It’s time for marketers to drop the term brand journalism

brand journalism

It’s time for marketers to ditch the term brand journalism.

Why? The primary and compelling reason is that it clouds and devalues what journalism is, what journalism is supposed to do, and the role it fulfills in society.

Next, it’s confusing. To marketers, journalists, and citizens/consumers.

What is brand journalism?

What exactly is brand journalism? Many marketers and journalists I spoke to recently didn’t know. They had to look up the phrase. Franchise lead generation firm Brand Journalists defines brand journalism as: “Using the tools, tactics and style of journalism to tell a company’s story.”

That’s accurate, content writers do at times make use of the journalist’s tool box.

However, the term brand journalism is confusing and inaccurate. And that confusion only gets worse when marketers throw terms like journalistic content into the mix.

Why is this so important? Because we’re in an age where the vital role that journalism fulfills in society is in the spotlight. Journalism and journalists are threatened on so many fronts. Some elected officials want to censor news or muzzle journalists. Others decry good or investigative journalism as fake news. And when it comes to readers/viewers, many don’t trust journalists or news media outlets.

Next, we’re consuming more and more information from diverse sources, both on and off the web. For some, a lot of what’s consumed is content marketing. Some readers/viewers don’t care about the distinction between content marketing and journalism.

But today, it’s essential that citizens are able to differentiate between what is produced by journalists and what is produced by marketers. Why? Because the purpose of journalism and role of journalists is vastly different from that of content marketing and content creators.

Meanwhile, the world is awash in with clickbait, fake news, and, in some instances, content positioning itself as factual news. For some viewers/readers, it can be challenging and time-consuming trying to determine what is and isn’t journalism.

As Guardian editor Katherine Viner writes: “It can become very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and ‘facts’ that are not.”

(On top of all this, there is a lot of bad journalism out there too, but the issue of shoddy journalism and how the news media can rehabilitate itself is a subject for another column).

The threat to democracy

If journalism is threatened, the world’s democracies are threatened. To keep them safe, working well, and best representing citizens, our democracies need outstanding journalism and journalists more than ever.

Good and independent journalism supports our communities and helps them function well. It holds those in power accountable, and challenges elected officials and agency officials to be honest, transparent, and fair.

We need journalists who are free to think critically, research, interview, and then write in a way that’s honest and balanced so that we are well-informed.

It’s so easy to forget the crucial role journalism has played in the past in challenging tyrants, highlighting global disasters, documenting illegal activities, holding governments to account, and much more. On a local level, journalists help citizens’ voices be heard. They play a huge part in resolving inequalities in spending or the use of resources. That role is just as important today as it was in 1936, the 1960s, or 1970-1976.

We need great journalism to give citizens the information required to make the best possible decisions about all levels of government, as well as government agencies. To quote John Honderich, chair of Torstar Corp. which owns The Toronto Star: “You can’t have a healthy democracy without well-informed citizens.”

Journalist and editor Peter Barron makes the same point in his recent interview on clickbait and local journalism. As does as Karen Unland when she explains that the role of the journalist is, in part, to report on the activities of elected officials or groups which campaign against our democratic ideals. She writes that journalists: “Have a responsibility to draw historical parallels. We must be guided by what is true, or as true as we can achieve, and not by what is popular.”

So-called brand journalism doesn’t do this, and that’s why the term comes across as faintly dishonest and misleading.

Yes, some marketers use the same toolkit as journalists. And it’s great when marketers and comms pros think like journalists by consider story angles and digging deep with penetrating questions. That’s where the best content marketing comes from.

Journalism: it’s about balance and a whole different intention

However, the difference​ between the journalism and so-called brand journalism​ can be found in two ​key ​areas: balance and intention. There is a difference between telling a news story and presenting all the sides of that story (balance), compared to the content marketing employed by businesses.

Would a content marketer explore what’s wrong with a product, how it has failed, or reveal that it generated lots of complaints? Possibly after a mishap, and certainly if the brand’s reputation is at risk and shareholders are watching. But 98% of the time the answer is no, because balance is not the goal of the content writer or the content strategy.

Journalists and content writers both serve commercial masters. The news media is in the business of creating content that will attract viewers/readers. Yes, they are driven by a need to make a profit. However, the motive for producing a news story is not the same for the news media as it is for a small business or corporate giant.

The fundamental and crucial issue here is intention, and therein lies the difference.

How does the term brand journalism affect citizens/consumers? If my smart and well-read friends and colleagues are unsure about its meaning, citizens/consumers surely are. What happens when a reader/viewer has a complaint about a story produced by, say, a grocery giant or a green energy company? Hearing that it’s from a brand journalist, might they contact the National NewsMedia Council or provincial press council (in Canada), the U.K.’s Press Complaint’s Commission, or similar organizations in other countries?

The responsibilities of marketers and journalists

We’re in an age where authenticity and trust are highly valued. But they are only attainable if journalists and marketers take responsibility.

For editors and journalists, this means rising above clickbait and sensationalism. It also means being proactive when it comes to addressing the issue of trust in journalism. As well, educators and elected officials have an important role to play in helping young people understand the part good journalism has in protecting democracy. They can also help young people become news-literate, too.

This all ties in to ensuring that citizens understand how institutions at all levels of government function, as well as the roles of elected officials and the execution of power within society. Without a free and independent media, it’s almost impossible to achieve this.

(If you want to hear more about how illiterate some people are when it comes to power, civics educator Eric Liu makes some powerful arguments in this Ted talk. Yes, he’s speaking to people in the U.S., but in my experience, the same level of illiteracy around power exists in the U.K. and, to a lesser degree, in Canada).

For marketing and PR practitioners, it means making a commitment to authenticity and transparency. Trust will only be given when marketers and PRs are transparent about their work. And, as an aside, being authentic and earning trust can also result in a greater amount of earned media for marketers, something they know is highly effective in reaching goals.

The words brand journalism might sound cool. And marketers will take advantage of any tactic to get engagement or exposure.

Marketer and employee engagement specialist Damian McAlonan notes that: “Specializing or niche is always easier to message. It’s easier to appeal or raise awareness to and therefore easier to convert. If you can get to the meaning in less words then all’s the better, or if you can make it stand out with flamboyance and make it bigger and more exciting, then so be it.”

This makes perfect sense. But that doesn’t make the term brand journalism any the less confusing.

Today, marketers truly owe it to their customers to be open and honest about what they are doing and what they create.

Will marketer’s stop using the term brand journalism? It’s highly unlikely. And, sadly, that’s probably because, in marketer/entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuck’s words: “Marketers ruin everything.

Thanks to Keri Jaehnig, Alice Major, Damian McAlonan, Meagan Perry, Kay Ross, Josh Steimle, Robyn Stoller-Shulman, and Karen Unland, who all contributed thoughts and ideas to the creation of this piece. 




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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist, content marketer, and communications specialist. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. Based in Toronto, she is freelancing and looking for a permanent position. Contact her via the contact form on this site or Linkedin.

4 comments

  • This is really insightful. I didn’t even know that’s what they call themselves, they should just stick with content marketing. They also make personal bloggers look not so good, because then consumers and readers will just term it blogging, yikes.

  • Who says that brand journalism can’t fulfill a vital role in society? It’s up to brands about how they want their content to impact those who consume it. All this shade on brand journalism further underlines the lack of imagination plaguing many marketers and communicators today. In my view, brand journalism is simply a commitment to putting the reader first in all content creation efforts. It’s not a replacement for marketing. There’s a time to market to people directly and there’s a time to reveal how your brand – and the people behind it – sees the world. We can be content marketers AND brand journalists.

    Also important: no citizen cares where branded content comes from or what the people behind it call themselves. So the term ‘brand journalism’ isn’t confusing to them. It’s an inside baseball term. It doesn’t matter what we call it. We should all just strive to create better content that creates value for consumers. Less noise, more signal.

    It’s not easy. Many of us are working within traditional systems that make it incredibly challenging to fulfill the true promise of brand journalism. But there are those of us that think quite differently about what brand journalism can and should be.

    Thanks for contributing to this vital discussion!

    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m not sure I’d agree that citizens do not care where branded content comes from. And my research did reveal significant confusion about the term brand journalism.

      The words we use do matter and it’s time for marketers to choose their words wisely and carefully.

      It’s great that you took time to comment and it’s good to have a range of opinions on this topic.

      Sheelagh

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