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«Brand Journalism» | A Tropical Perspective

Source: J. Walter Thompson

This quick note is a sign that my network of cultural references is shifting hemispheres.

«Brand journalism» is apparently a hot but not so smoking hot new topic from Faith Popcorn’s Dictionary of the Futurte, but I had to read it in the Observatório da Imprensa

Carlos Castilho explains the novel concept of «brand journalism».

It is more or less as though a Microsoft public relations man presented himself as “a reporter for Microsoft,” assuming the same professional identity as a reporter for the Folha de S. Paulo or the New York Times.

Hypothesis: It matters to me. Am I alone on this one?

By: Carlos Castilho
Partial translation: C. Brayton

Another adjective is being pinned on journalism, this time with controversial connotations.

My favorite example of a Faith Popcorn-style semantic rebranding is «innovation journalism» — its autohagiographical Wikipedia entry defines it tautologically as «journalism about innovation.» Which is, of course, ridiculous.

At a summit meeting of marketers in Miami in late October, one of the main topics of discussion was “Can public relations evolve into brand journalism?»

Posing the question in that form presupposes that «brand journalism» already exists and that the topic of debate would be whether or not PR was ready to assume its new professional mission.

It is more or less as though a Microsoft public relations man presented himself as “a reporter for Microsoft,” assuming the same professional status as a reporter for the Folha de S. Paulo or the New York Times.

The question naturally sent a chill down the spine of professional journalists, reviving an age-old controversy about the proper separation of marketing and journalism.  But the problem extends well beyond this debate, affecting who controls which aspect of newsroom and corporate operations, and how, and why.

When marketing and PR professionals defend «brand journalism» they are merely echoing a new posture on the part of media companies, concerned with  their public image and wishing to rebuild their social profile as a way of balancing out  negative publicity resulting from their dedication to corporate profits.

The trend is common among large and midsize media companies, and especially those with a presence in the area of e-commerce.

According to this new  point of view, advertising messages no longer add value to the product or service promoted by building consumer awareness.

This is a subtle but significant change  The old concern with advertising sales gives way to the delivery of services to the consumer as a way of gaining his or her trust and confidence. It is here, in the area of services, that we enter the nebulous area between journalism as we know it today and the new, improved «brand journalism».

In this context, it is essential that we rethink journalism in terms of its digital transformation, because it is changes brought about by these ITCs — technologies of information and communication — are clouding the issue as to the proper relationship of journalism, advertising and marketing. The customary distinction held that advertising served ad buyers and shoppers while the newsroom  served the ordinary reader.

Today, we can no longer state so unequivocally that journalism defends the interests of the reader. It is now much more difficult to say what the reader’s interests are, given the enormous diversity of publications on the market.  Nor is it possible to say unequivocally  any longer that journalists serve the public interest. The news agenda of the Brazilian press is influenced heavily by its owners, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

For that reason, professional journalists are searching for a new identity, an identity other than the defense of the public interest.  Elements such as balance, fairness, objectivity and trustworthiness are no longer the sole domain of the journalist, to the extent that media companies try to produce information with these characteristics in order to secure the trust of their readership.

This definition fits the category of «white propaganda» quite nicely.

White propaganda is propaganda which truthfully states its origin. It is the most common type of propaganda. It generally comes from an openly identified source, and is characterized by gentler methods of persuasion than black propaganda (which purports to come from the opposite side to that which actually produced it) and grey propaganda (which has no identifiable source or author). It typically uses standard public relations techniques and one-sided presentation of an argument.

An example that comes to mind, from SourceWatch’s fake news project, was the Intel video release — aired as a piece of original reporting by a Fox affiliate in dairy country somewhere — in which a prominent anthropologist was interviewed discussing Intel products and their revolutionary impact.

The video left out the fact that «Joan Doe, Anthropologist» was actually «Joan Doe, Intel SVP for Anthropological Futurology» — a job title I would love to have some day.

Castilho continues.

It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish a standard journalistic story, produced by traditional editors and journalists, from a piece of «brand journalism» produced by PR professionals

The difference between the professional journalist and the «brand journalist» has less to do with the final product and more to do with the treatment of information. The journalist — staff reporter, freelancer, or non-union practicioner — is beginning to realize that news is no longer a commodity. It has lost much of its commercial value to the excess supply of information on the Internet and become only one of myriad players in the knowledge economy.

This shift is little discussed by traditional professionals, but has been debated thoroughly by Internet operators. Journalism, as a factor in the production of knowledge, becomes more and more concerned with public domain inputs offered by online magazines and newspapers, blogs, social networks, independent news services and communities of interest.

These inputs feed discussion on the social networks, which individual and collective knowledge are transformed into social capital. This in turn provides an index of econonomic, social, political and cultural development of human collectives.

It is not a matter of stating which is best for this purpose or that, or the entrenched defense of a collective interest. This mode of marketing-driven journalism works to emphasize differences and context.  The public needs information on products in order to make choices as consumers. The public seeks out objective sources in order to avoid being cheated, making companies less likely to engage in deceptive practices that would damage their relation with customers — the most important commodity there is in a world of ever more heated global competition.

But the public also needs information to manage life in its communities — a difficult task, as condominium dwellers can testify. Neither Ford nor Petrobras has reason to produce this type of news. And therein lies the lesson. There exists today a whole gamut of news and information that public relations, by its very nature, does not address.

«Brand journalism» cannot be depended on to produce reliable, fair and balanced reporting that empower communities to make political choices during an election, for example.