In defence of brand journalism

When Andy Bull got in touch for a masterclass he is running on brand journalism for his current book/website at Multimedia-journalism.co.uk, he got me thinking about exactly what this term means. He reminded me of a comment I left on a post of his, which goes:

“I call myself many things – web editor, blogger, content strategist – but have only recently come across the title ‘Brand journalist’. The slipper seems to fit as I work for a digital publishing agency.

“I’m not producing marketing material but I am creating editorial that focuses on where the target readers’ interests meet the business. The work is not just being a brand reporter but a sub-editor, commissioning editor, publisher and change management adviser – since brands are new to publishing and need a point person on many publishing fronts.

“I’ve often asked j-school teachers why they don’t cover brand publishing as this is where the budgets are moving. But I guess it’s possibly still tied up with ethics and prejudices about it being branded content. However, the internet has enabled brands to be publishers and they need publishing help, hence the need for brand journalists, or web editors, or whatever the preferred title is.”

Andy asked me to expand on this and sent over a few questions. Since I think it might be a useful exercise to process my thoughts on this, I’ve blogged my answers. It is entirely possible that these may change next year but I look forward to any feedback, as it feels as if we’re all still working this stuff out.

What is involved in being a brand journalist?

I might quote from a SXSW presentation called Brand Journalism in the Real World on this.

Erica Swallow of Contently says it’s where journalism meets brands – research, storytelling, reporting, etc, on behalf of a non-media entity with the goal of creating thought leadership. (In journalist terms, that means they want to be seen as an expert in their field – which demands a higher quality of content.)

Neither Jesse Noyes, Corporate Reporter at Eloqua, or Karen Wickre, Editorial Director at Twitter, were fans of the term but agreed that the function sits within corporate communications or marketing.

Jesse made the point that the external voice was important – that corp comms are bringing in journalists to write about an industry hot topic in the same way that a reporter would on a newspaper.

It’s true – there is something about the way a reporter researches and writes a story that produces something different (more objective?) or more removed from the brand’s internal marketing efforts. In my case, for example, I collect stories via RSS feeds and also monitor hot topics brewing on social media, which I may turn into stories of relevance to the brand’s audience and then clearly and separately link to a relevant service line in the business at the end of the copy.

Jesse makes another strong point about the journalistic over the sales and marketing approach – that a journalist is an advocate for the reader whereas an in-house person thinks about the brand or the sale.

I feel this difference strongly in my role. One of my reasons for being there is to ask difficult questions back to the internal team when they make a content request. I ask: Why are you posting this content? How is this relevant to the target readership? How can we change the angle of the story so that it meets the interests of the readers or answers their questions? How can we turn a campaign ‘sell’ into something more useful or interesting to clients and readers? It feels counter-intuitive to them perhaps but it works – perhaps because brand journalism’s natural home is on the company blog which is the more human voice of the firm where they can talk to clients and potential clients directly.

Can you give us a quick run-down on your journalism career?

In one line? Trained in magazine journalism at the London College of Printing (now Communication), followed by 20 years spent writing and sub-editing on newspapers and magazines, followed by five years working online – mostly doing digital publishing for brands because they have marketing budget whereas online media publishing is struggling to find a business model.

How would you describe what you do now – does the brand journalism term fit it? Do you use/prefer other terms?

It’s a part of what I do but you could also call it content marketing with a whole lot of web editing and blogging thrown in. I use the term more with people outside of that world as it gives them a picture of what the approach is.

Who are you working for in this role?

I’m freelance so I work for a number of different clients. The main ones for the last three years have been Seven (a publishing agency with many clients) where I work as part of their digital team; Grant Thornton UK (a large accountancy firm) – the title I have there is Blogs Editor creating content for four or five different demographics of target reader; and Firehead, a niche Europe-based recruiter in digital communications – they most often call me Blog Manager.

See my problem? Everyone has different titles for essentially the same role.

Can you expand on your description that you are “creating editorial that focuses on where the target readers’ interests meet the business” How do you approach doing this – is it similar to the journalistic attempt to target a particular audience and serve their interests?

I remember working for a regional newspaper whose average reader, I was told, was a 60-year-old pensioner called Doris. It helped copy-taste potential features (Outrage! Titillation! Dream holidays! Local concerns!) and write/sub them with this person in mind.

Brand journalists also work to personas. They help make sure the content remains on track and of use to that reader. For example, on the business blogs I edit, I need to know if I’m writing for a CEO or an FD, a UK business or an emerging markets one, in order to angle a post correctly. It helps to know their interests, concerns and cover the topics that are relevant to them.

Fortunately I work with brands who know that creating marketing ‘fluff’ won’t cut it in the modern world. Their view, from what I understand, is that they need to earn the right to contact clients, by providing useful surveys or help pieces for example, so they are upping their content game.

They also know that readers are suspicious and have the facility to take you down in comments if you present poor arguments or aren’t being transparent in your sources. Readers know when brands are selling to them but they also know that they are in a branded environment and to take that into account. That’s not so different from how people approach the news media now – ie, far more sceptically and with easy access to other stories on the same subject for a wider perspective.

It’s not just readers who are watching brand content. Recently the FT picked up on clashes between a global Grant Thornton survey and a financial magazine’s survey – and proceeded to explain the inconsistencies to their own audience. They concluded that there was nothing suspicious to see here. And that is because…

Brand journalism is about creating content (surveys, interviews, graphics, opinion pieces) for an audience; it’s less about push-marketing the brand. The aim is to be seen as an experts and spokespeople on the topics they know – not as a spin machine for the business.

On Grant Thornton, for example, I’ve got permission to make raw data sets (here’s an example) from their surveys available on sites like Many Eyes – for financial, business and data journalists to use in their own stories and infographics. Brand journalism is also about providing the raw material for mainstream journalism – transparent and free.

One of the other ways I approach the business/reader overlap of content is to research the brand’s web analytics – I love analytics! I find out what our readers are searching for, what they are asking, and then create or commission content or infographics that answer those questions. These are often the most successful articles traffic-wise.

The suspicion that traditional journalists may have is that there are potentially competing interests with client needs or messages. And quite rightly. Sometimes you have to negotiate what to say on a hot topic so that the business presents a credible and consistent message across the business. I’ve had to get Tweets signed off before now because I want to present the client’s accurate view not my own, for example.

And people are quite right to be suspicious – but that is where context comes in. Brand journalists are focused the audience but can’t ignore client needs. What traditional journalists often forget is that they are working for a media brand and a business – the editor may be focused on the reader but they can’t ignore that it’s all ultimately about selling advertising. That creates a big trust issue for readers.

Is serving a business anything like serving an editor?

No too much because now I >am< The Editor! One big difference is that there is a longer sign-off process for brand content – mostly to check technical information is correct and compliant, for example, but often because they are busy working on their trade. I’m fortunate in that I have built up a relationship of trust with my clients – they now tend to trust that I am a fair player when it comes to quality control on their content so very little is changed past my final draft. They do have the final say, like an editor. I joke that I have sold my soul and gone over to the dark side but if anyone asked me to compromise my ethics, I wouldn’t. I would rather leave the job. It’s not just brands where this can happen – I distinctly remember several instances where I had a major issue with magazine copy, both on teen magazines where I felt they were pushing a pretty unhealthy agenda. One thing that >is< different is that rarely does anyone shout at me for copy these days. And I miss the banter of the newsroom. I do work in client offices occasionally in order to keep my ear to the ground for news and content ideas – but I’m not working with my tribe of people. I’m a journalist at heart and the world of business is a much quieter environment. The people are nice but it can be lonely at times.

You mention also being a change management adviser – can you expand on that? Do you have to teach brands how brand journalism (or whatever you want to call it) can work for them?

The problem is that ‘everyone is a publisher’ but most brands are not familiar with the approaches, processes and practices of publishing. Hence they hire in an external.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book on the questions brands have asked me over the years – they seem common sense to any online journalist or publisher but they need to be contextualised for clients. Questions like ‘Why can’t I re-use a press release on a blog?’ or ‘Can you just post this on the blog?’ or ‘Can we just ignore that negative comment?’

Part of the job in this era of the Internet is being a points person for anything Web-related, answering techy questions, training in-house experts in blogging style and culture, and mentoring channel editors and writers in what works and what doesn’t.

There are those who see brand journalism as the antithesis of journalism – as a move against the purist view of journalism that it is about telling the truth without fear or favour. What is your view?

This may sound bad while I want independent journalism to survive, it also has to adapt or die. The purist view of journalism is an ideal that media companies often don’t live up to – and are less able to live up to as print business models collapse. Good journalism costs money – who says that it won’t be subsidised in some way in future, perhaps by brands or by the reader as here? I’ve also seen a lot more truth told by first-hand blog accounts over stories edited and angled for me by a news outlet.

I also think people argue too much over definitions. ‘Journalism’ as an institution is often associated purely with news and investigation and exposés and big stories unearthed by amazing reporters. I’ve met some of those people and seen what they have to do to get a story.

But journalism is wider than that – I’ve worked far more in magazines, for example, but digital journalism conferences rarely think about them. Is it still journalism? I think so. And now I’m applying 25 years of journalism experience, training and tools to a different platform that is online. I feel as if I am doing the same things as ever just with a different set of constraints.

Personally, I still try to follow the NUJ’s Code of Conduct from when I was taught it at 19. I see myself as a safeguard for brands – I help keep them honest.

Two final points that occur to me. Firstly, at university I found out that ‘objectivity’ in journalism is historically a relatively recent thing. I was amazed to hear that, having been brought up with objectivity and balanced reporting drilled into me. And yet I don’t find subjectivity of the Internet a problem because it’s all about the context. I understand to look at who is writing or hosting the content, at how old the information is and to take everything with a pinch of salt until cross-checked with other sources. Sometimes I think traditional journalism has as much to defend as brands.

Secondly, how to train future journalists is a big issue for journalism schools right now. Without traditional training in journalistic tools and techniques, ethics and codes, followed by practical hands-on experience, how can we ensure that we produce content of good quality – in whatever environment that might be?

To some extent, it feels like we’ve thrown out the script. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.