As the obituary writer says, always be prepared

October 2nd, 2017

Content marketing inspiration from the pen of a journalistic maestro

“For an obituary writer there is nothing worse than to have a world figure die before his obituary is up-to-date; it can be a harrowing experience.”

– Gay Talese, Mr. Bad News

I’ve been reading a collection of magazine articles written by Gay Talese this week. Talese was a non-fiction feature writer extraordinaire and a pioneer of New Journalism, a style of more literary, subjective news writing developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among the tales of faded heavyweight boxers, the New York office of Vogue magazine in 1961, and a portrait of Frank Sinatra nursing a cold with whisky and a bad temper, one in particular stood out.

Mr. Bad News, written in 1966, tells the story of Alden Whitman. A quiet, 52-year-old man in Manhattan, Whitman works as obituary writer (also variously referred to as ‘gravedigger’, or ‘death specialist’) for the New York Times.

Each day, he conducts the same routine – constructed around keeping abreast of which public figures have died, which notable person’s health is ailing and, most challenging of all for the writer, who has died suddenly or unexpectedly. You can, and should, read the full piece here.

Forward planning

Aside from being a great idea for a feature, pulled off with typical panache, there is much to consider for content marketers everywhere.

Firstly, for all the talk of agile content solutions, there really is no substitute for preparation. For Whitman, that meant a room in the New York Times building known as ‘the morgue’ filled with thousands of advance obituaries – many of which would need hasty updating when the moment struck.

For content marketers, that means a content calendar. Content tied to seasonal events is seen as an obvious way to increase engagement, at least in the short term. But too often this content lets the audience down. If you’re crowbarring in a reference to the new series of The Great British Bake Off in your headlines, you’d better make sure it delivers as engaging and, more importantly, valuable content – or risk irritating an audience that will feel deceived into reading. And that audience won’t return.

Social strategy

Creating top-quality content is only part of the process these days. Whereas Whitman filed his copy and waited for the morning edition to be grabbed from the newsstands, the world has moved on.

The same rules of preparation that went into the content apply to making sure it reaches as large an audience as possible.

Whichever channels you choose to focus on, make sure you have a schedule in place for what will be posted and when. Do your research on relevant hashtags and which companies to tag into posts. Find relevant, related content to link to and brand advocates within your organisation that will share from their personal accounts.

But don’t forget…

Stay on your toes

There’s no escaping it: you need to be agile. News breaks, things change, the ground shifts. How many content marketers, upon hearing the news about Twitter’s change from 140 to 280 characters, opened up their laptops and started typing a blog about brevity versus long-form content? And fair enough – it’s a good debate.

But every plan needs room for manoeuvre. The surprise death of a public figure was Whitman’s nightmare – a gathering of news clippings and reference books “requiring that the writer become an instant historian, assessing in a few hours the dead man’s life with lucidity, accuracy, and objectivity.”

The same principle applies in the race for content. At Progressive Content we have an agile content division – covering editorial, design, account management, and strategy on a campaign-by-campaign basis, whatever the brand.

Mix careful planning with proactive content capability to ensure your content doesn’t suffer the same fate as Alden Whitman’s subjects.

James Sullivan, Editor, Progressive Content

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