For more than 16 years I’ve been a traditional journalist, writing, producing, and appearing in more than 40 media outlets in print, radio, TV, and online.
I also own a custom publishing/brand journalism firm called Spark Media Solutions.
While everyone can define journalism, not such the case with brand journalism. Both are forms of editorial content. A brand journalist’s goal is to help their brand be seen in the center of an important issue by creating valuable industry and issue-related content that people seek out, want to consume, and engage in debate.
Definitions of brand journalism vary widely and sadly there are many derogatory unsubstantiated accusations. I compiled this list of ways I’ve heard people describe the brand journalism industry.
I eagerly throw this article up for discussion. Please feel free to refute my claims, substantiate the accusations, or feel free to add some others that I haven’t thought of.
With that said, here are my top 9 unsubstantiated accusations of brand journalism
1. Brand journalism is a form of content farming
A brand creates content to be seen. They want to rank high in search engines. If they’re creating content and want to rank high in search engines, then they must be a content farm, right?
This BS syllogistic logic has no basis, yet it’s assumed all the time. This assumption may come as a result after seeing a brand deliver bad content. Content farms are known to flood the Internet with content (valuable or not) all in an effort to game search algorithms so that the content producer ranks high in search engines. This is no longer so easy to do as Google has rejiggered its algorithms to sidestep the content farm technique.
The “content farming” claim can be said of anyone creating content online. Everyone wants their content read, seen, and to appear on the top of search results. Why would a brand’s content be any different?
And just because the content is poor, doesn’t immediately define it as a content farm. Like with anything, sometimes it just sucks.
2. Brand journalism is pay to play
Traditional journalists are paid to create content within the publication’s given editorial spectrum.
Brand journalists are paid to write within the brand’s given editorial spectrum.
Both types of journalists have editorial mandates. That mandate is made clear to both the author and the reader. For example, someone reading a Harley Davidson magazine will know that the content will be slanted to talk about everything Harley and Harley lifestyle, not how wonderful Honda motorcycles are. That editorial mandate is extremely clear to everyone producing and consuming and therefore the Harley-slanted content is perfectly appropriate and very much still journalism.
My business operates just like any other business on the planet. We get paid for our products and services. Sadly, many communications firms think bloggers are tools to be used as you can just “get” them to write about you.
3. Brand journalism is not journalism
It may be fear of brand journalism or outright jealousy, but I hear journalists I highly respect slam brand journalism by speaking of it as not journalism. For example, during a SXSW panel session on brand journalism, NPR “On the Media” host Bob Garfield said, “Perhaps the name for panel should have been: ‘Brand Not Really Journalism: The Rise of Semi-Journalism.’”
That’s not much better than the original session title: “Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising.”
Is that fair? Starting a discussion about an industry by putting them in the hole? Why not title the session, “When is the best time for brand journalists to stop beating their wives?”
Sadly, all of the public discussions I’ve seen about brand journalism question the validity of the industry. Why? You don’t see this happening with any other industry.
“Doctors, are they really treating patients or are they hiding behind a lot of expensive machinery?”
The validity question may have to do with some people perceiving the term “brand journalism” or “content marketing” as oxymorons.
4. You can’t trust brand journalism
Most companies want third-party validation for their work because the general consensus is that an article from a third-party has more validity than someone saying the same thing, but working for the company. That’s true for marketing. But when you’re trying to get inside information, someone who works at the company will be able to tell the “inside track” story, unlike a third-party journalists. Some consumers really value that type of content.
5. Brand journalists are marketers in disguise
There is a dividing line between brand journalism and marketing.
If a brand journalist starts just touting a company with no supporting evidence, then they are no longer acting as a journalist. They’re writing marketing copy. Readers can tell the difference. And a writer knows when they’re being a journalist and when they’re asked to write marketing copy.
6. Brand journalists don’t hold the same ethics as traditional journalists
All industries have their bad eggs. In a tit-for-tat fight, it is much easier to find more unethical cases of traditional journalism than brand journalism. Still, I don’t let the stories of Jayson Blair and the UK’s News of the World cause me to write off all journalism as crap.
So when you do find a single case or two of a brand journalist creating crap or being unethical, think first of the many more cases you know of traditional journalists doing the same or worse. It’s not appropriate to bring down an entire industry with a couple of anecdotal pieces of evidence. A traditional journalist wouldn’t do that.
It’s up to the individual journalist and media entity, whether backed by a traditional media outlet or brand, as to how high their quality and ethics will be. And then it’s up to the consumer to validate that quality and ethics. Like with everything else in this world, there’s good and bad journalism and brand journalism.
7. Brand journalists don’t disclose relationships
I’m sure this has happened. I couldn’t tell you when, and I don’t know if anyone else could tell you either. Unfortunately, it’s introduced as the “norm” for brand journalism with absolutely no evidence.
This year at the PRSummit in San Francisco, I heard AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher write off the whole notion of “paid bloggers.” Without any evidence Swisher said that paid bloggers often don’t disclose who’s paying them. She then said that if you want to do that, “more power to you.” It was extremely dismissive and she showed absolutely zero evidence to her claim. Kind of ironic that someone of her stature would behave so non-journalistically when arguing the journalistic credibility of a paid blogger.
I get the sense that traditional journalists feel they have the right to throw out all the rules of journalism (e.g., Who, What, Where, When, and How) when they speak about brand journalism.
Like with anything, sometimes people don’t disclose who is paying them. Again, I can’t tell you when and if that happens. The operative word here is “sometimes” not “the norm.” And you can’t call something the norm if you can’t even yank out one piece of evidence.
After the Swisher comment, I moderated a panel at the conference on “How to Approach Bloggers” and the question of “paid bloggers” came up and whether paying a blogger diminishes the company’s or the blogger’s credibility. I took that as an opportunity to explain that I’m a paid blogger and what I do is get hired to create content. Simply put I get paid for my work just like everyone else in the room is paid for their work. And like everyone else I disclose who pays me. It’s not a difficult concept to understand and accept.
Why are people so bent out of shape when bloggers are paid? Why is it assumed that by default they’re not disclosing their relationships like other people do when they’re paid for their work?
8. Brand journalism is a threat to journalists
“An advertiser that acts like a journalist could be a mole, trying to trick an unsuspecting audience into consuming and believing whatever crap a brand wants to spew,” said Kyle Monson, a former technology journalist and editor at PC Magazine and now Content Strategy Director at JWT. This quote was echoing his journalist friends’ skeptical concerns now that he’s taken on his new “Dark Side” role as brand journalist.
I respond to this concern with the response of “When have you been fooled?” When has there been a situation where you personally, not the unsuspecting masses, been fooled with something that you thought was purely journalism and it turned out to be fully advertising?
In the aforementioned panel discussion, “Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising,” Monson squared off against Bob Garfield explaining that brand journalism is just a means of teaching advertisers how to be publishers.
“We are not making journalists obsolete by integrating them into agencies. We’re teaching agencies and brands how to be publishers,” Monson said.
“The marketing guy in me says ‘cool!’ The journalist in me wants to punch you in the face,” Garfield replied.
I find Garfield’s reaction shocking because custom publishing (which has been rebranded as “brand journalism” or “content marketing”) has been around for decades. As someone who hosts “On the Media” he knows plenty about it. What is it about the holy institution of journalism that they are the only ones that have access to publishing? Even before the Internet made it so cheap to produce and distribute content, brands were still being their own publishers. Journalists don’t have a special license like doctors to practice journalism.
9. Brand journalism is a threat to the ad industry
In my discussion with Monson, he agreed that he gets animosity from the ad industry because they believe brand journalists are trying to change the way the ad industry operates. Admittedly, it’s only his anecdotal evidence.
Whether true or not, what is known is the traditional means of advertising are becoming less and less effective. Forced interstitial advertising is less and less available. Social and search are the new areas of discovery. If you want your company to be seen in those spaces, you must create content. Content is the currency of social media and search.
While PR and advertising can be great amplifiers, you can’t be visible in search and social without content. If it’s only an advertisement that doesn’t provide the elements of information or entertainment, it simply won’t be traded in social spaces and it won’t be visible in search.
Conclusion: Question accusations
I’m hoping that by reading this article you’ll start questioning these unsubstantiated claims. I would love it if you’d agree with all my retorts, but instead I want all readers to act as journalists yourselves and question the authenticity of my claims and any other claim made about brand journalism, whether positive or negative.
Why did the person make that claim? Outside of a single anecdote or a couple of personal experiences how can that person make such a statement? If the person is a journalist, ask them to back up their statement with sources and facts and not blanket opinion. If they truly are a journalist they should have no problem responding to such a request.
Stock photos courtesy of Shutterstock.