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Company makes its case with newsroom

The role of petroleum in feeding the world. A volunteer mentoring effort at a high school. A gas station rebranding. Marathon Petroleum uses website to connect with people and offer its views.

As the Paris Climate Change Conference heated up in November, it was hard to find anyone willing to put in a kind word about fossil fuels. Even automakers such as Nissan sought to position themselves on the side of the angels by promoting their electric vehicle fleets.

In the past, a petroleum company or its PR agency might have had to lean on reporters to get a mention of the importance of oil products in feeding billions of people. (Think of tractors, fertilizers and the energy required to pipe water for irrigation.)

This time around, Marathon Petroleum Corp. could make a direct pitch to the public by posting video on its newsroom of a speech by the author of a book called "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels."

The newsroom launch early last year coincided with Marathon Petroleum's rollout of its social media endeavors. The company has garnered 3,000 followers on Facebook, and 34,000 LinkedIn users follow the company.

"We're putting stories out here that interest us," says Brandon Daniels, Marathon Petroleum's communications manager. "We're communicating directly with people who care, and the media tap into that in a very real way."

A brand journalism strategy allows the $98 billion company to set its own agenda for its external communications. The approach, however, is an extension of its internal communications, Daniels says.

Evolving from a newsletter

The petro producer long had an internal newsletter that went out to its 10,000 employees companywide, Daniels says. It helped get out the news to different parts of the organization: Someone who worked in a refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, might otherwise never find out what's going on at a Robinson, Illinois, refinery—or with the engineering department. But if there's someone inspiring in one part of the company, others want to hear about him or her.

It dawned on Marathon Petroleum's staff of five communicators, however, that information it was sharing in the newsletter could be relevant to external stakeholders: shareholders, community members and families of employees and members of the Fourth Estate.

Marathon Petroleum posted a story on mentorship program that pairs its employees with high school sophomores in its headquarters town of Findlay, Ohio. It quoted a company official saying, ""These are students who have talent but perhaps need further direction."

Such stories once would have been limited to within Marathon Petroleum walls, with a few stray copies finding their way to school bulletin boards. Now it is publicly available—and Marathon Petroleum can easily leverage sharing from its newsroom.

"We were able to share that with the school directly, and the school then in turn shared that link," Daniels says. "Certainly the reach on that story went forward. And we were getting a lot of feedback in the local community based on that story."

Another story highlighted Marathon Petroleum's community celebrations of National 811 Day. This is a safety event reminding people that before digging on their property, they should call 811 in case there are buried utility lines.

Marathon Petroleum—which owns, leases or has an ownership stake in 8,300 miles of pipeline—has a clear interest in the topic. Marathon Petroleum hosted events for landowners and local emergency responders at minor league baseball games in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, giving guests free tickets and treating them to picnics during the games.

Gas station makeovers

Marathon Petroleum also posted gas station video (more interesting than you might think). The company has a branding agreement with 5,600 independent owners who run stations, and the company owns 2,760 Speedway locations. When the Speedway subsidiary acquired Hess retail locations, it had to convert those stations. Marathon Petroleum posted both an article about conversion and a time-lapse video of workers crazily changing signs and stripping off the old (off-brand colored) roofing.

If local reporters called to ask about the changeover of a local Hess station, Marathon Petroleum could send a link to the content. The article itself did not pick up media attention, but it helped answer journalists' questions, Daniels says.

The company did get interest in a story on recruiting.

Daniels says: "We had a couple of major news outlets reach out and say, 'Hey, we saw you published that story. Would you mind giving us some information on what it's like to recruit into your industry?'"

Its analytics show that 15-20 percent of the people exposed to a given post follow through to the site, and they spend an average of 1.5 minutes reading the article. Plus, people are going on to explore the rest of the site.

Daniels says, "That's a higher level of engagement than we ever would have appreciated or understood prior to the newsroom."

This article is written by Russell Working and was orininally published on on March 1, 2016.

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