Can public relations become 'brand journalism'? What is it?

Can public relations become 'brand journalism'? What is it?

Summary: Public relations companies are increasingly having to produce a lot of media for their clients. Does that make them into some new type of journalist?

TOPICS: Great debate

I'm in Miami this week taking part in the Holmes Report's Global PR Summit and the topic of "Brand Journalism."

I know nothing about the subject but no one else does either because it's a made up term that is in the early stages of being defined. Nothing wrong in that, I do it all the time but I try to think of concepts that make sense and this one doesn't make any sense at all.

Flacks that want to be hacks...

"Brand Journalism" is hot in the PR community and I can see why. PR people are hoping that they can re-brand themselves as Brand Journalists and the world will be a better place for it, and they'll feel better too.

"Hi, I'm a brand journalist, what do you do?"

But it makes little sense. Take a look at this potential introduction:

"Hi, I'm a journalist from the Wall Street Journal"

"Hi, I'm a journalist from Hugo Boss."

It sounds ridiculous.

Will the Hugo Boss journalist announce a new line with a fair and balanced perspective, with comments from Zegna, Ralph Lauren, etc?

Or will the result of brand journalism read like a press release or an advertorial?

I have little confidence in PR people becoming 'brand journalists' for the simple fact that PR is not journalism.

There's no such thing as brand journalism, or innovation journalism, or anything-else journalism. Journalism is journalism. When you see it you'll know it.

Back in 2004 when I became the first journalist to leave a major newspaper, the Financial Times to become a full time "journalist blogger" there was a lot of confusion over the difference between blogger and journalist. I've spoken at many conferences and over the years a common question was, "Are bloggers journalists?" and, "Should journalists be licensed to practice their profession?"

My answer has always been that journalism is what journalists do, when you see the result you know it. Some bloggers are journalists but they don't need a license to type. The only definition that matters is this: If someone produces journalism and does it consistently then that person is a journalist.

When you see journalism you know it for what it is. When you see a press release you don't see journalism. PR is not brand journalism we already have a term for it why invent another?

A Pulitzer for Brand Journalism...

If Hugo Boss journalists or Versace hacks, produce an investigative series into child labor in the clothing industry, or something like that, I'll eat a Hugo Boss pocket square. And the Pulitzer committee will give them a prize.

My problem is with the term not with the changes in PR and communications. I prefer words to be used accurately while many in PR tend to use words to promote and market.

I prefer the term corporate media. Corporate media spans the entire spectrum of publishing by a corporation. It can include material that is journalistic in its construct and intent. For example, large companies such as Cisco, IBM, and Intel employ people who used to be senior journalists and veteran broadcasters, to produce corporate media but is that journalism?

If corporations want to produce journalism they have to approach this goal in a different way. I think corporate media could win a Pulitzer prize if done right. And I believe it will happen -- I'd like to help make that happen.

But trying to rebrand PR work as "brand journalism" is not the way forward.

EC=MC - Every Company Is A Media Company

I was the first to talk about how every company is a media company - a concept understood far better today than 7 years ago. I'm glad more people understand this today and it seems that "brand journalism" is born out of that, and a desire to try to figure out what does it mean for a company to be a media company, which is exactly the right thing to do because it moves the conversation to the next stage.

A company that understands the concept that it is a media company, even if it makes diapers or energy drinks, has taken an important step forward. But that's just the start. The next stage is: How do we become a media company?

If you want to do journalism you have to instill and insist on journalistic principles being integrated into the culture of the company. And you have to have media professionals for this equation to work.

However, the conversation about 'every company is a media company' is exclusively being led by PR and marketing people. There are no media professionals involved. Which is why I must commend Morgan McLintic at Lewis PR, for inviting me onto the panel about brand journalism. Lewis PR is among the very few that understand the need to bring media professionals into this important conversation. And to do so as equals.

Many companies tell me they are bringing in journalists into their media ventures. I'm glad that they are doing that, however, if they work for communications and marketing heads, they are employees and will do as they are told. Marketing and PR will not able to resist tampering with the product.

That's one of many things that needs to change in the 'every company is a media company' story and how it moves to the next stage: execution.

I'll report more on this topic following my panel later this afternoon, with my host and moderator Morgan McLintic from Lewis PR, John Earnhardt from Cisco (my original inspiration for 'every company is a media company', Jesse Noyes from Eloqua, and Simon Sproule from Nissan Motor Co. [Nissan is producing a general news program]. Reserve your seats it should be a good one:

GPRS 2012 | Are PR People Ready to Become Brand Journalists?

Topic: Great debate

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  • Well, it had to happen...

    with the real journalists becoming biased so badly to the Socialist side, why wouldn't a person try and make money off yellow journalism? Lies and deceit are the rule of the day at the Grey Lady, which is supposed to be the bastion of good reporting. If you let people know you are from a company's PR department, I think you are much more deserving of a Pulitzer than someone who is biased but pretends not to be.
    Tony Burzio
  • Sounds like "advocacy journalism"...

    ...a contradiction in terms. Journalists are in the public information business; PR specialists, advertisers, and others in the persuasion business are called "propagandists". It's impossible to be both a journalist and a propagandist at the same time; you're either one or the other.
    John L. Ries
  • /newrooms

    An interesting piece, thank you - and I hope that more companies will adopt a more editorial approach to their PR, marketing and social media communications. One company to watch for trends is /newsrooms - based in Toronto.
  • If not brand journalism...

    Tom, this is a great question for debate. In most respects, "brand journalism" very accurately describes the role and the product produced. If it's used to describe the process, I don't think there's any confusion. To extend your argument, journalism is not journalism because it's an information product. That is particularly the case with technology and trade media who often are writing about products in much the same way as brand journalists. The exception of course is that Apple will never write a scathing review of it's own latest product for example. But neither will many "journalists" fearful of getting cut off by bad reviews. The challenge is some companies will be tempted to act without integrity and honesty a la Nokia's recent marketing of its Lumia 920. With recent plagiarism by high profile journalists, and Pew reports of drops in trust in media, I'm not sure the high ground can't be shared with honest brand journalists. Anyhow, good topic.
  • funny

    Brand journalists... kinda like priest babysitters.
  • Is it really that ridiculous ?

    Is it really that ridiculous? I own a PR Agency, yet have a regular byline in political magazines, trade magazines, and very well read high ranking .com sites.
    Lets take it a step further – how many people does ZDNET employ ? Would it be hard for say Microsoft to employ more writers and write all day – and so what if they lose $10 or $20 Million annually and it goes as a marketing budget. Yet their SEO and other benefits of controlling their own content.
    The times they are a changing.
    Ronn Torossian
    Ronn Torossian
    • Not ridiculous at all

      Companies need ways to engage their customers and online all you are is content, so why won't control the conversation and produce your own. It makes perfect sense to me.
  • Call it what you want...

    Whether it's "brand journalism" or "content marketing," it's here to stay. Consumers of content that originates from brands understand that it might not be coming from a neutral viewpoint, but they're not looking for Woodward & Bernstein.

    As I pointed out here (, professional sports teams are the best example of brand journalism - they cover themselves exhaustively and consumers generally love it ... even though they know it's coming from a slanted perspective. The goal of brand journalism is to engage the audience and create trust; the brand can't create trust if all it ever does it talk about its great products.
    • You may be right, but...'s marketing, not journalism. The two are mutually exclusive.
      John L. Ries
  • Tom's right, there's no such thing as brand journalism

    Brand journalism is what used to be called product publicity. Somewhere along the line in the PR business the terms publicity and publicist took on a negative connotation so you don't hear them used much anymore. So has the term public relations itself. Most of us who have done PR for many years, agencies included, now say we do strategic communications.

    Product publicity by definition is a one-sided story designed to present a product (or, as everything today is called a "brand") in a favorable light. A journalistic news story seeks to present a balanced account.

    Tom's concept of corporate media expands the notion of product publicity. It's a very good concept with great potential if it’s done under the domain of public relations. The danger is, as Tom suggests, that it will be taken over by the folks in marketing, who will push to generate transactions rather than win hearts and minds. As a practical matter, marketing has already subsumed public relations in many if not most organizations.
    • What danger?

      Everyone keeps talking about the danger of PR/marketing taking over the messaging like it's a bad thing. Who will produce it if not them? We are bombarded by Ads on TV and billboards everywhere that we can't turn off - why do we accept that and not complain that it's bias and one sided!?

      I know we want to live in a world free of bias and only "balanced" accounts but with social media, the truth is out there and you will make your own decision. I get your points but see no clear and present danger because it's now up to the consumer to figure out right from wrong.
  • Its happening now, so don't fight it.

    Brand journalism, PR journalism, corporate media, product publicity, content marketing – whatever you want to call it, it’s happening now and will only continue to grow. We are arguing semantics here.

    With the traditional media outlets struggling to stay afloat with their evolving business models, there is less news "coverage" for PR professional to work with. In order to fill the gap and satisfy the need of their customers and consumers, PR professionals are going to start producing even more content then they are now.

    At the PRSAIC a few weeks ago I sat in on a panel with the CEO’s of the top agencies
    (GH, H+K, Airfoil, Ketchum) and they all admitted they go way beyond “traditional” PR now. They now provide their clients with earned, owned, paid, shared and promoted. Basically whatever the client needs.

    Everyone has a job to do and we are all trying to do it better. For instance, you wrote this article to promote your panel and make a plug for everyone on it. I am perfectly fine with that because you wrote compelling and thought provoking content, which a lot of very talented PR professionals are capable of doing. Everyone has a voice now, so whatever you call it, just don't fight it.