How Do You Bring Brand Publishing’s Blurred Lines Into Focus? (Hint: Not By Twerking)

If content marketing had a theme song, it would probably be “Blurred Lines.”

Is it advertising? Journalism? Media? Something in between? Ask 10 content marketers, and you’d probably get 10 different answers, hedged with a lot of qualifiers. Everyone wants to create great content, but few people want to take ownership of the rules that govern branded content and the ethical quandaries that complicate it.

The Wall Street Journal would never do that.”

At the Contently Brand Publishing Summit, we found a few brave souls from the biggest names in brand publishing to discuss how the industry can bring those blurred lines into focus.

The Authenticity Sniff Test

“It’s all about authenticity,” said Rod Kurtz, Editor-at-Large for AMEX Open Forum. “Good, authentic stories is what’s going to drive [brand publishing].”

But what does authenticity have to do with ethical lines? Neil Chase, Vice President of Content at LifeLock, explained how an inauthentic, self-promotional piece of content can so easily ring untrue with readers, undermining the authority of the brand, as well as the publication in which it appears.

“If the Wall Street Journal all of a sudden has a sponsored content story on the front page, you’d look at it and say, ‘Really? There is a sponsored content story on the front page and they got paid to write this story about great purchases at Target?'” Chase said.

“The Wall Street Journal would never do that.”

As a result, branded content requires a sniff test to determine whether it’s authentic: Does the content feel right? Does it seem to belong?

However, the sniff test is only the first step in drawing ethical lines. Chase recalled that authenticity was only one criteria that content was required to meet during his time with Federated Media. In addition to being authentic, he said, it had to be transparent.

New lines, drawn with “graceful transparency”

Robin Riddle is now the Global Publisher for the Wall Street Journal’s Custom Studios. When working for a brand that has built its name on ethical reporting for more than a century, it’s crucial to make sure that the lines you draw are visible from far away.

“You want to produce products that are commercially driven … because that’s the reality of the industry,” said Riddle. “But they have to be clearly signposted. The mantra and ethos that we work to is graceful transparency.”

That means, Riddle explained, that the identity of each piece of content is made abundantly clear. Sponsored content is definitely marked as such, and so is news content. Because, ultimately, a publisher is not a good home for branded content if it’s own brand deflates.

“What we’re never going to do on the editorial side, on the new newsroom side,” said Riddle, “is put the brand out to risk.”

Applying the old publishing lines to the new

Upholding a standard of transparency is important to brand publishing for the same reasons that it’s been important to the advertiser-supported news industry for decades. Should a publisher cover a negative breaking news story about a major sponsored-content partner? And if they do, should they temporarily suspend their sponsored posts until the news blows over? These were questions asked of the panel, but they are essentially the same questions that newspapers have been asked about their advertisers for decades.

The mantra and ethos that we work to is graceful transparency.”

On the flip side, how does a brand handle negative stories about itself? If you’re committed to the idea that the best content is pure storytelling, said Managing Editor of GE Reports Tomas Kellner, then brands must report the bad with the good — even if that’s a tough idea to swallow.

“One of the elements of a story is conflict,” said Keller. “Nobody wants to read a story where nothing is at stake.”

Adhering to that principle may never have been more difficult than when GE was faced with the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. When an earthquake triggered a nuclear meltdown within GE reactors in Japan, GE Reports was faced with a tough decision: to publish or not to publish?

The 1971 reactors were theirs. A whistleblower emerged saying he had tried to tell the company they weren’t safe. Every news outlet was reporting the story. GE could have quietly weathered the storm. But instead, their publishing arm went to work, sending reporters to their own nuclear facilities in North Carolina to dig into the story.

” You cutback on the spin and tell the story straight as it is,” said Keller. “We laid it all out and used GE Reports as a platform to really tell our story.”

That involved pulling archived blueprints of reactors, contacting retired engineers, creating schematic designs of the reactors and writing stories about the facilities. And through honest, investigative journalism-style digging, the GE Reports writers ended up finding a paper trail to prove the very whistleblower who had pointed the finger at GE had, in fact, signed off on the safety of the reactors himself.

You cutback on the spin and tell the story straight as it is.”

It’s a lesson that the ethos that traditional media has abided by for decades — authenticity, transparency, and a commitment to investigative journalism — can bring the blurred lines of brand publishing into focus. Though brand publishing seems new, it’s actually quite old. After all, as Kellner noted, long before he became a corporate journalist for GE, Kurt Vonnegut held the same position for the company.

“All of us who think we’re pioneers in content marketing, that we created this stuff,” said Chase. “No, we’re just doing it better and faster. At least faster.”

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? It’s something we created at Contently because we believe in a world where marketing is helpful, and businesses grow by telling stories that people love. Take advantage of our tools and talent and come build that world with us.

Image via Debby Wong

Image by Debby Wong /

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