Chevron’s brand journalism site draws criticism

Is the company’s branded local journalism site an example of a company providing a public service, or is it blatant propaganda, as some critics contend?

Chevron is coming under fire for its Richmond Standard news website, which extends the brand journalism concept to something more akin to brand-sponsored journalism.

Critics such as Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik have objected that the website is full of “corporate PR disguised as community ‘news,’” despite the site’s above-the-fold declaration that it is, in fact, a Chevron website.

Is this a case of a company trying to shoehorn its propaganda into a content-marketing format, or is it truly a service to its community?

Under the site’s “news” header, you’ll find stories about how a local pastor found and returned a missing wheelchair to a four-year-old girl with spina bifida, and how local high school students are getting free, one-on-one help with writing. In the same manner, the “community views,” “sports” and other sections cover the local events and successes of Richmond, California, a Bay Area city of 107,000 residents.

“While the Richmond Standard isn’t the first community-driven journalism site that doesn’t rely on advertising revenue, it is among the first to receive seed funding from a major corporation,” reads the inaugural post under the Chevron Speaks section. “We believe the website has the potential to blaze the trail for a new model of corporate-sponsored, community-generated news.”

Despite its tagline, “community-driven news,” and sections focusing on local happenings, Hiltzik isn’t buying it. He sees it as an extension Chevron Richmond’s political action efforts, such as donating nearly $3 million to a local group called Moving Forward, as reported by Harriet Rowan of the Richmond Confidential, itself an online news service produced by the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley.

Hiltzik’s reporting raises questions specific to the PR community, as content marketing and brand journalism become more common venues for expressing the views of organizations as well as providing genuine outlets for local news that might be overlooked as traditional media, especially in small markets, continues to shrink.

So is this an elaborate, newsy hoax meant to further Chevron’s corporate initiatives, as Hiltzik suggests, is it true community advocacy, or perhaps a little of both? And what does this mean for PR and journalism? Let us know what you think.

Jim Beaugez, APR, is a freelance writer and accredited communications professional. Follow @JimBeaugez on Twitter.

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