Conversations about Creating Compelling Content

Why you should hire a Corporate Storyteller or Reporter, not a “Brand Journalist”

David Meerman Scott first started talking about brand journalism back in 2009.

He urged companies to hire what he calls a “brand journalist” to help companies tell their stories and help them become content publishers. 

Last month, Scott again urged marketers or companies who struggle to write great content to hire journalists to do what he calls “brand journalism.”

 

I love Scott’s idea, but dislike his phrase “brand journalism.”  I’m not alone.

 

When it was introduced, Scott’s concept touched off a flurry of debate from journalists claiming that no internal employee would ever be about to investigate their employer and write about them objectively.

Journalists worried Scott was advocating writing “advertorials,” a concept created by advertising departments to sell ad space filled with corporate product-based copy thinly disguised as editorial content.

 

Those attacking the concept missed the point of Scott’s idea, partly because he uses the word “journalism” which is misleading and inappropriate.

 

Ditch “Brand Journalism”

I’d like to propose that Scott ditch the term “Brand Journalism” and adopt a phrase more appropriate, such as “Corporate Storytelling,” which could be performed by “Corporate Reporters” or “Corporate Storytellers.” Or perhaps he could use Corporate Content Development, Branded Content, or even Custom Content Production.

I’ll admit those names aren’t as sexy. But they are less emotionally charged, not misleading and are more appropriate.

 Here’s why:

Journalists abide by a code of ethics that demands objectivity, independence, and accountability solely for the public good.

 

Coupling the word “journalist” with “corporate” or “brand” is an oxymoron, and an affront to practicing journalists, as Scott has learned. (And most likely enjoyed the controversy and traffic it has produced.)

I agree what journalists can do is of great benefit for marketers and companies adding content development to their marketing toolkits.

Journalists are great storytellers, fountains of ideas, and bring outside perspective and objectivity that is different than that of a customers or competitor.

They have a different mindset that starts with the audience – or for companies, that of your customers.

They write tight, have a nose for what’s newsworthy, and understand how to write for readers. They know how to turn jargon and convoluted concepts into clear prose, and relish the challenge of rendering simplicity from the complex.

Journalists know how to write quickly, how to meet deadlines and how to juggle multiple tasks and projects. When they write, they include context – why something matters, and they write about people, not products.

It’s not Journalism

Several companies are already benefitting from hiring corporate reporters, including Eloqua, which hired Jesse Noyes, who formerly worked for the Boston Herald and Boston Business Journal; and Bob Evans, formerly of InfoWorld and now communications strategist at SAP.

Other corporate reporters or storytellers include Xilinx’s Mike Santarini, Cadence Design Systems’ Richard Goering, and more recently,  Metro’s Nick Christensen, a reporter who now reports for Portland, Oregon’s regional government instead of reporting on it.

But these folks aren’t practicing journalism, they aren’t journalists, and all three would be the first to say so. They are corporate storytellers, and corporate reporters creating content that provides insight, analysis and expertise for their audiences.

 

Hey David, would you consider changing your sexy term to something more appropriate? Readers, what do you think?

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15 Responses to Why you should hire a Corporate Storyteller or Reporter, not a “Brand Journalist”

  1. Sure – the term is misleading in a way. However it absolutely gets people to think. Marketing departments are full of, well, marketers. Not storytellers. Who is good at telling a story? A journalist of course. So while I agree with your thoughts, getting a CEO to buy off on a “storyteller” is a tougher sell. And who would that be? A novelist?

  2. David,

    LOL – a corproate novelist. Now that’s a title we might see in the future at a large corporation with many, many stories to tell, and many twists to follow.

    I agree, corporate storyteller would be a tough sell. Corporate reporter or even content writer would be much eaiser to sell.

  3. Tyler says:

    Former journalists, or those trained in journalism but not practicing (hey, that’s me) are definitely good fits.

    I’ve experimented with the storyteller title, but that makes people think of novelists, like Scott says above.

    And not all journalists have the same standards and ethics as they did years ago. They listen a little to much to guys like Rupert Murdoch and then blame bad stories on someone else.

    I agree with his idea, but think the term used by both parties doesn’t quite fit.

  4. Tyler,

    So what title do you find works best? I still straddle both worlds as a freelance journalist – writing for publications, and as a content writer for my corporate clients. Have you used corproate reporter?

  5. Dave says:

    Somehow, “corporate novelist” sounds about right. Speaking solely as a consumer, we think at least 90% of what comes from a corporate marketing department is pure fiction, anyway.

    Now being less flippant, I’m not sure what term would be best. “Corporate storyteller” also has a rather negative connotation for the intent, while “corporate reporter” is no better than “corporate journalist.” In the eyes of the public, reporters and journalists are one and the same (like drummers and percussionists). I’m at a loss right now to think of anything better, though.

  6. Jeez, it’s just custom publishing, has been around for years, and I’ve done tons and tons of it. And yes, I grew up in the newspaper business, so know how to report and tell a good story.

  7. As a former journalist turned communication advisor, I don’t think the term brand journalist should offend anyone.

    The journalistic profession is becoming more and more entrepreneurial because of various pressures coming from the financial and new technology spheres. Media managers are confused; they put a lot of money into developing new content distribution channels and the last thing they care about is quality content and reader / subscriber management.

    This is sad for the media world, I agree. Yet, it frees a pool of talent that can be used in the corporate sphere. The term corporate reporter and corporate storyteller sound stiff to me.

    Brand journalism has a brilliant potential that we haven’t even started to explore. So, thanks David Meerman Scott and David Henderson for coining the term, I’m honored to be able to learn from you and thus bring the concept to the Czech Republic and to Central and Eastern Europe.

  8. Jesse Noyes says:

    I meant to post here earlier but have been tied up in travel and meetings.

    Great post, Sharon. It was especially good to see the other examples. Feels less lonely out here in the ether.

    I absolutely agree that we corporate reporters are not practicing journalism in the traditional sense. Rather, we are bring over editorial principles from our experience in the newsroom to professional field.

    But, Roger, I have to disagree with the assertion that this is custom publishing. I, for one, don’t spend as much time helping develop strict marketing materials as I do building an actual editorial product. Also, I don’t work on a contract basis. This means Eloqua is my only client and I am deeply involved in the company’s ongoing initiatives while at the same time serving in an outbound reporting capacity.

    I think what companies are looking for is not just a reporter, but an editor. This means someone who not only performs the duties of a reporter, but also takes charge of the editorial operation, identifies and develops voices internally, and continually refines the editorial product.

    Lots more to learn in this brave new world. Thanks for the post and the mention!

    Jesse
    @noyesjesse
    gplus.to/jessenoyes

  9. Great post and good comments! We call our approach Brandtelling (Brand+Storytelling) and our team are Brandtellers. It combines many of the aspects that you’re discussing here while avoiding being vague — storytelling is open — or conflicting with ethics of journalists. That said, my team is comprised of former reporters and they adhere to good journalistic ethics and approaches in developing brand stories.

    Arthur Germain
    @ArthurGermain

  10. Dave,

    The world is changing, and consumers will start noticing that 90 percent isn’t going to be advertising but information, and the companies that understand content or inbound marketing, and those that truly understand their customers, are becoming impartial. I’ll admit it will probably take years before consumers realize this.

    I threw the term corporate reporter into the mix because I think reporter is not identical to journalist and doesn’t carry the same connotations. For example, court reporters have been around for a long time, and they have nothing to do with journalism.

  11. Cristina,

    I think there are some companies that aren’t thinking about quality content – content mills come to mind – but a vast majority of the U.S. companies recognizing the value in giving their customers the information and help they need do worry about the quality of information and content they are creating. I’m unfamilar with a lot of the content being created in other countries, so I don’t know what’s happening on that playing field.

    The word corporate does have a serious stiff sound to it, which is why I think content writer, which many people are using, might be the answer. I agree, though, that content writer doesn’t carry the same message that David’s brand journalist does.

  12. Thanks Jesse.

    And you are welcome. I’m happy to make the world a little less lonely for you. While there are many freelance journalists and content writers out helping companies, actually being in a full-time position is quite different.

    I really like your comment about companies needing editors as well as reporters to oversee the editorial product and content. With some 66,000 news people out of the business in the past 10 years, I’m sure many editors are struggling with the reinvention process. Corporate Editor would be a tough sell, but maybe the translation in the corporate world is content project manager or content manager.

    Editors do a great job of creating strategy, overseeing many of the moving parts, finding the latest tools and bringing everything and everyone together to create content products. While these skills overlap somewhat with those of a marketing manager, editors bring an objective perspective much like a reporter and publication knowledge not found in many marketers. Do you know of any editors that have made such a transition? It would be interesting to track their transformation as well.

    On my editorial calendar is a topic I hope to include you in, which is what it’s like to work as a full time reporter inside a company, and what challenges, if any, you’ve faced.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  13. Hi Arthur,

    I’ve seen several companies pop up that are taking a similar approach, some by former journalists and others by savvy marketers recognizing the value journalists bring to the table. Good for you! The collection of new companies adopting this strategy will be interesting to watch.

    I think Brandtelling is an interesting name, but I wonder if “telling” without the context of “storytelling” doesn’t lean towards being seen as one-sided, as in “I tell you something.” Leans towards advertising in my journalistic mind.

  14. Billy Thieme says:

    I think there’s a valid point being just missed here, both with the post and in the comments, and that’s that there’s a huge opportunity here for both corporations and true journalists to facilitate change – for the greater (and lesser) good – that comes with the name and title in question.

    True journalists do “abide by a code of ethics that demands objectivity, independence, and accountability solely for the public good.” Corporations, and business in general (one could argue) do not – or if they do, their code of ethics are decidedly one-sided by comparison. This is precisely WHY we need true journalists in these positions. And they should be called “journalists” for the same reasons.

    I’ll explain:

    – Corporations are increasingly being exposed for business, environmental, ethical and other practices that vary from questionable to downright abhorrent. We could argue that these practices come from completely different world views than the status quo, but that’s fodder for another post.

    – Journalists are experts at recognizing the stories behind these practices, as well as their perceptions, effects, ramifications and so on, and they’re gifted with the ability to explain all sides simply, and without bias, to fuel legitimate debate (in most cases – perhaps we should put some of the current UK issues aside just now).

    The common perception is that these two phenomena work against each other, to say the least. But “Brand Journalism,” in name and deed, carries with it a potential to bring the two together – not just on paper, but in practice.

    Consider: If a mega-corporation – or small business, for that matter – begins a process that will invariably lead to (1) negative reaction from the media (that the corporations largely fail to understand, or try to manipulate anyway), or (2) an actual ethical, environmental, economical or other crisis, how valuable would it be to have a true journalist on hand, (some night say “in their corner,” but I would stress journalistic ethics remain an absolute premium here) to help analyze the potential situation beforehand?

    These journalists could be instrumental in helping businesses avoid misstep, without the trappings of marketing to hold them back (meaning that the availability of “spin” would not outweigh the potential outcome). And, in the long run, they also carry the potential to change the whole process of corporate action, presumably for the better (again, assuming the absolute necessity for true journalistic ethics).

    By the same token – in the event of a catastrophe (and we have to remember to remain completely objective here), even the corporation/business has the right to tell their story. Not all decisions businesses make come from a place of solely marketing and/or profit – nor do they have to. Brand Journalists could help bring true, transparent perspective inside the business – and there’s no reason they have to step on Marketing’s toes to do this – and maybe add some invaluable self-control and self-awareness to the corporate/business sector.

    This all begs the “independent counsel” question, of course. If a “Brand Journalist” works for the business in question, how can any other, and potentially competitive, entity trust that the story is actually being told? This is why the word “Journalist” needs to remain in the title, so that the long history of journalistic integrity remains inextricably intertwined with the position. After all, what reason do we have to trust any other journalist, except for the trust that the title and tradition bares?

    To really encourage the concept’s full engagement, acceptance and true potential, though, the name “Journalist” needs to be pared inseparably with “Brand” or “Corporate.” Otherwise the manipulation of semantics just opens the doors for further message manipulation, and true journalism has the potential to be excused. Keeping the two seemingly clashing terms together has the potential of a win-win for both the consumer and the public and the business: “journalist” denies the opportunity for “spin,” and “brand” implies that the brand/corporation/business in question is willing to self-report in a way that can only breed a higher level of trust.

    I say it’s necessary to keep the name – and that, in fact, it’s necessary to identify and take advantage its intrinsic value.

  15. You can call me anything you want as long as I get paid and you don’t call me late for dinner.

    I’ve been doing “brand journalism” and content marketing since the 1980’s at IBM. Before that I was a national magazine and newspaper reporter, contributing editor, stringer, feature writer, managing editor, etc… Lots of titles.

    It’s all semantics.

    The lines between a classical journalist and a content maker are blurred almost beyond recognition.

    I’ve had magazines ask me to write puff pieces for advertisers for their news section. I’ve produced videos for companies that ended up as segments on Discovery or a local affiliate, I’ve produced “News Minutes” for radio that focused on an advertiser’s product or service, and on and on.

    One thing I’ve learned since sitting in media company editorial meetings pitching stories: There is little, if any, objectivity.

    The fact that an editor or editorial staff would chose to run a story on a celebrity divorce over the Marines that were killed this week in a war zone, automatically demonstrates bias. They are biased based on what their audience wants vs. what really is important.

    The act of choosing a particular story, one quote over another, who to quote, a fact over another fact, is an act of bias. There’s very little that’s “objective” about it.

    And that doesn’t include purposefully spinning a story the way media companies do. They have their “editorial positions” on issues and as a reporter, you better follow them, or out you go.

    Each writer and editor brings all their experience and baggage to the party. You can try to fake objectivity, but using judgment about a story is an act of subjectivity.

    The news business is a business first. The “code of journalism ethics” is a fairy tale [Oh, there I’ve gone and said it – let the hate email begin]. Nice thing to aspire too but not followed or in most cases not practical. The code is to sell eyeballs and ears, as many as you can, so you can increase ad revenue.

    The only reason there is evening news from a local affiliate TV station is to put content around the advertising – not the other way around. Do you really care about the car wrecks, burglaries somewhere else, weather emergencies outside your neighborhood, etc? There is a “code” for that?

    It’s great to tell all sides of a story. That’s what hard news and feature journalists are supposed to do. But it’s rare when it happens for a lot of reasons: time, space, budget, knowledge…

    Most Americans trust journalists less than lawyers or car and real estate salespeople. Why? Because they know objectivity is a myth. They would rather that the writer/producer just be honest about it.

    Brand Journalism (or whatever you want to call it) – helpful information that customers and prospects care about, usually told as a story – has driven more press to my employers and clients than thousands of press releases.

    In fact, I have publishers from newspapers, magazines, and GMs from TV stations contact me constantly to get in on the action. They figure it’s better to find a way to work together than compete. It’s all about the quality of the content and the analytics. Get more eyeballs than them, and the press will come running.

    How about this: I’m a for-profit content maker. No? Better yet, just call me paid.