The story of how a voluntary ‘Write Club’ improved news coverage in Maersk Line.
In the beginning of 2013, I took over the role of internal news editor in Maersk Line, a global company of some 20,000 people. A very fun and interesting job which I held for three years, finding many good stories and meeting a lot of talented people.
With the job I also inherited certain challenges: readers had told us that content was too HQ-heavy; not surprising, since less than 10% of the workforce were based in Copenhagen with me.
Of course there were some who preferred the ‘corporate’ voice with only official, sanctioned content. I, however, sided with the majority who enjoyed a more ‘grass-roots’ feel, while of course staying true to corporate strategy and values. It was my job to balance the two.
What I needed was people from around the world who wanted to write, and preferably had some potential in the area. I had some connections, but not enough, and not always the right people. Furthermore, I had no formal mandate, so participation would have to be voluntary, which in itself can be a challenge in KPI-driven culture.
Do not talk about Write Club
The idea came from my predecessor, as did the name. Not everyone got the pun, but that’s ok.
We launched Write Club by advertising to an existing communication network and by word of mouth. Per design it was not clear exactly how it would evolve, since I wanted to gauge the mood and interests of the people who joined.
The general idea was this: bring people together who want to improve their writing skills, give them special attention and coaching, and hopefully they will deliver content along the way. I had typically between 10 and 20 people on the roster, with varying commitment and skill levels.
What did we do?
A few main features kept the network alive. Roughly once a month, I hosted a webinar with an agenda typically like this:
- Editorial update from HQ: What’s going on in terms of strategy, what types of stories am I specifically looking for.
- Assignments: Especially in the beginning I would give the members short assignments, both for me to gauge their skill levels, and for them to improve. In the next call, we would then review their homework and have a general discussion.
- Theme of the day: Presented either by myself or a guest speaker, this would take them through topics such as interview technique, building a storyline, or where to look for stories. Always encouraging participation and discussion.
In addition to the webinars, I would do my best to hand-hold the members and give special attention to their assignments and eventually their story projects. I would encourage everyone to look for stories, and actively follow up on their commitments. No raised fingers, however, since this was all voluntary, so it was up to the members to decide if they wanted to write ten stories per year, or just two.
On a few occasions my travels made it possible to meet one or more Write Clubbers in person, but for the most part our interaction was purely digital.
We did get to know each other quite well, however, and an extra benefit was when two or more members would collaborate on a story. It typically started when I heard their pitches, and if two stories were similar, I would encourage them to join forces. So instead of publishing one story about sales training in Korea and one about the same Poland, we would have a wider feature story about sales training with sources from Korea, Poland, and perhaps a third country.
Whenever a story from a Write Clubber was published, we would put a discreet Write Club logo in the corner of the story, which eventually led to people asking about the club and how to join.
What were the results?
I don’t have access to the data any longer, but we did put out a lot of stories from corners of the world which had not previously been covered. Most of these stories performed above average in terms of readership and interaction. And when we surveyed the readers a year later, many people commented that they appreciated the increased variety in voices and geography.
For the people who joined, it is my opinion that they improved their skills, some of them considerably, and I believe they were grateful to be part of the project.
Eventually, Write Club outlived itself. Organisational changes meant that I would increasingly rely on dedicated communication professionals in global regions as sources and writers. But building on the success of Write Club, I made sure to schedule regular calls with these people to ask them what was going on in their region, discuss potential stories, and continue the dedicated coaching on writing.
What did I learn?
People are happy to join. My biggest worry at first was whether anybody would actually take the time to participate, and if my coaching was enough to make their efforts worthwhile. This worry was quickly put to rest, however. Since the Write Clubbers had joined out of interest, they were quite keen on the project, and the opportunity to improve their skills, and see their work and their location featured in global news, was enough for most.
You only get what you put into it. I was kept busy by many other tasks, and Write Club was not always my first priority. So while the members were engaged, the network needed my constant initiative and nurturing to thrive.
What might seem like extra work pays off in the end. Dealing with volunteers requires extra attention and patience. Some writers were nearly prolific, but others needed a lot of work in terms of editing. For these individual stories, it might have been faster to write them myself. But I wanted the variety in voices, and I wanted people to learn. Fortunately they did improve, and when Write Club was at its best, it was delivering quality content which I could definitely not have done all by myself.
Originally posted on kennethbirch.wordpress.com on March 20, 2017.