Brands

5 Journalistic Standards That Don’t Always Apply to Content Marketing

At the end of a long interview for a story about people looking to change careers, my source said the dreaded words: “Please don’t use my real name.”

He didn’t want people to know he was getting out of the field, so I panicked at first. There’s no way I could use an anonymous source. Then I remembered I wasn’t writing for a news outlet. This was branded content. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I’ve been a reporter for over two decades, and journalism’s rules are ingrained in me like passages from the Bible. But these times are a-changin’, so in addition to my regular gigs, I’ve added branded content to my workload.

Although many of the necessary skills are the same, I realized in my moment of panic that not all of journalism’s commandments apply to content marketing. Here are some differences that brand managers and writers alike might want to consider when working together.

Bylines

Usually, journalists love bylines. But in the world of branded content, taking credit for your work is a bit more complicated.

“Sometimes writers who work as journalists and also work for brands … don’t necessarily want to use their names,” said Danielle Shapiro, a freelance journalist who also works as an editor on the brand side, “especially when they write about the same area they cover as a journalist, so as not to compromise their journalistic opportunities.”

For example, if you’re a health reporter, and you write for a workout company’s blog, you may not be able to cover that company in your journalism. Even if you don’t do anything unethical, you could still comprise your credibility with certain publications. To prevent boundaries from blurring, it may be wise to ghostwrite or pursue branded content that doesn’t overlap too much with a journalistic beat.

Interviews

Interviewees love to ask me if they can see a story before it gets published so they can approve it or ask for changes. Journalists may let a source confirm that all quotations are accurate, but it’s not good practice for reporters to show someone an entire story and let them dictate stylistic and narrative choices.

In branded content, however, that’s not necessarily the case. “Clients give me the subject and sources,” said Dahna M. Chandler, who runs Thrive Writing, a writing and marketing business.

Some stories don’t even need interviews. “In five years, I’ve conducted fewer than five interviews,” Stephanie Faris Berry, a freelance writer and children’s novelist, told me. “Most of the time, the marketing firm does the interviewing and sends over the quotes they want included.”

Research

Google anything, and you’ll be able to find an article that supports your thesis. You’ll also be able to find articles that refute it.

When reporting on my science and health beat, I need to cite peer-reviewed research. Assertions don’t go unchecked. But depending on the client, you can get away with less stringent sourcing for branded content. One of my clients in the skincare industry, for instance, is less interested in studies as long as what’s being said is positive and helpful.

Wikipedia will get flagged, but for the most part, fact-checking is just starting to gain widespread traction in content marketing, where supporting evidence can take a backseat to promotion and brand awareness.

“The lines between traditional journalism and branded content work are blurring,” Shapiro said, pointing out that some brands, to their credit, have adopted journalistic principles. “Most sophisticated marketing content tries to use the best features of journalism. Both genres try to tell evocative stories that readers want to read and connect with.”

Objectivity

A main tenet of journalism is to strive for objectivity. That doesn’t mean journalists lack opinions and ignore angles, but they usually try to explore all sides of a story. Yet in sponsored content, that exploration process may not be as thorough.

“I’m often asked not to mention competitors of a business in my content,” Berry said.

A tech company once assigned me an article about the dangers of Pinterest, but after some back and forth, I realized my contact wasn’t interested in hearing from some experts who considered security risks on the social network overblown. Had I been doing a traditional news article, I would’ve had to address the other side of the story and talk to security experts who didn’t agree with the original thesis.

When beginning a new relationship, it’s important for brand editors to be upfront about the scope of an article, specifically outlining who shouldn’t be interviewed and how much objectivity is necessary.

Purpose

Journalism and branded content have different end goals. In most cases, journalism serves the public interest; branded content may be educational or enlightening, but its key function is to serve the brand. Sometimes this happens directly, by mentioning the product, and sometimes indirectly, by promoting brand values in, say, a tourism story about climbing or lifestyle piece about decorating.

That difference in purpose will never change. There’s really no such thing as “brand journalism,” a buzzword that gets thrown around at times. But many brands still provide usual information to their audiences.

As Shapiro put it, “Even when the stories brands tell and publish also help promote products or services, it doesn’t mean the information isn’t reliable or useful or important.”

Image by Atypeek / Getty
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