When Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan, toured the carmaker’s earthquake-damaged plant in Iwaki, Japan, last month, a camera crew followed him.
Mr Ghosn donned a hard hat and a white factory jacket. He made news by announcing that the factory was adding a third shift, allowing it to return to 80 per cent of its pre-quake output, and offered a rousing sound bite when he told workers that the plant served as a symbol of Japan’s resilience.
The outing was typical for one of the industry’s most publicity-friendly CEOs. But the camera crew were not journalists, or subcontractors hired to film the event. They were employees of the in-house “newsroom” Nissan created in April.
The resulting film was turned round at a brisk tempo more common in 24-hour newsgathering than public relations. The carmaker streamed the visit live on YouTube, a rough cut of the film was posted on the company’s website within two hours and an edited package of stories was published within five.
Nissan recruited television and print journalists from the BBC, CNBC, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and others, taking advantage of a downsizing trend among news organisations in Tokyo. The operation launched in English but it will add other languages as more staff join.
“Traditional public relations is not that sophisticated – it’s something that is so heavy-handed that it can be potentially unwatchable or unreadable,” says Dan Sloan, who runs the operation after 17 years at Reuters. “In coming to this enterprise, what I said from day one was: ‘It won’t work if it comes off as state television – it’s got to be much more interesting than traditional marketing communications attempts have been.’ ”
Nissan says it has no plans to abandon more conventional ways of communicating. But in generating its own “stories”, the company aims to provide content for the growing array of websites that aggregate content on the car industry. Sites such as Top Gear, Autoblog and Jalopnik have a constant hunger for moving images.
For example, the operation recently produced a feature on the Nissan Leaf Nismo RC electric sports car, in which its cameras were given exclusive access to the car and the engineers who built it. When the editors of Top Gear’s website put the film on their homepage, it went viral and generated more than 60,000 views.
While Nissan does not pretend the material is hard news, the team has taken on sensitive topics, including recent radiation checks of Nissan vehicles waiting for export.
In April, the company used the operation to have a senior executive announce and answer questions about a service campaign to fix a potentially embarrassing software glitch on the Leaf.
“It’s about killing press releases,” says Simon Sproule, Nissan’s head of global marketing communications. “We decided that if we’ve got good stories to tell, we’ll tell them ourselves.”
Industrial companies have a history of generating programming that stretches back to the 1960s, when Procter & Gamble produced soap operas.
Today, as digital media proliferates, new opportunities are opening up for companies to shape their own stories.
But one expert likens the effort to in-house advertising agencies, which some companies have tried and later abandoned for cost reasons. “People are continually experimenting with different models,” says Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP. “In-house agencies have never been particularly successful, though this may be different.”
Mr Sproule responds that the operation costs no more than 5 per cent of Nissan’s global public relations budget and a tiny fraction of its overall marketing spending.
The company, he says, would not consider outsourcing the venture, which it sees as emblematic of where communications is heading. “The media centre is the first love child from the coupling of marketing and PR,” he jokes.