Patrick Barrett, founder, Simpatico PR
Patrick Barrett, founder, Simpatico PR
A view from Patrick Barrett

Think BR: Why is brand journalism important?

Brands are beginning to realise the influence they can wield by fusing marketing and journalism, writes Patrick Barrett, founder, Simpatico PR, and former editor, Media Week.

The phase 'brand journalism' is poised to become the latest buzz-term in the nexus of chatter about advertising, PR and digital media.

It’s a term that immediately begs a number of questions, not least of which are what does brand journalism actually mean and do I really need to know about it?

The answer to the first question is actually pretty simple. Brand journalism is an approach to content creation based on the principles of journalism.

In other words it means a brand or corporate entity adopting the skills and mind-set that any journalist is taught at college and hones during their career: independence, objectivity, clarity, speed, thrift of language, etc. It also means filtering corporate or brand content through the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why that frame the qualitative judgments made in any news room.

The idea is that brands, companies or large organisations can use brand journalism to create stuff about their business, people, products, operations, knowledge, policies, ideas, etc. that is credible and interesting; content that people will genuinely want to consume and circulate.

Thinking as a journalist can also inform advertising creative and marketing strategies, with a view to making the leap from sales pitch to engagement via social media.

People in PR and marketing are increasingly interested in brand journalism because it provides a solution to the challenges and opportunities that the total digitization of media and arrival of social channels have thrown up.

At the heart of the buzz around brand journalism, is this simple fact. Any brand or company can now become a media owner.

You have at arm’s reach a multiplicity of digital channels and a potentially endless audience. The challenge is how to use those channels and engage the audiences you want to influence.

One half of the solution is obviously advertising; which in the online and mobile space is becoming increasingly sophisticated and effective at audience targeting.

But from a PR perspective the other part of the equation has always been the power of earned exposure and the potential of owned channels.

The vast reach and influence of social media and online audiences has forced brands to sit up and ask how their proactive communications in this sphere can become more effective.

The value in creating genuinely good content spans the spectrum of communications from B2B to consumer marketing stunts and can take any form from the written word, to pictures, video, events, info-graphics, presentations, even games. Brand journalism is not about blogging, it’s a universal approach that can help a brand or company articulate its story more effectively.

Corporate brands are waking up to the fact that their websites and social media channels are their shop window to the world, that they attract vast audiences and vitally important micro groups. Whether they need to talk to investors, future employees or interested consumers, they need to do it well and transmit a sense of culture or purpose, for example Coca-Cola increasingly talks about brand story telling in their corporate PR through to consumer marketing

At the other end of the scale, what was Red Bull’s sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner's skydive from the edge of space, if not one of the most memorable pieces of entertainment this year? The entire project was constructed as a brilliant visual news story.

Add into the mix the symbiotic relationship that journalists working at media organisations have with social media, in terms of news generation and commentary, and the argument for credible brand content becomes compelling.

So how should companies approach brand journalism and who should be brand journalists?

Authenticity is critical so effective brand journalism can only be achieved if brands are prepared to adopt a light-touch mind-set. That doesn’t mean a free for all, but rather simply creating the space for it to happen defined by some clear rules of engagement. For example, be honest, be objective, but don’t hurt us.

Should you mention the competition? Well it depends on how brave you are, how secure you feel and how credible you want to be.

So who should be brand journalists? For a start, not everyone is good at journalism or trained to write well or develop great video or pictures. People with a journalistic background will have a natural advantage.

Should brand journalism be done in house? Internal marketing and PR teams should certainly lead and manage the process, but credibility will naturally flow from independent thinking and questioning. How objective can an employee really be; how long before they turn native?

There’s another side to the brand journalism story, which is how does it sit with traditional news media and journalists?

It’s a question that journalists, whose profession is changing beyond recognition due to the enforced new economics of digital media, will have to wrestle with. Ultimately they will always have the power to say no, investigate or criticise.

But embracing brand journalism will enable brands and corporates to use journalistic principles to create their own content that informs and entertains and that audiences will more naturally want to consume.

Patrick Barrett, founder, Simpatico PR, and former editor, Media Week