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Top 9 unsubstantiated accusations of brand journalism

on September 23, 2011

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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

zornwil September 27, 2011 at 6:06 pm

If we accept the definition, “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,” which I think is fine, then I simply reject that it's akin to news journalism, and – for better or for worse – we've now conflated the definition of “journalism” so much with “news journalism” that de facto we mean news journalism.  The content of brand journalism, by this definition, is inherently even more compromised than some news journalism, as news journalism's content comes from the coverage of public events which are either unrelated or tangentially related to advertisers or the health or even existence, in many cases, of the public domain covered.  A news journalist may cover a nation he or she has no interest or stake in and the very lack of existence of that nation may not threaten the journalist's occupation and interests at all:  in fact only the cessation of human activity really prevents a news journalist, in many cases, from pursuing their passion, and while we have to live with the agendas and opinions of all news journalists which relate to their view on what affects their life and human existence, alike and individually, and which in turn compromises their coverage, the lack of direct cause and effect makes the compromises of some news journalists (depending on whom they work for and their interests) less clear and less likely to so regularly slant news coverage so dramatically.  Please see the last paragraph below for a fuller elaboration regarding inherent compromises…

As far as these “unsubstantiated claims,” I suppose it depends on what you mean.  No, of course good brand journalism shouldn't and doesn't function the ways most of these “accusations” describe.  But just as online news journalism is unfortunately rife with bad examples just as these, so, too, is brand journalism.  It's easy to see, just as this article provides those examples. 

I don't indict/accuse the state of brand journalism:  I see rather that we have an endemic problem with content forms, threats to traditional journalism (but that's as good as it is bad), undisclosed relationships or conflicts of interest, a lack of ethics compared to (fabled, as it's not as if news journalism, and absolutely not journalism more broadly speaking) was ever highly ethical) traditional journalism, and so forth.

However, as to the statements that “you can't trust brand journalists,” as well as many of what are essentially corallaries of this above, well, I say absolutely, inherently, brand journalists are incapable of being entirely trustworthy – just as any news organization is in some big way incapable of being entirely trustworthy.  First I will quote the old adage, “he who has relations with nuns will later join the church;” we see this in all walks of life, from regulatory agencies all too often becoming cozy with the regulated to journalistic relationships that are compromised.  But this is fine, there is no choice here:  the very choice of topic and the reliance on advertising – as with news – creates uncomfortable editorial choices which in the end result in some colorization of coverage.  Further, humans have agendas.  And anyway, if someone is covering an industry or brands per se, and at all relies on the health of that industry or brand, it simply is an inherent conflict of interest.  I don't consider this a weakness:  rather it is up to everyone to understand and embrace a level of HEALTHY skepticism (not knee-jerk cynicism), and it is up to brand journalism to develop and promote whatever standard of ethics will help us to see that the information has a useful quality not entirely beholden to corporate interests.

Kyle Monson September 28, 2011 at 2:34 am

This is a thought-provoking piece, and thanks for the quotes and the links, David. I don't think we as an industry have a clear definition of what brand journalism is. I would define it as “non-fiction brand storytelling,” which is what I was trying to get at with that SXSW panel title. But I know there'd be a lot of disagreement with that definition, particularly from PR folks who use it to describe what I would call “branded journalism.” 

As I read through your list of accusations, I can see why people would come to those conclusions, since we ourselves can't really agree on what “brand journalism” means. Specifically:

1. It often is, but shouldn't be
2. It often is, but shouldn't be
3. This one's tricky–I'm not sure about it
4. You shouldn't
5. They mostly are
6. Of course they don't! (ad and journalism ethics are apples and oranges)
7. They often don't (but they always should)
8. It's not
9. It's not

I say this as someone who won a Cannes Titanium Lion for my brand journalism work: The only two points I really disagree with are 8 and 9. The burden of proof *is* and *should be* on us to prove that our campaigns and our clients are devoted to transparency and real communication. This is not easy, because most brands aren't (for whatever reason).

That's why I don't think we're really a threat to either journalists or traditional advertisers…there simply aren't many companies for whom brand journalism is a good strategic option.

David Spark September 28, 2011 at 4:59 am

HA, I can't believe you're coming back at me on points #8, and #9. The reason those two are in there are because of my interview with YOU! :)

No worries. I personally am not getting attacked by advertisers or journalists. I get along great with both of them. But as evidenced by the quotes of the panels and Bob Garfield's comment, it appears journalists are not too happy with brand journalists.

@sylverplait September 28, 2011 at 5:11 am

I see the role that is covered under 'brand journalism' to be essentially useful, and it is quite understandable that this role is getting more and more prominence in a Social Media age where there is so much emphasis on “content” — or as someone else said, telling your brand's story so that consumers and other stakeholders ideally see it for what it is and what it means. Where I disagree is, the use of the word 'Brand Journalism'. Yes, like someone else said, I think it's a contradiction in terms, at least in the sense of journalism being totally objective and unaffiliated with anything, whereas in this case, clearly there is an affiliation to a single brand. As you said, a Honda story can't talk about Merc. I see no reason why one would want to use the word 'journalism' though! You don't need to borrow a word that stands for a certain code of ethics (not anymore maybe), to prove that your profession is ethical too. You prove it by how you do what you do!

David Spark September 28, 2011 at 6:36 am

For decades it's been called custom publishing. Problem is no one outside of the industry knew what the hell that was. And then two new terms came about called content marketing and brand journalism, which people started to latch onto and then discuss.

Honestly, brand journalism best describes the work that we do. I just attended a tech conference for a client and in no way talked about my client's services in my coverage. Although all the content that I was covering was of interest to my client's audiences. I was behaving just like a journalist, no different than the 40 other traditional media outlets I've worked for. So if a brand hired me and I'm acting like a journalist, why couldn't I call myself a brand journalist? And if other journalists do the same thing I do, why couldn't they be called brand journalists as well?

David Spark September 28, 2011 at 6:43 am

Great response. I think maybe the issue here is that the industry of “brand journalism,” as it's trying to define its way away from the more traditional custom publishing, is so nascent that there are literally zero standards. I could tell you what my firm does and it would be completely different from another firm. But if you walk into one newspaper, and then another, the basics of journalism would hold true in both locations. Not so with “brand journalism.”

Kyle Monson September 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Haha, yeah, I figured! To clarify my comments, some journalists and advertisers feel threatened or defensive (as Bob elucidated), I just don't think they should. We're not going to replace either industry anytime soon

Jacqueline Stolte September 30, 2011 at 12:29 am

Very thoughtful article, David. Thank you. Would you call United Airlines Hemispheres Inflight Magazine brand journalism? I do think that type of content is created and treated as journalism — I'm just not convinced that it should be called brand journalism.  Brand “content” on the other hand is likely to be closely aligned with specific business objectives and a better candidate for the term, though I still don't think it fits.  The issue is whether the brand offering the content is transparent about being the publisher of it. It doesn't mean the content is bogus, but the approach really is more marketing than journalism. I call it Information Marketing or At Will Marketing. It seeks to attract, engage and convert consumers who are seeking information relevant to them now.

David Spark September 30, 2011 at 4:22 am

All very good points Jacqueline. Ironic that you chose United Hemispheres magazine as I've done some writing for that magazine. When I was writing for the magazine it was referred to as custom publishing. The term brand journalism hadn't even been invented yet. Nor had the term content marketing.

Regardless, the reason United Hemispheres exists is so United can build relations with travelers. So they'll editorial objective is to create content of value to travelers. So that can be about travel locations or tips on traveling. The piece I wrote for them was about cell phone technologies in different countries. United's objective is to sell more tickets, but it's also about keeping the customers they already have, and that's what United Hemispheres does.

Thomas Scott September 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Good post and thanks for laying out the points. As a former journalist turned brand journalist, I see a difference in storytelling for a brand (as in writing as the brand itself on blogs, in PR, online and in social media) and blogging outside the brand but about the brand. One is helpful for transparency and the other can be deceiving without the proper disclosure. We (I have two Pulitzer prize winners on my staff) debate the what is the real definition of a 'journalist' often and here's what we think: we practice the true art of journalism and use journalism skills to help develop shorelines and narratives about our clients. The stories manifest themselves as company blogs, social media posts, PR and online content. Because true journalism is storytelling at a level where the core story must stand on its own, our work succeeds in breaking through the noise barrier not because it reads like a story, but because it IS a STORY. Good luck –

David Spark October 1, 2011 at 7:47 am

I think the term “story” has been beaten to death. Often the audience just wants information and as a brand that's connected to influencers you can give it to them. Be that conduit and put yourself in the middle of an issue that your industry cares about and that can heighten the company's brand awareness.

ProSoil AG Solutions October 8, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Amen! Halleluja!

michael_webster January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm

So what is the difference between what you are calling “brand journalism” and what the FTC calls “advertorials”?

David Spark January 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Good question Michael. There’s actually a big difference. Advertorials are truly advertisements for the brand but played out in a larger content format. So for example, you may see an advertorial in a magazine that’s a long two or four page article. The content is ABOUT the company. Or maybe an infomercial, which is the same thing, is a 30-minute program which is advertising content.

With brand journalism, the content is from the voice of the company, it’s not about the company. For example, you talk about an issue that’s of important to the company and the people who would be interested in buying the company’s products, but you don’t talk about the company. You’re building the brand of the company by creating content that is of interest and concern to your audience. You can talk about your products if your audience asks for that information, which they might because they’ll see you as an expert in the area of concern/interest.

michael_webster January 16, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Help me understand this a little more.  Let’s pick an brand, YUM, and an broad issue – using food stamps for YUM franchise locations.  Real example.

I can understand YUM employing journalists, which they didn’t, to investigate the pros and cons of the issue.

I can understand this being called “brand journalism”.

But, is this the sort of example that you had in mind?  The deliberate seeking of a balanced point of view?

David Spark January 16, 2012 at 10:19 pm

I don’t know the brand YUM at all so I don’t feel I can give a cogent example.

Let me use a car company, Ford, and they’re trying to appeal to people who like to tinker on their cars, maybe create hotrods. So they would write articles about ways you can improve the performance of your car. Produce videos. Give you a little insight on some of the new technology that’s coming out. Interview some great mechanics that could offer up their insight. All of this builds the brand that Ford knows about maintaining high performance cars. In all this content, you never have to mention Ford at all. You’re building a brand of trust and knowledge on an issue that’s of interest to your audience, building and maintaining high performance cars.

To read a full example of this, check out my case study, “How to Become One of the Most Respected Companies in Your Industry.” http://bit.ly/indyvoice

michael_webster January 17, 2012 at 7:05 am

Thanks, I read it.  Good videos, and nice way to achieve some reflecting authority.  (YUM Brands owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut.)

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