Content marketing. Sponsored content. Native advertising. Whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying it’s here to stay. The keys to success have no doubt been telling a story compelling enough to fit right in with content written and produced by trusted writers and editors. And so it makes sense that PR agencies and media companies — even the venerable Condé Nast with its 23 Stories — are looking to veteran journalists to help cultivate the voice and style that draws in their target consumers. Another case in point is Access Communications, which recently launched its new storytelling division called Access Studio, consisting of digital, design, writing and analytics channels. At the helm of the writing channel, called Access Voice, is former technology editor at USA Today Nancy Blair, who in January was named vice president of content, based in the agency’s San Francisco office.
We caught up with Blair only a few days into her new role. Here, she answers five questions on her departure from editorial, lessons learned from being a business journalist and more.
FBNY: Why did you decide to leave journalism to head up sponsored content at Access? And at any point did you see it as venturing into the dark side of the media business?
Blair: Not at all. It’s the light side, isn’t it? [laughs] Well, it’s a funny thing. I don’t think anybody in PR would describe it as a move to the dark side. It’s just a different side of the equation, really. In today’s world, though, you know, when you talk about audience, there is this continued need, whether on the journalism side or the PR and marketing side, to help tell the story of what’s happening in society and with these consumer brands in a way that people can understand it. Right? So that’s not a dark activity.
I’d been in journalism for a long time, and there are a lot of these opportunities now to make that move from journalism into the PR/marketing world and continue to challenge yourself in different ways. For the last 10 years at USA Today, I was handling tech coverage, but that was kind of under the umbrella of the ‘Money’ section — for print, anyway. So, you know, I think any business journalist, you understand the challenges that companies face in trying to get messages out, not just about products and services, but about their place in the world and the shifting business and consumer environments, and it was just a great opportunity to start to use a different part of my brain.
FBNY: So tell me about Access Studio. How would you describe it and who does your team consist of?
Blair: My piece of it with Access Voice is to start working with account teams inside the agency on different projects for clients in terms of helping them tell their stories, whether it’s in a blog post or helping shape an op-ed by an executive and the like.
I’ll be working with folks like Trevor Jonas, who is on the digital side/social. And I’m actually quite looking forward to getting to know Trevor better, and the rest of the team. This core group of five leaders in Access Studio will be working across teams internally here, so we’ll be swinging in and out of projects as the need arises. The idea is to try to reach different parts of a brand’s audience wherever they are, if it’s hanging out on social media, if it’s reading a straight-up story or watching a video on YouTube.
[Access Studio] will be a living, breathing thing, and we’ll continue to build it out and find new things to do and new approaches for the clients.
FBNY: How did your background in journalism prepare you for the PR world?
Blair: [My] core skill set is highly portable: finely tuned surveillance radar, passion, adaptability, analysis and trend spotting. And the ability to write and edit clearly and concisely, while not rocket science, can be a big differentiator.
At USA Today, I also spent a lot of time coordinating across different parts of the newsroom and with outside content partners. I think that ability to work across teams will also be key for me here at Access.
FBNY: Are there specific lessons you’ve learned in your editorial career that you’re applying to this position?
Blair: Well, one thing I think is great about the way they put together this Access Studio bucket is that it taps multi-disciplines. As you well know, especially over the past five years, the way that mainstream media, and especially the tech press sort of tell stories, it’s not just the straight-up collection of words. There might be a traditional news story, but then there’s the tweet around the story, there’s a video to accompany the story. One of the most fun things we’d been doing recently at USA Today was to begin to experiment with podcasts around the top news of the week. So these are all things that I think this broader Access Studio group that I’m a part of will start to really be able to elevate in terms of what we can offer the clients here.
FBNY: What is the biggest challenge that you anticipate working in paid media? How do you present branded content in a way that appeals to the masses?
Blair: I think Access has got a lot of experience in that regard. This new offering is kind of a way to weave it all into a seamless multidisciplinary approach. So it’s just sort of that old journalistic skill of quickly ramping up on everything there is to know about a company and its place in the world. I mean that’s really been my key challenge on day one, two, three, four, five.
I think one of the biggest [challenges] for me personally will be to deepen my understanding of the breadth of the storytelling needs of our clients. As a business journalist, you’re on one side of the equation: How does a company/its services/products fit in with the story I am trying to tell my readers. In PR, that equation changes somewhat. You’re tasked with understanding all of a client’s constituents, whether that is media, consumers, investors or the broader industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.