News media companies are excellent at investigative reporting, gathering news, curating content, and reporting breaking news.

An area we aren’t as proficient in is leveraging news events and creating moments to make our brand part of trending conversations. How can we as engaging news brands ride the waves that we so often report on?

The marketing team at Arby's was empowered to engage with celebrity Pharrell Williams.
The marketing team at Arby's was empowered to engage with celebrity Pharrell Williams.

Every year, Cox Media Group hosts a leadership conference, and we spend a week sharing ideas, learning from great speakers, and innovating with an eye toward the future. This year one of our keynote speakers was Rob Lynch, the brand president and chief marketing officer for Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc.

Since joining the company in 2013, Lynch has been a key contributor to Arby’s turn-around. In 2015, the Arby’s brand experienced its best sales year in the brand’s 50-year history and significantly outpaced QSR industry same-store sales growth rates.

Even more impressive is that Arby’s isn’t the biggest spender in its category — the competitive QSR waters are very deep and it has been fighting for its share as an underdog.

An example of the company’s success from 2014 involved Pharrell William’s fashionable hat selection and the social media storm that was created around the Grammy’s and Arby’s.

A simple tweet from Arby’s is all it took.

Arby's used Twitter to set its brand apart from others.
Arby's used Twitter to set its brand apart from others.

This resulted in a highly visible, playful social exchange that Arby’s recognised, created, leveraged, and then punctuated by helping charity. Arby’s learned through social that Pharrell was going to sell his famous hat on eBay. Arby’s outbid all others, bought the hat for US$44,000 and donated the proceeds to Pharrell William’s charity, From One Hand to Another.

Charitable contributions help define a brand.
Charitable contributions help define a brand.

Lynch’s team continues to successfully leverage unpaid media reach through really smart, bold, funny, and relevant social media and marketing campaigns. These campaigns have earned Arby’s millions of dollars in media value, new revenues, and lots of community and consumer goodwill.

We can all turn a clever phrase for Twitter now and then, but how do we really strike gold and sustain success?

This example and other social media wins have all been created through an authentic and progressive culture at Arby’s. By purposefully monitoring, listening, and participating in social media, knowing its customers, empowering employees, encouraging bold decisions, and understanding its customers’ passions, Arby’s has unlocked a whole new relationship with its employees and customers.

Lynch shared with the CMG leaders that balancing data, insights, and intuition is key. The guidance he offered can be useful for all of us to help shape our newspaper media futures:

  • Establish confidence in who you are and what you stand for.
  • Get everyone swimming in the same direction.
  • Don’t play your competitor’s game.
  • Be willing to take big swings outside of your comfort zone.

So, as news folks, we often get caught up in our brand positions, Big Data, digital challenges, and news legacy. I hope that some of the questions I pondered from Lynch’s talk might also be helpful to you:

  • How well are we really listening to customers?
  • Is the team empowered to speak for the brand without layers of approval and hierarchy to capitalise on a moment?
  • When did we become afraid to be authentic?
  • Are you really listening and responding to social comments as part of an actual conversation, or do we just choose not to engage at all?

I would love to hear from you and explore ways we can create the kind of news media culture that enables a single and very simple tweet to become so powerful.