The power of a compelling story was first revealed to Tomas Kellner later in life: the managing editor of GE’s online magazine, GE Reports, had been midway through graduate studies in mechanical engineering at Czech Technical University in his native Prague in the mid-‘90s when the journalism bug bit.
Kellner, whose mother and uncle are both electrical engineers, was dutifully following the family career path when a side job as an interpreter for an English language newspaper, The Prague Post, gave him a taste for media that was addictive and ultimately career-changing.
“I was translating interviews,” recalls Kellner, a casually professorial, sandy-haired 43 year old, “and all these really cool anecdotes and personalities were coming through. In some cases, they were not showing up in the stories, and I said, ‘Hey, the story can be much better.’ I realized that to tell a good story, you need a protagonist, and a challenge. The protagonist has to overcome obstacles, and there has to be an outcome, an ending.”
As the protagonist of his own story, a man who makes gutsy but not reckless changes in his life, Kellner acquired an impressive safety net for his new career endeavor by winning Fulbright Scholarship to pay for his master’s in journalism at Columbia University. “The J-School is a practical school,” Kellner says. “They kick you out and send you to a neighborhood. Mine was Astoria, Queens. I had to cover crime, schools, and neighborhood politics.”
Following graduation in 1998, Kellner landed a staff writer position at Forbes, where “the reporters had no beats. It was sort of ‘eat what you kill.’ If you could find a good story, they would run with it, regardless of whether you were there for two months or two years.”
For eight years, Kellner ate what he killed at Forbes, covering technology and business, until his reporter’s innate curiosity took him to Kroll, the business intelligence and information management company, which hired him as a Senior Director. “When there’s a hostile takeover by a big hedge fund, a company wants to know information, what’s really going on,” Kellner says. “A lot goes on behind closed doors, but I didn’t know exactly what, and I wanted to figure it out. So I left journalism for six years and went behind the curtain.”
“Brand journalism is about inspiring people. Inspire first, providing people with information that they can use, before you sell.”
In spite of the thrill of stepping into boardrooms to investigate takeovers, Kellner soon realized that his investigative talents now reached a limited audience. After compiling a detailed report, “twelve people would read it, because it was all confidential,” he recalls.
It was during his fourth year at Kroll, when Kellner wrote a freelance story for the World Policy Journal about drug violence in Mexico, that the journalism bug bit him again. “I really enjoyed getting back to writing, coming up with anecdotes, describing the scene,” he says.
In 2011, Kellner had the chance to put on his reporter’s cap back on when GE hired him to oversee GE Reports, the multinational conglomerate’s external blog. “The idea of finally being able to combine my engineering background with journalism,” he says, “was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist.”
As the editor of GE Reports, Kellner—who works in GE’s communications division, not marketing—assembles an enticing mix of journalism that subtly sells the brand. In one recent feature, “A Journey to the Center of the Brain: New York Neurologist Wants to Understand What Happens When We Get Hit in the Head,” GE isn’t mentioned until paragraph seven (the corporation is co-sponsor of the Head Health Initiative, a $60 million research partnership which counts among its goals the building of improved MRI machines). For “Lettuce See the Future: Japanese Farmer Builds High-Tech Indoor Veggie Factory,” the fact that the lettuce is cultivated under advanced LED lights devised by GE appears as an almost tertiary detail. In “Coalition Fights Ebola at the Outbreak’s Invisible Frontline in Remote African Forest,” GE’s funding of the Boston-based NGO Partners in Health mission, which supports local health workers and builds treatment units in Liberia and Sierra Leone, is revealed eleven paragraphs into the story.
“Brand journalism is about inspiring people. Inspire first, providing people with information that they can use, before you sell,” says Kellner, who mentions that “Lettuce See the Future” feature generated more than 90 sales calls after it was published. “The reason why GE is in business is because our customers have problems, and we help them solve those problems. The challenge, and the starting point for a story, is ‘How do I solve my customers’ problems?’ Find a person who is solving the challenge, and then find the types of obstacles they have to overcome to get the positive result.” Kellner smiles. “A journalist does the same thing. I learn something that’s totally cool every day.”
The married Brooklynite shares many of these stories with his three children, a tough but appreciative audience. “They point out GE stuff to me all the time,” Kellner says. “Every time I get on a plane, they can tell it’s powered by a GE engine—they’re the only ones with big blades in front of the fan. They’re slightly lighter, and you can put fewer of them inside the engine. So if you look at a big GE engine, like on a 777 double decker, you can actually see through. So when my kids say, ‘Dad, is that a GE engine?’ I say, “I can see through, it must be a GE engine.”