Let’s try and deal in realities.
The first reality I see is that journalism as a career is under threat, because not enough people are prepared to pay for what we make.
I can also see that any organisation is, or could be, a media company, in addition to whatever else it does.
I see that many people are choosing to get their information through social media, rather than through the products of traditional publishers and broadcasters.
Social media has changed the equation. We no longer live in a world where the rich and powerful control the means of mass communication. Now, anyone can publish their news, views, comment and analysis.
Social media brings the added dimension to the dissemination of news and information that it is passed among groups of friends, colleagues or those bound by some other sort of self-defined common interest by way of personal recommendation.
Retweets on Twitter, Facebook likes and other sharing mechanisms mean that anyone who chooses to engage in social media gets not just the news, but their social circles’ views about that news.
It’s taken media groups, and many individuals working for them, a long time to get to grips with this. They’ve struggled to adapt from the old ‘here is the news’ approach to the idea that communication is now truly two way.
They got used to being the gatekeepers, and of controlling access to the media they owned and the audiences they controlled.
They were essential to any organisation that wanted its news published, its views represented.
And then everything changed
Brands, and I’m again using the word in the broadest sense, were much quicker on the uptake. They saw that social media allowed them to communicate directly with the audiences they wished to engage with.
But modern media are not open just to brands and corporations. They are open to all. They are open, for example, to those who are in favour of a new airport and those who are against it, and to every shade of opinion on a controversial subject such as climate change.
Here’s another reality: brand journalism is a fact. It’s here and it’s growing. Brands, organisations, charities, campaigns and causes have the money to employ journalists, and to use journalistic techniques, to engage with the public. Increasingly, they are choosing to do so, while traditinal media companies are downsizing.
I happen to think that the best people to practice brand journalism are properly trained journalists. Indeed, many journalists already work for brands.
There is nothing new in journalists doing journalism on bahalf of brands. Take, for example, magazines. The majority of the biggest circulation magazines in the UK are published on behalf of brands.
Here are the top 10 UK magazines from ABC via Press Gazette:
· Tesco Magazine ( Cedar Communications Limited ) : 2,018,375
· Asda Magazine ( Publicis Blueprint ) : 1,949,451
· The National Trust Magazine ( National Trust ) : 1,948,384
· TV Choice ( H Bauer Publishing ) : 1,304,382
· What’s on TV ( IPC Media Ltd ): 1,253,697
· Tesco Real Food ( Cedar Communications Limited ): 1,220,503
· Morrisons Magazine (Result Customer Communications): 1,150,937
· Radio Times ( Immediate Media Company ) : 925,373
· Take a Break ( H Bauer Publishing ) : 791,001
· Saga Magazine ( Saga Publishing Ltd ) : 631,530
Only four among that top 10 are not allied to a brand. The full breakdown of all UK magazines here shows that many more consumer magazines are published by brands, and hence many consumer magazine journalists now work on behalf of brands.
So brand journalism is not new, and it’s not going to go away
And, unlike with traditional media, brand journalism is not the preserve of the rich and powerful.
Of course, the rich and powerful are seeking to use it to influence us.
McDonalds, for example, works hard to present itself as a socially responsible company with high ethical standards. Among other things, it likes to portray itself as a friend of the farmer.
But there is strong dissent from this image in some quarters. McDonalds can spend a great deal of time and money creating a campaign on social media, only to have it subverted by individuals with no power and no money. Those individuals don’t have to own a printing press or a TV station to get their views out there, as in the past.
PaidContent reported: “The campaign was intended to share happy farmer stories and featured two keyword hashtags. The company used these hashtags in its tweets and also paid for them to appear at the top of the results when a user searched for those terms.
“The campaign proceeded uneventfully until … McDonald’s switched from its first hash-tag #MeetTheFarmers to its second one #McDStories.
“’Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,’” said [Rick] Wion [McDonald’s social media director]. ‘It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.’
“Even though the company used the hashtag only twice, a legion of critics pounced on #McDStories to tell their own tales of weed or animal cruelty. Some offered crass personal accounts like that of @MuzzaFuzza who wrote ‘I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea.’
“The hashtag continues to take on a Twitter life of its own—most recently as a social media parable for marketers.”
So that’s another reality we should consider in the debate on the power of brand journalism – messages from brands can easily be subverted. It only takes a few individuals to do it, if those individuals have a point.
In modern media, individuals are powerful – as powerful as the message they have to put across. Small campaigns can go viral on social media if they strike a chord.
Indeed, the power of the individual is such in social media that Coca-Cola, the company with the biggest following on Facebook, handed its presence on that platform over to two individuals who were fans of the brand and who had created a hugely popular fan page about it.
Pure journalism is threatened – but not by brand journalism
But let’s get to the heart of the charge against brand journalism, as I hope I outlined it accurately in the Case Against Brand Journalism module here. It is: “That journalism should focus on investigating, and making public, information which reveals corruption and bad behaviour by banks, corporations, public organisations, and powerful individuals.”
I don’t think the threat to pure journalism comes from brand journalism at all. It comes mainly from the fact not enough people are prepared to pay for it, and party from the way it has been practised.
As the Leveson inquiry into press standards in the UK is demonstrating, pure journalism is not as common as we might once have supposed. The network of relationships Leveson is exposing between successive British governments and major media organisations, and between those organisations and the police, is showing that journalism is not often as independent and unbiased as those who champion it might believe.
The reality is that publishers – those lauded guardians of pure journalism – are brands too. Anyone who has worked on, say, the Daily Mail, or on many a Murdoch title, knows they are working for a news brand.
Such publishers and their newspapers/TV networks/brands have a world view and a political agenda. They align their brand with political and other causes and tailor their news coverage to suit that alignment.
Many media brands have an agenda and a world view, and the way they select news, and report it, reflects the agenda of the brand. Journalists who work for such media brands quickly learn to inhabit that world view. Or they leave.
In much of what they do, media companies are by no means independent of commercial interests. Many stories that purport to be unbiased are the product of public relations companies or other organisations. As one small example, most newspapers are happy to build their travel journalism on a system in which companies give them freebies in return for favourable write-ups.
Opponents of brand journalism argue that there is no transparency with it. That vested interests can create platforms that appear to be independent of them but which are actually there to serve their agendas and interests.
But for every entity seeking to act in this way there can be many that will expose the practice.
The repressive government which denies it is guilty of human rights abuses can be challenged through the brand journalism of human rights groups, campaigners, plus individuals on the spot with a mobile phone and a free account on Twitter, Facebook or another social platform.
The power and wisdom of the crowd
And, let’s not forget, much of journalism is not about life and death matters or issues of world-shattering importance.
Consumer journalism is a recommendations machine. It’s about what coat you might look nice in. Or who makes the best television in your price range.
Of course, brand journalists will seek to influence your purchasing decisions. They’ll make claims about their own products. In the modern media world those claims are tested by the crowd. Call it the wisdom of the crowd, call it the collective knowledge and experience of the crowd, call it what you like, but it is the most powerful check we have against marketing guff parading as brand journalism.
If you say eight out of 10 cats prefer your cat food, you’d better be right. Because, if you are not, the crowd will tell you very publicly that you are wrong.
Social media bring transparency. They bring that transparency to everything on social platforms – to pure journalism and to brand journalism. And not before time.
So what is the role of brand journalism?
Brand journalism doesn’t threaten pure investigative journalism, and it doesn’t replace it. It is quite separate to this noble, challenged tradition.
The question of how investigative journalism will be funded in future is an open one. Will it be state funded? Will it be financed through a charge on the general public as with the BBC? Will wealthy individuals, trusts or others – who are prepared to guarantee they will have no influence on the journalists they fund – ride to the rescue of pure journalism?
We don’t know the answer to that question yet.
What we do know is that brand journalism is a reality. The question is not how we prevent brand journalism from subverting pure journalism. I think the question is – or should be – how can we learn to do brand journalism well.
For another view on things, take a look at this post from Fiona Cullinan.