Publications Continue to Characterize ...


The Devil Wears Keyboard - brand Journalism

With the story “The Invasion of Corporate News, The Financial Times became the latest publication to skewer brand journalism.

I suppose the FT figured a headline along the lines of “You’re Too Stupid to Figure Out Journalism from Propaganda” might alienate readers. Because that seems to be one of the themes in the FT piece.

Stepping back for a moment, I’m still perplexed by the rancor that publications dish at brand journalism. After all, as the FT itself points out, this concept of brand journalism has been going on for years with the Hershey Press from 1909 serving as Exhibit A.

Hershey Press brand journalism

People like choices. If you question this, take a look at the section for mustard the next time you’re in a grocery store.

And people want choices in their sources of information.

Unlike the FT, I believe the vast majority of people have the wherewithal to understand that if a certain piece of information is coming from Hershey or any other company/organization, it carries a certain bias. That doesn’t automatically make the information useless. Instead, it allows people to frame the context and determine on their own the value of the information.

Here are some of the choice passages that express the FT’s point of view followed by my three cents:

–  Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst who has studied the “muddying of the waters” between news and marketing, says of Chevron’s Richmond site: “There are not a lot of things that amaze me but that takes chutzpah to do that.”

Chutzpah? My grandmother who spoke Yiddish wouldn’t use this word to describe a company taking the pedestrian actions of telling their stories like journalists.

– With the president-felling image of Woodward and Bernstein still hanging over the profession, and a geekily hip narrative of data-driven analysis pointing to a new future, few journalists like to acknowledge the role PRs play in their stories. Many are well-informed, professional, clever, helpful and fun. Some are former colleagues. Some become friends. But for most journalists, it is an involvement we put up with warily. PRs are spinners of favourable stories, glossers-over of unfavourable facts and gatekeepers standing between us and the people we want to get to.

That’s a fair characterization, although I might quibble with the word choice, preferring something along the lines of “advancing the company’s narrative” over “spinners” (sounds too much like sinners).

– Employment in US newsrooms has fallen by a third since 2006, according to the American Society of News Editors, but PR is growing. Global PR revenues increased 11 per cent last year to almost $12.5bn, according to an industry study entitled The Holmes Report. For every working journalist in America, there are now 4.6 PR people, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 3.2 a decade ago. And those journalists earn on average 65 per cent of what their PR peers are paid.

Journalists love to highlight this flawed dot-connecting, as if the PR profession swung the wrecking ball that left the business of journalism in rubble. Gentlemen, this thing called the Internet disrupted your business model, not us.

– For 20 years, as a reporter and editor in London and New York, most of my time has been spent doing the things non-journalists assume journalists do all day: developing sources, chasing leads, delving into secret files and polishing paragraphs. But I have also devoted countless hours to dealing with PR people. This has involved furious phone calls to protest at my underplaying a client’s view of the world, surreptitious forwarding of material helpful to the case being pitched, and friendly invitations to bend my ear over lunch or drinks. (Only twice has a PR person attempted to play footsie with me under the lunch table – I made my excuses and left.) Then there are the emailed pitches, trying to persuade me to spend time and reporting resources on stories of questionable value to the FT’s readers.

I thought many of us are “well-informed, professional, clever, helpful and fun.”

– Few have succeeded in making the news as well as Apple. This month, as it unveiled the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch in Cupertino, California, thousands of journalists live-blogged every detail of the carefully scripted event. But the company also ran its own live blog, a feed of perfectly lit images of the devices, shareable quotes from executives, retweeted endorsements from celebrities including Diddy and Katy Perry and a gushing running commentary (“So far, so amazing”).

I agree. In fact, I wrote a post on this very topic, “Journalists Accept Apple’s Storytelling Candy.”

– Marketers talk about “paid media” (advertising they have to buy), “earned media” (from press coverage to word-of-mouth buzz) and a growing category called “owned media” (their websites, blogs and social media feeds). The attraction of “owned media”, by definition, is that brands neither have to pay a media outlet for it nor earn it by convincing a reporter that the story is worth covering.

But here’s a key point left out. Companies still need to publish stories that people care about, that they find useful or informative or even amusing. Otherwise, companies are left to ponder “if a blog post falls in the forest and no one reads it, did it make a noise?”

No matter how savvy companies become in brand journalism, journalists will always enjoy a huge advantage in the form of credibility. And while I think readers deserve credit for being able to discern the objective from the subjective, there can still be value in the subjective information.

But I won’t be holding my breath for the FT to link to this post.

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