Brand Journalism: Ethics, Opportunities & Outcomes

Brand journalism discussion at SXSW: notes captured on a white board

Brand journalism was the topic of two packed sessions at SXSWi yesterday, and common themes – including umbrage at the use of the word “journalism,” the imperative for brands to engage in reportage and storytelling as part of their content marketing strategies and concern around how brands and content would be policed – were repeated by both panels.

The panelists, and the related hashtags:

#curatedebate

#brandjo

The sessions were both moderated by powerhouse journalists from NPR – Tom Ashbrook and Bob Garfield – and both were strong, passionate and exquisitely well prepared moderators, picking up the conversation by the scruff and challenging the speakers along the way.   Tom and Bob, as well as panelist Lora Kolodny, also provided important perspective from the fourth estate, and all were universally skeptical of brands’ ability to tell all sides of tough stories.

This concern was met head on as panelists noted that in order to build credibility and trust, brands need report from an industry-wide perspective, which means giving competitors and unsavory stories air time in the branded channels.  As the audience quailed in their seats, panelists noted variously that someone would tell the story, so it might as well be the brand shaping the conversation and informing the reporting of the story.

(Sidebar: one story of how a brand shaped the messaging around a competitor’s announcement.)

Brian Clark of GMD Studios told a compelling story of how brave and unvarnished stories from Ford helped the company weather its darkest days during the recent recession.  He described how the company reported the stories from within, providing visibility into the tough conversations happening at the company.  Using a variety of media, including video, images and text, Ford stripped away its corporate veneer, using what Clark called “real language and real people” to tell the stories of the companies struggles and successes.  One key outcome Clark noted was the attention professional media paid to the stories coming out Ford at the time.

The conversation took an interesting turn when the discussions in both panels turned to policing the content brands publish.  Despite healthy skepticism from the journalists on the panels (Lora Kolodony in particular), the panelists from the content marketing side agreed universally that social networks will out untruths and punish brands that cheat.

Several participants didn’t fully accept that assertion, noting that  brands can and do influence negative word of mouth by promoting good deeds and offering freebies, tactics which can inspire customers to hold their tongues.  At the end of the discussion, however, there was general agreement that the truth will out.

The impact of influence – of both the brand and the audience – was also debated. Brands have signal strength, which gives them an advantage in the publishing arena. Information seekers now are in better position to be manipulated than informed by brand-sourced content, but manipulation and informing both happen, which sparked a discussion about whether or not brands were effectively buying trust.  The panel was universally dubious, readily giving credit to audiences.

“Signal strength of brands is a problem,” noted Gary Kim, “But an active citizenry with tools can defeat it.” He pointed to the fact that people still hold BP responsible despite spending on clean up and reimbursement of damages by the company.   And a great comment on the Twitter backchannel during the discussion underscored the power of social media:

“With regimes falling around us, why would journalists think a social Internet can’t call b.s. on brands!” @OliSnoddy

As might be expected, both panels spent time answering the question, “What is brand journalism?”  The panelists offered a variety of different ideas, which together form a comprehensive description:

  • An editorial approach to brand building
  • A nonfiction attempt at advertising
  • Thinking more like publishers
  • It’s not a choice, it’s a clear imperative
  • It’s all about real time marketing, brands acting as media in real time, as life happens
  • It’s the responsibility of companies to help their customers succeed

The role of content in marketing is undisputable, and both panels stressed the advantages of developing content marketing strategies focused on producing excellent content that tells stories and builds trust.

“No one will give 3 seconds to a brand today, but they’ll give you 30 minutes to listen to a good story,” noted Joe Pulizzi.

Whether or not we call it ‘brand journalism’ is still up for debate, but really, that’s just semantics.  Bob Garfield (who started out his panel discussion by saying “Brand journalism.  Really???”) summed up the discussion nicely, saying, “It may not be actual journalism but it can be revealing, informational, and can use journalistic platforms and formats.”

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president-social media

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14 responses to “Brand Journalism: Ethics, Opportunities & Outcomes

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  2. Pulizzi’s comment about “no one will give 3 seconds to a brand today, but they’ll give you 30 minutes to listen to a good story,” resonnates that we need to watchout for stories that aim to promote the brand at the expense of value added information for the audience. Sophisticated readers see through those attempts as well.

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