9 unsubstantiated claims about brand journalism

Although brand journalism is on the rise, it doesn’t have the best reputation. Do you agree with these perceptions?

While everyone can define journalism, this is not the case with brand journalism. Both are forms of editorial content. But a brand journalist’s goal is to help a brand appear in the center of an important issue by creating valuable industry and issue-related content.

Definitions of brand journalism vary widely, and unfortunately many people make derogatory and unsubstantiated accusations against it. Here’s a list of negative ways I’ve heard people describe brand journalism.

1. Brand journalism is a form of content farming

If a brand is creating content and wants to rank high in search engines, then it must be a content farm, right?

This logic has no basis, yet people assume this all the time. They may assume this because they once saw a brand deliver bad content. Content farms are known to flood the Internet with content—valuable or not—in an effort to game search algorithms so that the content producer ranks high in search engines. This is no longer easy to do as Google reconfigured its algorithms to sidestep the content farm technique.

The “content farming” claim can be said of anyone creating content online. Everyone wants their content to appear in the top search results, and for people to see and read it. Why would a brand’s content be any different?

And just because the content is poor doesn’t mean it came from a content farm. Sometimes it just sucks.

2. Brand journalism is pay to play

Traditional journalists are paid to create content within a publication’s given editorial spectrum. Brand journalists are paid to write within a brand’s given editorial spectrum.

Both types of journalists have editorial mandates, and those mandates are made clear to both the author and the reader. For example, someone reading a Harley Davidson magazine knows that journalists slant the content to discuss Harley and the 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 appropriate journalism.

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 saying it’s not journalism. For example, during a SXSW panel session on brand journalism, NPR’s “On the Media” host Bob Garfield said, “Perhaps the name for this 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 it fair to start a discussion about an industry by putting it in the hole?

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. Is anyone asking, “Are doctors 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 terms “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 an article written by someone from the company that says the same thing. This is true for marketing, but someone who works at the company can tell the “inside” story, unlike a third-party journalist. 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 touting a company without supporting evidence, he is no longer acting as a journalist. He is writing marketing copy. A writer knows when he is being a journalist and when he is asked to write marketing copy, and readers can tell the difference.

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 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 you to write off all journalism as crap.

When you do find a case or two of brand journalists creating crap or being unethical, think about 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 few 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 a brand—as to how high their quality and ethics will be. Then it’s up to the consumer to validate the quality and ethics.

7. Brand journalists don’t disclose relationships

I’m sure this has happened. I can’t tell you when, and I don’t know if anyone else could tell you either, but unfortunately, it’s introduced as the “norm” for brand journalism without any evidence.

This year at the PR Summit in San Francisco, I heard AllThingsD‘s Kara Swisher write off the 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.”

She was extremely dismissive, and didn’t show any evidence to her claim. It’s ironic that someone of her stature would behave so unlike a journalist 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.

As with anything, sometimes people don’t disclose who is paying them. The operative word here is “sometimes.” You can’t call something the norm if you can’t yank out even one piece of evidence.

After the Swisher comment, I moderated a panel at the conference about how to approach bloggers. The issue of whether paying a blogger diminishes the company’s or the blogger’s credibility came up. I explained that I’m a paid blogger, and I get hired to create content. Simply put, I get paid for my work just like everyone else in the room gets 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 do they assume that paid bloggers don’t disclose their relationships like other people do when 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,” says Kyle Monson, a former technology journalist and editor at PC Magazine turned content strategy director at JWT. This quote echoes his journalist friends’ skeptical concerns that he’s taken on a new “dark side” role as a brand journalist.

I respond to this concern by asking, “When were you fooled?” When was there a situation where you personally, not the unsuspecting masses, were fooled by something that you thought was purely journalism and it turned out to be 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. What is it about the holy institution of journalism that says journalists are the only ones who have access to publishing? Even before the Internet made it cheap to produce and distribute content, brands were still 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 advertisers believe brand journalists are trying to change the way the ad industry operates. Admittedly, it’s only his anecdotal evidence.

Whether true or not, the traditional means of advertising have become less effective. Forced interstitial advertising is less available. Social media 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 are great amplifiers, you won’t show up in search and social media without content. An advertisement that doesn’t provide information or entertainment won’t circulate on social spaces and won’t come up in search.

Question accusations

I hope that after reading this article you will start questioning these unsubstantiated claims. I would love it if you agree with all my retorts, but instead, I want all readers to act as journalists and question the authenticity of my claims and any other claim made about brand journalism, whether positive or negative.

If the person is a journalist, ask him to back up the statement with sources and facts. If he is truly a journalist, he should have no problem responding to such a request.

David Spark is a journalist, producer, speaker and owner of the custom publishing and social media firm Spark Media Solutions. A version of this article appeared on his blog, Spark Minute.

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Topics: PR


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