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Should We Blame Content Marketing for the ‘Death of Business Reporting’?

Sunday is the day of rest, but not on Media Twitter.

Instead of curling up with the Sunday edition of the Times, I spend my Sunday mornings with my iPhone, reading scalding Twitter takes from the nerds I follow. And this past Sunday, an unexpected article was getting clapbacks in my feed—a Washington Post story about the “death of business reporting” thanks to brands deprioritizing media relations and stonewalling journalists.

Columnist Steve Pearlman vented about how uncooperative corporate comms had become, refusing to participate in even positive feature stories. Pearlman identifies two culprits: a lack of trust in the media, and the rise of “owned media,” in which brands to hope to set the narrative about their companies.

As both a freelance journalist and head of strategy at Contently, where we help brands build internal newsrooms, this story cut deep. As a reporter, I’d felt Pearlman’s pain many times. But were we to blame?

Earned, owned, paid

Go to most marketing conferences, you’ll hear a common trope of “owned, earned, and paid” media. Owned media is content that your brand makes. Earned media is when journalists write about your brand. Paid media is when you spend money to get your message in front of people. The idea is that this holy trinity, when used together, will unlock marketing glory.

In recent years, the focus has shifted sharply toward “owned,” which makes sense. After all, if you want journalists to write about your brand, you need to tell a good story about the interesting things your brand is does, or at the very least put out newsworthy research, entertaining campaigns, and other content into the world. And paid media isn’t likely to be successful if the content sucks.

But one of the unintended consequences of the content marketing craze is that less sophisticated companies often expect owned content to be magic. That simply by creating content, they’ll completely own the message around their brand, skyrocketing to the top of search engines and amassing loyal followers on social media that only listen to what they have to say.

It’s an intoxicating idea, especially since there’s no risk of negative, “Oh crap I’m gonna get fired” stories about your brand. But this simplistic view of magical content is a pipe dream.

Why owned needs earned

Backlinks are the biggest factor in Google’s rankings, which means that your content won’t rank if trusted sites (i.e. publishers) aren’t linking to your site. And on average, less than 3 percent of a brand’s followers will see a post on Facebook or Twitter.

Brands certainly can—and do—amass a strong owned audience with great content. On GE Reports, GE breaks news about new innovations inside the company. Its posts go viral on Reddit and serve as the source material for articles across the web. Parse.ly and Newswhip are most follows for media junkies thanks to the awesome, data-backed stories they publish about how Facebook and Google are affecting the media landscape. Red Bull is now the biggest extreme sports media company on earth.

But these brands built their audience by creating great, non-promotional content that other sites covered and linked to, which introduced their content to a new audience and made it easy to find on Google and social. Case in point: Pearlman’s story was inspired by him wanting to write a feature about Clorox because they won a bunch of marketing awards for really good content.

If your content isn’t getting the attention of other sites, there’s a good chance you’re doing something wrong. And if it is winning attention, you should do everything you can to nurture media relations. If you want to build a loyal audience, you need that external validation. Not just to win over Google, but also to win over people.

This is important enough that it’s worth repeating: In a world where any brand can publish anything it wants, external validation from the free press is as important than ever.

“The unbiased objective reporting from a trusted news source is far more powerful for a business than paid marketing or paid content,” explained Sloane Humphrey, president of Powell Communications. “And that’s because of trust. Consumers know the difference.”

But not everyone sees it this way. In Pearlman’s piece, Fortune editor Alan Murray summed up the attitude of corporate comms towards journalists this way: “One, they don’t trust us. And two, they don’t need us.”

So is content marketing to blame for this attitude? Certainly the control that technology now gives brands to own their message is intoxicating. But content marketing works best when it becomes fuel for media relations, not a replacement for it. To save business reporting and brand marketing alike, that message needs to sync in.

For those on the brand side, the trust issue can be largely solved by comms pros prioritizing doing their job well, instead of just keeping their job.

As for not needing journalists? Now that’s something for all of us to rage about on Twitter, because it’s just not true.

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