval up front to use the film wherever you want to distribute it.

Portions of this post originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Erin Rodat-Savla

Erin Rodat-Savla is vice president at Farland Group, a B:B marketing and strategy consulting firm that puts customers at the center of decision making. Follow her @ersavla.

Other posts by Erin Rodat-Savla

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  • Naomi Rose

    Great article, and fantastic to see a company embracing the value of well-thought out internal communications! We often advise clients on how to use their brand proposition to engage employees, and the right mix of mediums and resource is different for every company, so it’s interesting to read about a company with such a forward-thinking approach.

  • Maggie Burke

    Thanks for your comment Naomi. A great part of the excitement and satisfaction we’ve had in building out EMC TV is in the support we get from our executives to try innovative approaches to content creation. We are given the room (and budget) to push our limits and experiment, so far with great results. Building the right team, even a small team is key. Thanks again for your interest.

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  • http://www.resolutionproductionsgroup.com Chris Payne

    AMEN! As a producer, it can be difficult educating the minds of corporate communications and
    marketers who want content but don’t always have the creative eye, technical
    “behind the scenes” knowledge, or budget to properly implement
    quality programing. It takes a TV producer mindset, a history scripting entertaining
    programs, and deep understanding of video production to create great online
    programs for your “just a click away” audience. What you create in our digital age lives on Youtube, Vimeo and other social channels forever so
    if you’re going to tackle online content, make it great…you will stand out and the
    life cycle will be longer; justifying the money spent to create it.