4 Experts on the Future of ‘Corporate Journalism’ and Sponsored Content

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One of this week’s most interesting stories came via David Carr of The New York Times. In “Journalism, Independent or Not,” he addressed the rise of brands or corporations that want to make their own news, be it through sponsored content written by someone else or “outlets” created and managed by the companies themselves.

In this case, the site was created by Verizon and its advertising agency — but Chevron recently received a bit of heat for doing the same sort of thing.

As the journalistic discipline continues to struggle, more and more businesses are attempting to control or, at least, contribute to the larger conversation by creating their own stories. And many PR firms have launched content creation shops to better serve such clients (Edelman’s Creative Newsroom is a good example).

But how can these companies create real value by achieving a balance between paid promotional materials and real, substantive news?

We asked four industry experts for their takes on the trend.

First, from Dave Armon, who recently joined Brand.com as its CEO and published a LinkedIn piece today clarifying the difference between sponsored content, native advertising and what he calls “paid-earned,” in which “brands commission and launch reporter-written articles on news sites.” [Disclaimer: our own sites host such content from Brand.com.]

“The Ad Age piece last week, and David Carr’s rehash, blog pointed out endemic flaws in content marketing and reinforced the unique value true journalists provide.

But editorial objectivity almost never exists, even among organizations that pride themselves as arbiters of truth. In B2B, publishers are remiss to write critically about brands that enter awards competitions and attend gala awards events and conferences, or about service providers who buy ads and rent booths at events. Consumer-facing media generally don’t sling mud at the auto dealers who barter cars for ads.

Despite this revenue-driven pressure to write safe content, plenty of news organizations get it right most of the time. I believe that will also be the case with brands that dedicate resources, in the form of experienced news professionals and a sufficient operating budget, to thought leadership and curation of content relevant to their target audiences.

One company that nailed the formula a few years ago and established itself as the de facto trade site for computer security news is UK-based Sophos Inc., which publishes the site Naked Security.

Because Sophos covers all news — good and bad — from the sector, it has credibility.”

From Gary Johnson, president of brand journalism company MSP-C:

“Seven out of 10 consumers can’t distinguish native advertising (sponsored content) from other types of content. So in an effort not to destroy consumer trust, companies should clearly identify brand-delivered content. Above all, brands need to make certain the content they deliver is original, relevant and useful to the end consumer.

From Andrew Graham, co-founder of Clear, who recently wrote a post declaring that “Corporate Journalism Is Better Than No Journalism“:

“To understand the opportunities that corporate journalism offers, think about trust as a kind of currency that companies can earn and then use later on. Companies can earn it by informing readers about things that don’t have anything to do with the company’s products, services, or corporate messaging. Then they can use it when there is a reason to make a nuanced point about something genuinely controversial or newsy.

The strategy is about the long game. It requires very complete and very obvious transparency from the onset because, in this scenario, you can’t spend the currency you don’t have.

The strategy falls apart if a company that sponsors a news site avoids things that are newsworthy — even the angles the company would rather not have to address in public.”

Finally, similar thoughts from Peter LaMotte, SVP and digital chair at Levick:

 “The public is willing to read something on the Verizon news service as long as they’re told that this is a Verizon article.

In the old days, the idea was to buy advertising around well-read publications. But no one is visiting these central locations anymore, and content is coming from everywhere; the source is almost irrelevant.

The new approach is to build brand outlets based on aggregator-style sites. Keep in mind that, in these cases, the brands are dictating what’s going to be said — and they avoid specific topics as Verizon avoided covering net neutrality. This goes back to the need for complete transparency.”

What is PR’s role in such efforts?

“Promotion of the brand sites as standalone entities. The approach is to suggest that these brands have the resources to bring you the most up-to-date, engaging content…from their point of view relating to their industries and products.

It’s almost like a political campaign in that they simply want to be involved in the larger conversation; if they can control/influence even a fraction of that conversation, then they have succeeded.

You can’t blame tech for the current state of journalism, but we’ve created an environment in which a corporation can compete for eyeballs. Maybe…just maybe…Verizon will show us that a brand can control news by attacking it head-on.”

Is there a middle ground between journalism and marketing?

“One of the reasons BuzzFeed is so popular is that people are becoming de-sensitized to branded content and consume it unwittingly.

The kinds of articles published by Verizon are going to get shared if they enter the right streams, but otherwise the project is just an unbranded Verizon blog — and no one wants that. You may also notice that the company was trying to passively deceive the reader by running ads for Verizon on a site funded by Verizon. What a coincidence.”

How do you see this trend developing?

“Communications is a game of trial and error. If this kind of project fails, rest assured that they will try something else in the near future.

But the old rules still apply: if you are dishonest, you might get away with it at first, but eventually it will come back to haunt you.”