Q and A on brand journalism for the Catalan Press Association

1.   Can we see Brand Journalism as the new channel that biggest enterprises use instead of traditional advertising and press notices? According Nielsen report, traditional advertising rating among consumers declined around 20% over the last two 4 years.

AB: Yes. Brand Journalism is beginning to replace two things – traditional advertising and marketing, but is also being used as a direct channel to the audience/consumer.  Brand journalism is a hybrid form of traditional journalism, marketing and public relations. It has emerged as a reaction to what Tom Foremski, a former Financial Times journalist now reporting on Silicon Valley, has dubbed EC=MC: Every Company is a Media Company.

Brand journalism is a response to the fact that any organisation can now use journalistic techniques to tell its story direct to the public.

But while it is rooted in some of the main principles of traditional journalism and good storytelling, creating stories that are timely and compelling, it also differs from traditional journalism. There are serious issues over balance, independence and fairness that must be addressed.

Brand journalism’s hybrid nature also sees it incorporate core elements from strategic PR and marketing communications: visionary planning, research, incisive messages, a defined purpose, and a requirement to quantify what has been achieved through it.

The result is an integrated, brand journalism-driven communications strategy.

2.   Which kind of information can we find in these websites? Are they focused on specific market niches?

AB: Content varies depending on the audience being addressed. So for example, McDonald’s addresses the wide range of people who consume its products, Amnesty International addresses those who support its cause, Dell addresses those who buy its products, and American Express and other financial organisations create niche sites that address the concerns of, or example, small businesses.

3.   How their orientation is? More journalistic, more advertising, a mix…?

AB: Good brand journalism feels like traditional journalism, it does not read like marketing or advertising. But, of course, as I say above, it is designed to sell, so there are questions about its reliability and independence.

In the modern world of the internet, when anyone can post their views and experiences online, it can be argued that if companies use brand journalism to lie or distort the truth, they will be found out. There is a strong debate on this point. Some argue that we need to regulate brand journalism, just as in many countries traditional journalism and public relations are regulated.

4.   Why brands are investing in having their own media?

AB: Because they can. And because it often works better than traditional advertising and marketing, and is more reliable than trying to get traditional media to write about them.

Brands see their customers and potential customers on social media and see that they can interact with them directly, they don’t need traditional media as an intermediary.

5.   Which intentions and benefits are the brands planning to obtain (or already obtaining)?

AB: A closer relationship with their audience and a better understanding of their needs and concerns, plus the benefits mentioned already in my responses.

6.   Are brand websites organized as any other traditional media? (Editor in chief, newsroom, sections, contributor writers…)?

AB: Many brands set up newsrooms, employing print and broadcast journalists to produce content that they use on their own branded sites but also release to traditional media. For example, Nissan hired TV and print journalists from the BBC, CNBC, BloombergBusinessWeek among others. Its in-house newsroom is run by Dan Sloan who spent 17 years at Reuters. Here’s an extract from my book on this, incase you need an example:

“The newsroom sends its crews to cover Nissan stories, for example Nissan’s chief executive Carlos Ghosn touring a car plant damaged by the Japan earthquake of 2011. They live-streamed the visit, and Ghosn’s announcement that the plant was back to 80 per cent of pre-quake output, on YouTube. Two hours later a rough-cut of the film was posted on the Nissan website, and an edited package followed three hours later.

“The newsroom also produces material for the large number of websites that aggregate news about the car industry, which have a huge appetite for video content.

“The FT, in a story headlined Nissan’s PR mimics the newsroom (8), gave this example of how successful such a strategy can be: “the operation recently produced a feature on the Nissan Leaf Nismo RC electric sports car, in which its cameras were given exclusive access to the car and the engineers who built it. When the editors of Top Gear’s website put the film on their homepage, it went viral and generated more than 60,000 views.”

“The newsroom also tackles hard news stories in which Nissan is under pressure, producing reports on matters such as, post earthquake and Japan’s nuclear melt-down, radiation checks on cars awaiting export, and a software glitch on a model.

“The Simpaticor PR blog (9) says of the enterprise: “This in-house team gets under the skin of the company; reveals how its production process works, interviews senior management and talks with its technology and design teams. In effect it reveals the brand in controlled detail to those who are interested and as such presents a compelling and influential picture of itself.”

“The newsroom operation doesn’t replace Nissan’s other forms of communication. It only accounts for around 5 per cent of its world-wide public relations budget, and a tiny fraction of marketing spending.

“But it is seen as superseding traditional public relations.

“Dan Sloan told the FT: “Traditional public relations is not that sophisticated – it’s something that is so heavy-handed that it can be potentially unwatchable or unreadable. In coming to this enterprise, what I said from day one was: ‘It won’t work if it comes off as state television – it’s got to be much more interesting than traditional marketing communications attempts have been.’”

“And Simon Sproule, Nissan’s head of global marketing communications, said: “It’s about killing press releases. We decided that if we’ve got good stories to tell, we’ll tell them ourselves.”

“He also says Nissan would never outsource the venture, saying humorously: “The media centre is the first love child from the coupling of marketing and PR”.

“Simpaticor PR blog (10) underlines what is needed for such an approach to work: “Of course there are two critical caveats to this kind of activity. First, it doesn’t and shouldn’t replace “independent” journalists and the kind of objective reporting and commentary that they will unleash on a daily basis.

“The second is… it must be credible and interesting. A brand journalist must have the freedom to generate stuff that a general or specific audience will want to consume. No one will watch the 24/7 Nissan channel, but design students and practitioners may pick up on a YouTube video on the future of aerodynamics. Engineers might be fascinated by electric motor developments or production line automation. Business analysts and yes the press, might catch the latest comments from the CEO.”

7.   I counted Business Without Borders, CMO, Free Press, The Network or Coca-cola Journey as the most prominent Brand Journalism sites. Do I forget any other important ones?  Do they follow a similar path (information or advertising, structure, market niche or general information…)?

AB: There are many more examples, I use almost 100 in my book, but your list is a good one. I’d add Red Bull (now as much a media company as a soft dink manufacturer) Ford, McDonalds, American Express, Intel. The ones in your next question are also good examples included in my book (which is published in August)

8.   In some of these brand websites you can easily find owner’s name, for example, in HSBC’s Business without Borders, Adobe’s CMO or Cisco’s The Network. Why is that? My first thought on it was that it is a way to gain credibility. “If I openly tell you who I work for, then I’m putting my cards on the table and I’m being honest” (unlike traditional media do with main advertisers, bank loans, etc). Is there any relationship between my thought and the reality?

AB: Yes, transparency is seen as vitally important in the new media age. Your audience needs to see who you are so they can decide whether your information is biased or not. Those who defend brand journalism point out that traditional journalism publications often promote a particular cause or view without revealing they have a vested interest in it. They say that with the internet, and the wisdom of the crowd, you must be open and transparent. If you are not, you will be caught out and your brand journalism will fail.

9.   Most of Brand Journalism projects are being successful. Which is the secret?

AB Those that know their audience and do good journalism that their audience wants to read, watch or listen to. Successful brand journalists have all the skills of traditional journalists in terms of entertaining or informing a defined audience. They are also transparent.

10. If you check which journalists and analysts are writing on these websites and where they are coming from, you can easily realize that brands are investing huge amounts of money on their Brand Journalism projects. Which is the answer against Brand Journalism from traditional media?

AB: I think there is a big shift in how media works. While investigative reporting will not be done by brands – but is beginning to be done by charities such as ProPublica, the Bureau of Investigative journalism and other sponsored organisations –  I think that much general consumer journalism and general entertainment journalism will be done by brands in future. Brand have the money to pay for it, many publishers do not. Increasingly, traditional journalism products – especially newspapers – struggle to get people to pay for their journalism.

Traditional journalism can compete by showing it has a greater value and is worth paying for. I think all traditional journalists need to ask: is what I produce good enough?

11. We are in a moment where even the most powerful media are thinking on “make themselves thinner” because of the crisis. On the other hand, Brand Journalism is showing muscle and potential. Is it specially the right time for Brand Journalism to take up traditional media space because of their apparent weakness?

AB: Yes, this is happening and will happen more and more I believe. What needs to happen now is for journalism schools to recognize that there are more jobs in brand journalism, and fewer in traditional journalism and prepare their students for those jobs, so when they graduate they can get jobs in brand journalism. That’s why I wrote my book.