Noises off – the making of corporate content

‘Mitt’ is a documentary on Netflix that takes viewers behind the scenes of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful attempts to win the US presidency in 2008 and 2012. Romney, whose stiff and patrician demeanour was one of the reasons voters never warmed to him, is filmed doing things you never normally get to see during the years-long slog of an American presidential campaign: in prayer with his family (he always tried to publicly downplay his Mormon roots); swaggering backstage about a good debate performance; and flagellating himself after a bad one. We even witness the moment on election night when he knows he’s lost and has to put on a brave face for his family and staff.

It’s compelling, as well told ‘fly on the wall’ style stories always are. It turns out Mitt is not so stiff after all – surprise, he is a human being. His reputation rose after the documentary was released.

Going ‘behind the scenes’ can be just as compelling in a corporate context, as more (brave?) digital managers appear to recognize. The slick veneer of corporate-speak is ripe for puncturing, and readers (eg, jobseekers) will thank you for it; but share too much reality or the wrong kind and your company’s reputation (and your career) might never recover. There is a reason Romney was happy to let the cameras roll, but (likely) only agreed to release the film long after he thought his political career was over.

The best corporate ‘behind the scenes’ features we’ve seen subvert the low expectations of corporate content – that it will be dull, ‘on-message’, false – and provide a more true-to-life view, while stopping short of letting Michael Moore follow the CEO around with a film camera.

French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, for example, has a number of ‘in situ’ videos on its corporate website, inviting visitors to ‘take a glimpse at the daily lives of our employees’ - grape harvesting, a press team meeting, a morning briefing in a department store cosmetics department.   

Highly professional and unique (the absence of narration is one striking feature) they give candidates a good feel for the exciting parts of the job (filming a promotion) and the mundane (addressing envelopes for posting).

Blackstone, the US private equity and investment banking firm, has a link to ‘Mondays at Blackstone’, on its home page. The video is more conventional than the in situ features at LVMH. There is narration in text form and an abundance of talking heads, but the concept is based on a behind the scenes look at the company’s Monday morning meetings, where bankers come together to set the agenda and challenge each other about deals and investments.

The meeting could be seen as inspiring (or frightening) depending on your point of view, but as a candidate, you can watch and decide whether you can see yourself sitting around the giant boardroom table in New York on a Monday.

It is effective, but the idea could have been pushed further – jobseekers might have benefitted from letting more of the meeting footage play out. This is the interesting bit, the bankers talking to camera less so.

Maersk, the Danish logistics giant, gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of a disaster-preparedness training seminar for employees. Like at Blackstone, talking heads dominate, but the film – using documentary editing techniques – shows some tense moments and the kind of arguments that happen under crisis pressure (and employees when they are less guarded).

Not all ‘behind the scenes’ content is video. My colleague Mali Perdeaux recently wrote here about a blog on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, which gives a backstage perspective on life running a museum.

‘Making of’ features are a variation on the theme. Private investors get the VIP treatment from Air Liquide on its website, with a highlights video from a photo shoot for ‘Portraits of shareholders’.

Total, the French oil company, set up a microsite to describe how its global advertising campaign was conceived, designed and launched.

So far I have not seen many of these done badly. Maybe that is because they are unique enough to have fairly big budgets (meaning the best people will work on them), and close scrutiny – no matter how ‘real’ a film seems, there has been meticulous editing to make it seem that way. As they become more widespread, perhaps standards will slip (and that is when the reputational risk will rise).

Most companies are a lot more interesting than their corporate websites let on. The less time people have to spend reading between the lines, the more they might warm to you. Just ask Mitt.

- Jason Sumner