FYI that I’ve got surgery scheduled for this afternoon (the second of two this month, ugh), and so I’m tidying up loose ends before I head out. One of them is to tie off on the discussion generated by my previous post about brand journalism. It sparked quite an insightful discussion within the PRwise LinkedIn Group, where I posted the discussion titled, Is “Brand Journalism” a Valid Term – And Career Path?

Some said no. Emphatically.

“As a former editor with AP and The Seattle Times, I am insulted by the term ‘brand journalism.’ IMO, it does not exist. It is merely a fancy term for marketing copywriting,” said group member Steven Spenser. “Of course it’s not journalism. It could never be journalism, because the goal of the content is the same as that of any and all marketing content–to increase sales.”

Added group member Kathy Madison: “As a PR professional, I still see my job as one of liaison with ‘real’ journalists. The concept of ‘content journalism’ to me is not positive, even with the best of intentions. … This ‘content journalism’ wave works against the traditional (and in some ways rapidly disappearing) tension between PR & journalists which can produce truly objective results & ultimately more credible positive coverage for clients.”

Compelling arguments, for sure, because they define what traditional journalism is, and how PR has traditionally worked – and in both cases, very successfully. But I think group member Kevin McCusker’s remarks really stopped me in my tracks and made me think. Have a listen:

“Not all content marketing is brand journalism or incorporates journalistic principles. 

One can incorporate journalistic principles when providing content for marketing or PR purposes, but I don’t think it’s actual journalism. 

The issue is one of intent.” (Boldface emphasis mine.)

He’s right. Intent is the key – and if the story is a means to an end, what exactly is that end?

“In content marketing, you are not, usually, generating content because you think there’s an audience; you’re generating content because you think there’s an audience that connects to your employer’s/client’s product or service,” he said.

All true, of course, and maybe that’s the crux of all this – if you’re a brand journalist, you have to be comfortable with the fact that what you are doing is ultimately serving a purpose: It’s supporting an agenda. Meaning, the content isn’t designed to stand on its own.

I am comfortable with that, because in my view, it’s very difficult to tie a sale to a specific PR tactic. In other words, it’s virtually impossible to say a beautifully written case study caused a sale to happen. Instead, I tend to think that that content may not only create awareness about an issue, it might help correct misperceptions about it, or better define the industry’s mindset. Industry leaders think in these terms, and as such, industry leaders need talented storytellers to do that.

This where I see my role as a brand journalist. McCusker, and others, noted that content marketing and journalism can peacefully co-exist.

“But in the end, even if we are storytelling or providing inherently useful or vital information or aesthetically pleasing images, we are still trying to affect our audience’s behavior or opinion in some way. That is what separates content marketing from journalism. 

That doesn’t mean content marketing and PR can’t be true, vital, creative and well crafted. It should be if it’s going to be successful,” he said.

Group member Les Goldberg tied this up by noting that a lot of this depends on how a story is told.

“My journalism standards are still intact, and I am careful to avoid ‘hype’ and ‘spin,’ he said. “Clients or employers would prefer hiding the negative or mentioning competition. Before entering a new job or taking on a new client, I make sure that I have the opportunity to educate them about my standards, my ethics and my respect for the media.”

I’ll be out of pocket for awhile recovering from my surgery, so chew on this and we’ll discuss it when I return.


Is brand journalism a valid term – and career path, for that matter – or rank hogwash?

I read this story on the other day, titled Is Brand Journalism a ‘Half-baked, Made-up’ Expression? It debates this very question and gave me pause, because I happen to consider myself a brand journalist.

I was a reporter and editor for several newspapers and a trade publication for more than 10 years prior to shifting to a B2B agency in early 2005. There, I learned the ins and outs of representing a brand via PR, and eventually social media in the ensuing years.

David Meerman Scott 1What I loved about B2B PR is that I got to write – LOTS. And often I was writing case studies that told the story about a challenge a given customer had, and how they overcame that challenge, albeit with our client’s product or service. I quickly learned there was a fine line between marketing and journalism, that a story had more validity if the customer was the centerpiece, and not the brand and its product or service. Realizing this made me unique among my peers, and ultimately made me professionally successful. Of course, I was heavily influenced by guys like David Meerman Scott (at left) and others, who actually helped coin this term. (Read my interview with David last month on brand journalism and other topics.)

Now, as evidenced by the story I referenced earlier, there are some that are questioning whether this concept of brand journalism that I’ve come to embrace and enjoy is a fad, an oxymoronic expression – that “brand” and “journalism” don’t belong together.

I absolutely disagree. To me, brand journalism is merely an evolution of both the marketing and journalism professions, driven by the web, social media and mobile. Marketing has new ways to tell its brand story, while particularly print journalism hasn’t been able to evolve from its advertising-centric model, forcing many good journalists to leave the profession. And go where? You guessed it.

So for those that made that jump, or are considering it, here are three must-haves to a great brand journalist:

1. You have to love finding good stories. I’ve worked with dozens of B2B and B2C brands over the years, and every single one of them are loaded with fascinating tales – and not only of customers that have had success with a client product or service. Consider for example the unique employee personalities who represent a brand, and reflect its attributes, or the truly innovative ways companies are doing business today. The key for a brand journalist is to cultivate ways to find these stories. A journalist does this by building and nurturing contacts within the company that have access to these stories, especially if they come from the value chain. Another key is keeping a running “tickler” file of potential stories, because sometimes a story isn’t quite ready to be told, but will be in six months.

story-wars-cover-199x3002. You have to love telling good stories. This is about writing, but it’s about much more than that – you have to understand how a story represents a brand BEFORE anything else, and then ultimately write it in such a way that it isn’t an overt advertisement – because people get when they are being sold these days. It’s telling the story and letting the thoughts and actions of the “characters” take center stage … what they did, why they did it, and the result of what they did, which ultimately should position the brand as the wise counselor. That’s what authors like Jonah Sachs emphasize, which is why I strongly recommend you read my review of his book Winning the Story Wars.

3. You have to have a strong connection to your brand community. Your community isn’t the circulation number of a trade magazine. Nor is it the number of followers or Friends you have on Twitter or Facebook, respectively. It isn’t even those you engage with on social media channels, or at trade shows and seminars. No, it’s that small core group of people that your brand connects with, perhaps on a daily basis, who love your brand because it helps them solve problems. Those stories can, and should, be leveraged to nurture your community by telling your brand story in new ways, thus spurring word of mouth and growth of your community. In other words, pumping out a bunch of content to fill up a monthly social media calendar isn’t brand journalism; it’s busy work.

So what do you think? Is brand journalism valid, as both a term and a career path? Let’s discuss below.

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