The Even Darker Side?

Could it be that "brand journalism" is just a new-look for PR? 

Caitlyn Coverly
May 6, 2011 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Fewer reporters, more companies and less time is an equation that deeply troubled Bill Calder. As the corporate-communications manager for Intel, one of the world’s largest technology firms, Calder was finding it increasingly difficult to get his company’s message out to the public.     
 
“Reporters today are stretched too thin,” he says. “They just can’t cover news like they used to.”

Searching for another way to provide the public with information, Calder decided to launch a project that has surprised many; he moved Intel into the “news” business. In early October 2010, Calder quietly unveiled Intel’s beta website -- the Free Press. Its goal according to the website’s mission statement: to cover “technology and innovation stories that are often overlooked or warrant more context and deeper reporting.”
 
Calder had been mulling over the idea for about a year. It was spurred, he says, by a conversation with a journalist friend about the “general malaise in the journalism business” and how fewer people seemed to be doing good, solid technology reporting. These realizations, along with the fact several other large corporations, such as AOL and Yahoo!, were becoming news aggregators themselves, gave Calder ample reason to experiment by producing his company’s own media-ready content.

Intel’s Free Press is an example of a rising trend among corporate communicators: brand journalism. Based on the belief that, in the age of the Internet, everyone can be a publisher and, by doing so, use the opportunity to publish their own content, draw attention to their company – and not wait for over-burdened journalists to write the stories they wanted to see out to the public.     

Calder insists the Free Press be transparent. He explains that all published articles are reported and produced by identified company writers and their work can be republished, edited and re-used by anyone. To address the obvious question of corporate bias, the site’s mission statement says the writers, “are all Intel geeks at heart, taking an editorial approach to producing stories with journalistic style and integrity, and doing it as objectively as possible while being transparent about who [they] work for.”     

David Meerman Scott is a marketing strategist and a best-selling author of several books, including The New Rules of Marketing & PR. He says he coined the term “brand journalism” and discusses the concept at speaking engagements across the world, as well as on his blog, Web Ink Now. “Brand Journalism, he writes, is when any organization—B2B company, consumer-product company, the military, nonprofits, government agencies, politicians, churches, rock bands, solo entrepreneurs—creates valuable information and shares it with the world.” He stresses that brand journalism is not a product pitch, nor is it an advertorial. It is simply the creation of web content that serves to position an organization in the marketplace. He also says there are two main catalysts driving the rise of brand journalism. The first is that publishing information online is easy and free.

“I can set up a blog in three minutes using free blogging software, write content, and suddenly I am a publisher,” says Scott.

The second catalyst is the fact that traditional forms of corporate communications, typically advertising, are being viewed with increasing skepticism.

“Consumers are fed up with advertising,” says Scott. “Therefore, the combination of these two elements is what is really driving this trend.” 

What is most interesting about Scott’s concept of brand journalism is that he doesn’t believe marketing and PR professionals are the right people to create this type of content. Instead, his ideal candidates are former journalists.

“Journalists know how to tell a story, they are very good at taking complex pieces of information and boiling them down so they are easy to understand, and they are efficient at working on multiple stories at one time,” says Scott. “They just make the best corporate storytellers in my opinion.”

For Intel, this has proven to be true. Before joining Intel in 1994, Bill Calder was a journalist. He was a reporter at the Eugene-Register Guard and The Oregonian before “jumping ship” to become a U.S. Senate press secretary in the late 1980s. Calder says Intel hired him for three main reasons: he had strong relationships with the local press, he had the ability to speak the press’s language, and he had a keen eye for what was newsworthy, all of which came from his background in journalism.     

Other Free Press staff writers are also former journalists. David Dickstein wrote for several major daily newspapers in Southern California and served on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists before joining Intel in 1999. Ken Kaplan, the multi-media producer for the news site, was a publicist at KRON-TV and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico.

But is this really journalism? Journalism is so strongly associated with objectivity but can a writer remain objective when the CEO of Intel is the one signing his or her paycheck?  Is Intel’s leap into the news business really about disseminating objective content or is it a way of disguising corporate objectives in a new way? Is brand journalism just re-packaged PR?

At a recent panel discussion on brand journalism, NPR’s On The Media co-host Bob Garfield commented that a more appropriate name for the session might have been entitled – “Brand Not Really Journalism: The Rise of Semi-Journalism.” Jeremy Hainsworth, a freelance journalist in Western Canada, shares that skepticism. He says brand journalism is nothing more than traditional PR dressed up as news.    

“It seems like a form of whoring out one’s credibility and the craft in general,” said Hainsworth. “It damages the credibility of those of us still working in the field and I find it rather insidious.”

Hainsworth, who has been a journalist since the early 1990s, says the worst part about the rise of brand journalism is that a lot of people in the general public likely won't understand the nuances between what is real news and what is essentially advertorial.

“That galling thing is that the former journalist-turned PR [advocate] is violating the public trust they had once claimed,” said Hainsworth.

Joe McWilliams is the editor of the Slave Lake Lakeside Leader in Slave Lake, Alberta. He says that while he understands the lure of brand journalism, he isn’t necessarily sold on making the switch to corporate storytelling.

“For as long as I've been in this game [20 years], I've been running into former journalists now working as corporate or government PR hacks,” he explains. “They're making more money, but they're not having nearly as much fun; some have admitted as much.”

McWilliams says he has nothing against the idea -- in principle. From the journalist's point of view, it's a job and one that usually pays pretty well. From the employer’s perspective, it makes sense to hire someone who knows how to put words together. But for him, money isn’t everything.

“I hear from these ex-journo PR jocks often enough to remind me that their jobs are inherently un-free,” he says. “They have to toe whatever the party line is. What is that but drudgery? Well-paid drudgery, okay. But no doubt it has its moments.”

While traditional journalists remain skeptical of – and even offended by – the idea of brand journalism, the concept is gaining popularity, prompting this question: Does hiring a former journalist to produce content on behalf of your company really work? And if it does, what does success look like? 

Calder offers an example: On October 14, 2010, the Free Press published an article titled, “Caught in the Crossfire: Intel’s Investor Relations Chief.” The article provided a behind-the-scenes look at the struggles of Kevin Sellers as he explains to Intel investors why the company’s stock price continues to spiral downward while the company is making a large profit. The following day, the article appeared in its entirety on the Silicon Valley Watcher website – an independent technology news website operated by former Financial Times writer Tom Foremski.  That in turn led to a short blurb on National Public Radio’s website, with a link directing readers to the full article on the Watcher’s website.

“It’s still early and we are testing various things,” says Calder. “But this is an interesting example of how it could work.”

David Henderson says he is very familiar with the value brand journalism adds to a company or organization. Henderson is an award-winning former CBS correspondent with extensive experience in online communications. In 2002 he created News Group Net LLC, a company that specializes in producing brand journalism to aid companies and organizations in crisis. When a massive explosion leveled Imperial Sugar Company’s (ISC) main sugar refinery near Savannah, Ga., in 2008, the company first turned to traditional public relations agencies to manage the crisis of image and reputation. After little success in rebuilding ISC’s reputation, executives at Imperial Sugar turned to Henderson, as he explains, to “develop and manage ISCNewsroom.com — a news site that openly presented legitimate and balanced company and industry news.

“We reported, researched, wrote, and published four or five stories a week on a search-engine-friendly Wordpress blog,” adds Henderson. The articles included the good (how the company was going to focus all of its efforts on workplace safety), the bad (the rising death toll in the hours and days after the explosion) and everything in between in regards to the sugar-refining business.

 “The goal was to mitigate harmful, negative news and rebuild the company’s reputation,” explains Henderson. After a year and a half, the work of Henderson and his team of freelance journalists at News Group Net, was done and the revamped ISC news site returned to an in-house operation. According to Henderson, brand journalism helped to “build unity within the company, it enhanced ISC’s reputation in the marketplace, and it was a strong platform for the rebranding of the company.” After all of the effort put forth for ISCNewsroom.com, Henderson says the site became the most popular online site in the global-sugar industry, beating out much larger competitors and taking ISC to a whole new level in the marketplace.

Scott, Calder and Henderson all agree the rise of brand journalism is a direct response to the changing state of the journalism industry. They also agree that brand journalism is an example of how their “journalists”  are using the Internet to broadcast information more efficiently than their traditional counterparts.

“Many mainstream media publications are laying-off journalists because the environment at newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations is that ad revenues are declining and circulation is declining and they find it very tough to keep the journalists they have on staff, let alone hire new ones,” says Scott.

So while the journalism industry figures out where it is going, Scott says brand journalism offers incredible opportunities for both young and veteran journalists who are willing to work for a company.

 “People talk to me about integrity and telling both sides of the story and things like that, but you know what, every newspaper has a point of view or every reporter has a point of view; otherwise the story stinks. The same thing is true in brand journalism. You have a point of view and I still think its journalism; journalism is telling a story, its gathering facts, its talking to people and interviewing them and in doing so, whether your employer happens to be Bombardier or the National Post, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.” 
 
So whether you want to call it “brand journalism” or “semi-journalism”  or take the “journalism” out all together, the fact is the strategy of drafting media-ready editorial for the purpose of corporate branding is likely here to stay, leading to a future in which teachers of journalism will issue stern warnings to fresh, young, idealistic students not just about the “dark side” of public relations, but also about the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing known as brand journalism.

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