Think you know about Brand Journalism?
In the words of leading marketers, it's not the New York Times or the BBC writ large. It's IBM, Ford and, probably soon, Taco Bell. At this week's SIIA Information Industry Summit, the hand between Ford's "Bold Moves" website explained the direction of the fingers. "We decided we'd call it brand journalism," said Colleen DeCourcy, who serves as the chief experience officer (candidate for the Wired list of dot-com super-titles?) of JWT ad agency. DeCourcy described the ins and outs of telling Ford's story -- "documenting internal struggles, initial perceptions", etc. -- and how she didn't an overarching way of describing how Ford would describe Ford. Hence: brand journalism, or journalism about the brand.
On the "Advertising and PR for Everyone: Who is Winning the Race for Marketing Dollars?" panel, ably moderated by David Meerman Scott, DeCourcy was joined by Ben Edwards. He's director of new media communication for IBM, and a veteran of The Economist, or as the program had it: "Ben enjoyed a 14-year career as a journalist in the "mainstream media". Ben spent the last nine of these years as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor for The Economist magazine, covering business, finance and politics from London, Tokyo and New York."
Edwards' take on such brand journalism: He embraced it.
"IBM is full of great stories. You have to discover them and tell them. That narrative used to be (my emphasis) in the hands of professional journalists. I can tell IBM's story from IBM's point of view. That's what the audience wants. They know we're partial. They need to come to their own conclusions and evaluations."
David Scott asked Edwards if that bothered him at all, as a erstwhile journalist. "The Economist has a house view," he said. "I don't think there's much different between what I do now compared to what I did then. I never pretended to have an objective view."
These are very smart people, who know how to sell stuff, how to communicate and how to have some fun doing it (DeCourcy was also behind the Dodge Charger "Unleash Your Freak" campaign and the Jeep branded entertainment project, "The Mudds,” "the first commercial Google Map geocaching adventure"), all commodities too rare in the traditional publishing business. Further Ben Edwards' point is well-made.
In this wonderful we're-all-publishers world we're creating, we're not all quite equal. When Edwards tells IBM 's stories (or harnessing the 308,000 IBMers to whom he says he's given blog, wiki and podcast tools), he's only telling the part of the story that benefits IBM's own economic interests. At even The Economist, presumably, even with its world view, his customer was his reader and telling that reader the whole story he'd found it, not leaving a part of it out if it inconveniently didn't fit business goals. Further DeCourcy noted that Ford's "brand journalism" didn't mention those small layoffs that you may have heard about -- out of concern, she said, for laid-off family dynamics.
Call it what you want, but "brand journalism" isn't journalism. It's public relations, customer connection, engagement -- whatever you want to call it -- on the new steroidal Intel chips. And it can produce good stuff that's useful to us as buyers of goods and services. But it's not journalism.
An industry veteran seated aside, who comes from the business end of a news company, offered half-jokingly, " "It's as if Goebbels worked for an ad agency." Forget the Nazi part of that metaphor and remember where the dark art of propaganda was well-perfected. And that's what this is: propaganda.
Yes, some of us will -- to Edwards' point -- parse it, but many won't, clearly unclear as to source of the "news" and "information."
Message to marketers: Keep up the good work, and please offer some tips to mainstream and meaningful new media (mainly pro bono!). But don't call it journalism. It's not and it creates a slippery slope we'll all be slipping and sliding down.