Anyone else out there do what I do?

5351881990_b621326356_bThe shift in publishing from print to digital has changed my production journalist job beyond all recognition – a transition I blogged about in last year in RIP Sub-editing. Now, instead of ‘journalist’, I answer blogger or web editor or content strategist or content creator or multimedia producer or social reporter or online quality controller – depending on the circumstances I find myself in, the people I am speaking to and what people are more likely to understand.

A memory: covering an FT conference for a client, I got chatting with a senior manager at BT Group who asked what I did. I replied that I was there to interview attendees and get their views for a video blog post – a video blogger. I’ll always remember his reaction: “Is that even a job?”

I’m happy to say that it is. I wasn’t insulted by his comment. I fully understand how fast reporting has changed and how big business has (in general) not kept up. In fact, his reaction wasn’t at all unusual and often people don’t understand the business model behind what I do. But the truth is, my work as a sub-editor and journalist for newspapers and magazines has now morphed into one of facilitator. I assuage the needs of clients, all of whom have become publishers, but most of whom do not have any training in basic publishing skills, production sensibilities or editorial judgment.

They need help. Simply put, I help them.

Another memory: a couple of years ago I was hired out as a freelance corporate blogger by my London agency. My boss said afterwards that my use to the client would be less as a blogger and more as a source of information.

I think that has come true: I am their contact ‘on the inside’ of the world of blogging and online communications. When people talk back to them on the blog, or when in-house experts write their first blog posts, I am a source of context, perspective, advice and training.

What has become interesting about this transition into some kind of digital facilitor is that the ‘hands’ person (blogger, web editor, etc) is also the ‘brains’ person (consultant, content strategist). Don’t get me started on rates for the job. I can see why people pitch themselves as just one thing or the other, even if the company ideally needs a combination of both. But it is because I am a ‘hands’ person that I can be a ‘brains’ person. I believe that to advise, you need to have the practical experience not just the theory.

‘Ask Fiona!’

Being the person who understands the online environment (as much as one ever can) means getting involved in client web content strategy – and beyond, for content strategy doesn’t stand alone but affects (or tries to integrate with) all corporate comms, marketing and media. This tension between the human blogging voice and the corporate print voice is a particularly interesting chasm for companies to cross.

But it makes sense to me to have someone in-house or on-call who can answer such questions and corporate dilemmas. After all, the businesses I work for are in their own business, not publishing or online content marketing. And, to be brutal, few businesses are very good at talking with their clients and users directly.

So sometimes I feel like a content coach. It’s a funny role because sometimes it involves stating the bleeding obvious and watching people be amazed by that.

So what do I actually do?

In truth, it’s a flexible role, meeting each client where they are at in terms of resource, skills and aims. In the past two years, for example, I’ve left my comfort zone of blogger and web editor to work on video production and editing, conference blogging and creating a dedicated content strategy for a large corporate client.

What is becoming more clear as time goes on is that being an ‘information point’ or ‘mentor’ or ‘on-call advisor’ is an important part of helping companies develop their confidence, online skills and strategy while maintaining some level of professionalism as they experiment and find their way.

Change management and the culture shift caused by the internet and its possibilities lie at the heart of what is currently going on in my profession. And that is what I feel I now do: encourage the culture shift one individual or department at a time.

Is this embedded freelance role common?

And that is why I have been feeling a growing separation from content strategy as a field as it tries to define itself. Because in my role, I feel less than a management consultant but more than a web editor. On Monday I might be a strategist and trainer, but on Tuesday I might be a blogger or editor.

The other thing I have been thinking is that I don’t scale. I am embedded into the companies of the clients I work for and I feel alone in that I don’t know anyone else who does this. I have more of a direct relationship with my clients than I do with my agency and yet I am an not employed by them. When I visit London, I work in the client’s office not the agency’s, which helps put me at the heart of what they do rather than an external skill that they hire in. But how can this be sold on to others in need of professional publishing help?

I’m not sure where this post is going. It’s the start of being honest and getting something out there about what I do and my ever-changing job title. Am I the only one in this embedded, flexi-role position? What do I call this? I don’t think it is content strategist and I don’t think it is web editor. Am I a publishing aide? How do I market this out to people who only understand terms such as copywriter or editorial content director?

I think I’ll send that one out to the universe and wait to see if there are any fish of the same stripe out there who might reply.

9 thoughts on “Anyone else out there do what I do?”

  1. I’m not sure what you call this and I don’t know anyone else who does this, but I just wanted to say it was fascinating to read about what you do do (and I understand why people like those kinds of posts on my blog too!) and it sounds like a very interesting job to do, and of huge benefit to the companies with which you work. I wonder if the scaling will start to be through the divisions of a company (or do you always work for their central communications) or, indeed, just building a larger base of individual clients, especially as people familiar with you move on to different employers.

  2. Ahh! This does sound incredibly familiar.

    In 2004 I was employed by [massive corp] as a Website Content Editor. The salary was laughable but I took it because I liked the people who interviewed me and, having been through a rough patch, felt that a simple editing and proofreading job would suit me as a stepping stone.

    Within a year, though, I wasn’t just editing the odd bit of blurb, as they’d suggested I would be. I was consulting regularly with upper management about their web comms and social media strategies – and seemed to have become the ‘go-to’ person on absolutely everything web; both internally and externally.

    FWIW I kept the title Content Editor (but my salary – thankfully – was raised).

    I had plans to turn myself into some kind of consultancy and do the same for other big corps that struggle with their online stuff – but, like you, found it difficult to know how to pitch it. (In the end, of course, the decision was taken out of my hands, as I was invited to join the very savvy team at [current job]. I do miss being the go-to person, though!)

    Fascinating question, anyway. I think you’re doing yourself a disservice when you say you’re “less than a management consultant”. By “just” blogging and editing, you’re also helping to take the fear out of it for them, which has a massive impact.

  3. Hi there Fiona. Good post that resonates a lot. I think even those of us with tidy, boxed in titles often operate outside the box–and even want to. I know I do. But I agree that can make it hard to give the 2 minute summary of skills/services. I lean towards keeping the label/box general enough to be able to continue to morph adapt to each need, especially while the discipline settles in for the long haul.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    @Emma – well if you ever leave your [current job], seems we might benefit from banding together…

    @Trisha – I feel as if I’m selling a set of plug-in skills rather than an overall job title and I totally agree on keeping the label general. You reminded me that I often just say I’m a content person and go from there.

    My confusion with content strategy is that it is the bracket term for a lot of traditional publishing tasks on which one naturally builds extra skills in analytics, SEO, content audit, defining content goals and user needs, etc.

    But I’ve been told quite bluntly by a UX content strategist across the pond that what I’m doing is not content strategy – and yet content strategy as a field is trying to be the umbrella for what I do. So there is a tension there.

    I think some people have the distinction that CS is the ‘brain’ work and not ‘hands’ work.

    If that is the case, then content strategy is only the advisory element of what I do. Is the next step to make it my whole job? I’m not sure because here in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be such a discrete role that agencies can sell in, meanwhile client marketing departments aren’t hiring people in at that level.

  5. Very interesting and heartfelt post. I think you’re in the same situation many writers and content producers are: doing a lot more than you were initially called upon to do. It’s the bottom-up approach to content strategy, and it’s often the only way in to a customer with regards to CS. As for the analogy with brains and hands, there’s something about it I find deeply disturbing, as if excellent execution required no brains. Aargh. That said, I do think that content strategy is a consulting role, whereas content production, in and of itself, is not. Good content producers, however, can take advantage of the CS void in most companies to extend the nature of their services. The big danger, though, is then doing a lot of strategic work – at content producer rates.

  6. Hi Lise, I have just raved about your post on Twitter re horizontal and vertical content strategy. Thanks for that – it has added a useful perspective and helped me think about CS in a more useful way.

    The link for others is:

    http://www.dot-connection.com/2011/06/horizontal-and-vertical-content-strategy/

    The silo-spanning role is an interesting one. I suspect again that there is a risk of becoming embedded by doing this in order to hold everything together.

    I agree with content strategy being a consulting role. That tends to be my differentiation. I think that the reality is that CS people will often take on some of the practical work, though. I suspect this is because they don’t have the right skills on the staff team or capable/available freelancers to call on in order to delegate the work.

  7. Hi Fiona, this is a fascinating post. Like you, I come from a print background, but I’m still in the process of trying to reinvent myself in a digital arena: a process that I find, at times, confusing. I’d love to hear more about how you made the initial leap between those two worlds. I do think that digital projects can benefit from traditional publishing skills (proper workflow for example); I also think that developments in SEO are finally pushing us into an era of improved content, which can only be good for us writer-editors. Looking forward to reading more of your blog 🙂

  8. Hi Annette, thanks for commenting. I was driven to document my digital switchover (at length, I’m afraid) in the RIP sub-editing posts on Subs’ Standards:

    http://subsstandards.wordpress.com/tag/rip/

    It was a process – and still is. After all, digital doesn’t stand still.

    I see you’re from the Middle Lands also. If you’re ever in Brum, let’s have a coffee and a chat about it all. Now following you on Twitter.

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