PRO TIP: Lead with almost anything except calling people stupid.
Seems obvious, but as PR consultant Lou Hoffman humorously points out, a recent Financial Times article might be summarized as “You’re Too Stupid to Figure Out Journalism from Propaganda.” Hoffman critiques the article and addresses its assertions one by one.
Many who practice or sell journalism, capital “J,” have more than a few gripes about brand journalism. Many of these complaints are familiar to readers of this blog, such as:
“Well, it isn’t real journalism”
Gathering information, synthesizing it, and distributing it sound a lot like real journalism. The fact remains that we’re in a transitional period. As I wrote earlier this year, “[brand journalism] sometimes dissect[s] the brand or its products in industry context in a way shunned by traditional marketing but expected by today’s consumers.”
“Brand journalism is selling out”
Again and again we’ve explored the historical connections between commerce and news — just check out this destructive piece of branded journalism from 1914. The economic realities of journalism have long meant that advertising has had a place beside reporting, and “sponsored columns” have appeared in traditional newspapers for years.
“Brand journalism isn’t transparent”
Nichole Jenet explores and dismisses the idea that brand journalism is not transparent. “Yes, it’s true, brand journalism is intended to boost a brand’s bottom line. And, frankly, that makes [brand journalism] more honest and transparent than much of journalism,” she writes.
“Brand journalism is ruining newspapers”
“Gentlemen, this thing called the Internet disrupted your business model, not us,” reminds Hoffman in his post.
A Better Approach
So how can journalists and others re-frame their staunchly negative position on brand journalism? By seeing the great opportunities that journalistic practices can offer for business. For example, brand journalism can tell stories that may indirectly promote products or services, but are otherwise invisible. Many are predicting that the future of marketing is through the lens of charitable contribution and bringing awareness to specific problems. That requires journalistic skill.
Ultimately, journalistic investigation can be used for a greater good for people and businesses alike. First, for people, is the realization that a wider diversity of issues is being covered and more stories are developed — yes, even by those with a secondary selling motive. Second, for businesses, journalistic practices can help increase overall corporate transparency, demonstrating how businesses are run and resources are managed in a way that is more trustworthy because it must be verified and sourced.
Tracy Fitzgerald of the Australian firm Brandalism recently wrote about covering the poor working conditions of firefighters in Nepal, underwritten by a client connected to firefighting products. She said it best when she advocated that journalists be part of the solution:
We have a massive opportunity to not only make this industry work for journalists, but also for the greater community – and that’s something to celebrate. Brand journalism could subsequently create accountability within the business word by making brands and businesses more concerned about corporate social responsibility and what they actively do within their fields. By enabling businesses to produce journalistic style content we are placing greater emphasis on how they actually conduct themselves as a business.
So stop with the “stupid” already. Journalism is changing, and it isn’t necessarily for the worse. As Hoffman concludes, “I think readers deserve credit for being able to discern the objective from the subjective, there can still be value in the subjective information.” I agree.
Image: Rick Harris
Katie McCaskey is SixEstate's content director. She tests real-world application of content marketing techniques using the cafe she co-owns as a laboratory. She was Tech Editor of Chief Content Officer, 2010-2011, and contributes to the Content Marketing Institute. Connect with her on Google+ or @KatieMcCaskey.