Brand Journalism – An Oxymoron or Clever Communications Tactic?

February 20th, 2012
by Tressa Robbins

BurrellesLuce recently wrote a newsletter on 5 Tips for Incorporating Brand Journalism Into Your Communications Strategy. But what exactly IS brand journalism and how does it affect PR, media relations, and marketing as we know them?

While the term “brand journalism” aka “content journalism” has been getting significant air play lately, the concept has been around for awhile.

One of the earliest references came from Larry Light, McDonald’s CMO, at the 2004 AdWatch conference where he proclaimed that mass marketing no longer worked and no single approach told the whole story.

“Brand Journalism is a chronicle of the varied things that happen in our brand world, throughout our day, throughout the years. Our brand means different things to different people. It does not have one brand position. It is positioned differently in the minds of kids, teens, young adults, parents and seniors. It is positioned differently at breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, weekday, weekend, with kids or on a business trip.

“Brand Journalism allows us to be a witness to the multi-faceted aspects of a brand story. No one communication alone tells the whole brand story. Each communication provides a different insight into our brand. It all adds up to a McDonald’s journalistic brand chronicle,” he declared.

Brand journalism, it seems, is not just a replacement for earned media or advertising or even direct marketing. Rather it ties all these things together. It involves telling stories — that do not read like a press release or marketing and advertising copy — and that make readers want to know more about your organization. Note that if you’re going to give it a try, brand journalism needs to be part of your overall communications strategy.

(Storytellers Media Group) Doris O'Donnell's Cleveland 1955 The News Newsroom

About two years ago, David Meerman Scott wrote, “Brand journalism is not a product pitch. It is not an advertorial […]” And here’s my favorite part: “It is not an egotistical spewing of gobbledygook-laden corporate drivel.” Ha!  He went on to say, “Instead, brand journalism is the creation of web content—videos, blog posts, photos, charts, graphs, essays, ebooks, white papers—that deliver value to your marketplace and serve to position your organization as one worthy of doing business with.”

And last year, at a New Zealand IABC event, Shel Holtz said the growing appeal of content journalism to corporates was in part a reaction to the retrenchment of the mainstream media and the trade press, which were not always covering industry issues in the same depth that they used to. The real key here, he said, is that firms have to be transparent about generating or paying for such content and should not try to “pull the wool over people’s eyes.”  

Along those lines, former tech journalist and editor at PC Magazine, Kyle Monson wrote in a guest post, Dispelling the Darkness with Brand Journalism, “At its most basic level, brand journalism involves honest brand storytelling that invites audiences to participate.”  In another guest post for  Brian Solis, entitled The Force Behind Successful Brand Journalism, Todd Blecher, The Boeing Company’s communications director, wrote, “The best brand journalism requires commitment, access, and trust.”

So back to this post’s headline, is the term “brand journalism” in itself an oxymoron? That is, if what’s written is pushing a brand’s strategy, is it really journalism? Isn’t journalism, at its core, supposed to be unbiased and impartial? It seems that along with every other aspect of the media changing these days, so are some of the core definitions of terms. For instance, most media now is actually practicing, what a few years ago was called, “convergence journalism” – now we just call it journalism as we’ve quickly come to expect access to our news across multiple channels.  Brand journalism is journalism – just not as we used to know it. 

What are your thoughts? Please share them by leaving a comment here on BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas.

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6 Responses to “Brand Journalism – An Oxymoron or Clever Communications Tactic?”

  1. I completely agree that every brand must become its own publisher. But I don’t think we should coopt the term journalism to describe a PR activity. Yes, I may be digging deep into areas that benefit the reader, viewer or listener, but I’m still paid by the brand, and to me, that fact in and of itself makes it anti-journalistic.

  2. My thoughts may run counter to the general this post’s point of view — that brand journalism is journalism. These thought may also be biased by my upbringing in journalism and its practice.

    I would submit that corporations will be biased in their writing or telling of a brand’s story. It’s the nature of mankind to view itself better than it really is. Since brands are really made by men and women who create something and brand it, the temptation to always make it seem better than it really is will always be there. So, the telling of the brand story from inside a corporation will always be marketing. Real journalism will come from outside.

    Journalism has a “watchdog” component to it that makes the medium different than this other, emerging story telling exercise coming from corporations.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Susan and Rodger. While I see the point of those that I quoted for this piece, personally, I tend to lean the same way you are. That journalism, by its nature, is unbiased. So are we degrading the term by using it in conjunction with the term “brand?” Or should we all just get used to migrating definitions in the rapidly evolving media world? Guess time will tell! Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.

  4. I think you hit it on the head Tressa when you said we are degrading the term. And Rodger, I would agree with every point you raised. I think it is spin like this that gives PR a bad name and makes so many distrustful of the practice.

  5. Mike Lovas says:

    In 1991, I began researching business credibility. And, I’ve continued to today. This conversation about brand journalism is very similar – at least in my mind. When an organization’s credibility is communicated to target audiences, that’s called “credibility marketing.” There’s a hierarchy for for this type of communication, too. Meaning, all those social messages, articles, blogs, etc do NOT carry the same weight.

    Brand Journalism seems to be a euphemism for self-promotion. That’s just bad PR. On the other hand. Credibility marketing requires that you actually have credibility to begin with. We operate from the perspective that most organizations actually are credible and have viable messages that their audiences want to read.

    Mike

  6. Good points, Mike. I think hierarchy is key – that brand journalism certainly does not carry the same weight as traditional journalism. Appreciate you adding to the conversation!

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