Corporate Journalism and the Benefits of Authenticity

Lately, I’ve been categorizing my editorial consulting work as “corporate journalism” – the practice of creating balanced, fact-based content for marketers. It’s a more authentic alternative to the usual PR drivel and marketing fluff that companies have traditionally used to annoy customers, journalists and other target groups. The content can take many forms: white papers (reported with real-person interviews, not made-up quotes), articles, blog posts, video, etc. – all the stuff you’d see on a typical media site. The content development work is also similar to traditional journalism: understand the target audience (customers vs. readers), identify the experts (internal and external), and get them to help you tell the story (through interviews or direct contributions). The result is more engaging, more believable marketing communications. (And it’s a good next career step for disgruntled, aging journalist types.)

I take no credit for coining the term. I first heard it from David Churbuck when talking about the time we spent together at McKinsey helping to re-do the company’s knowledge management platform (a Herculean task). He may or may not have borrowed the phrase from the 1999 book “Beyond Spin.” From the publisher’s description:

In Beyond Spin, three experts detail the techniques of corporate journalism–an ingenious communications model that hinges on open, accurate, and strategically weighted reporting inside a corporation.  

I wouldn’t go so far as calling the practice “ingenious,” but corporate journalism is an important step away from traditional PR/marketing. Churbuck takes a broader view of the concept than the book’s apparent (I never read it) focus on internal mar-com; he uses the phrase to refer to the lens through which companies must view external communications as well:

Organizations need to report upon themselves with the objective eye of a journalist, holding any statement or action up to the same skeptical, unconflicted scrutiny that an outsider would hold, to determine how it will sit with the most important segment of its public – its customers.

I found another good post on the topic at Contentious.com, this one dating back to 2004:

It takes courage on the part of the corporate communications/PR people to step beyond the simplistic goal of persuasion – to acknowledge and address controversy, shortcomings and skeptical or critical perspectives without being dismissive. In short, to try to fairly present more than just the preferred corporate view.

Random end note: Google “corporate journalism” and the Wiley book and Churbuck’s blog entry both trail a 3800-word Noam Chomsky Q&A with Radio Havana on conformist subservience, building a better world, and Cuba’s courage in the face of the repressive American superpower. I’m still trying to make the connection.   
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17 thoughts on “Corporate Journalism and the Benefits of Authenticity”

  1. interesting post, Rob. In my new freelance life, i find that corporations say they want to do this kind of thing (as many marcom people are former journos) but in practice it’s hard to pull off b/c of all the layers of sign-off that content has to go through before it becomes public. too bad the layers often are stuffed with marketing droids who are intent on staying on message at all costs. that being said, i wonder if you have any examples of companies that are succeeding with “corporate journalism?”

  2. Also Lisa, regarding success stories, a lot of companies are doing well on bits and pieces (slow build), but I don’t think I’ve seen any that have nailed it yet.

  3. Hi Rob:

    New reader here – Tom O’Brien. This is good stuff – and I think the hardest thing of all is for a corporation to speak in an honest human voice.

    Once something has been thru policy and legal, it rarely emerges sounding human.

    Tom O’B

  4. Rob,

    New reader, old colleague — great to see your blog. Wish I could say I see things moving in that direction – more balanced, fact-based content – but IT vendors anyway seem more closed off than ever. Fears about competition, litigation, etc. etc. The exceptions to this, when they happen, really stand out.

  5. Interesting post, Rob. I certainly agree with the idea that companies need to create more honest, fact-based content (in fact, lots of mainstream news organizations could usefully be reminded of this, too). But this is only part of the larger challenge of creating more conversational and interactive-oriented communications as well — which regular journalism is also struggling to figure out.

    There are some useful examples at the program level in the tech space, including some of the corporate sponsored blogs from IBM, Cisco, etc., community sites like Microsoft’s Channel 9 or BMC Software’s TalkBMC, and even some corporate magazines, but these are still much more the exception (even inside these companies) than the rule. We’ve got a long way to go!

  6. Hey Doug, hey Rob, thanks for joining the conversation. Good points by both – everyone’s struggling with this right now, and the old thinking still dominates, which makes it fun for folks like me who are trying to change the model.

  7. I’m guessing you’re being ironic about Chomsky, or perhaps just Radio Cuba. Since the Internet doesn’t work so well for things that happened before 1995, it may be one of the most recent things he did on the subject. His most notable work on the media as a corporate propaganda tool is probably “Manufacturing Consent,” written with Edward S. Herman and published in 1988. But in many ways, that book is just a chronicle (and extension) of the effects of mass media outlined by Walter Lippmann in “Public Opinion.” Both Lippmann and Herman/Chomsky are trying to rally the media to be more vigilant, of course. The Internet seems to fragment the mass media, making it harder to control (and making corporate journalism both useful and vexing — what company really wants to manage that many media outlets?).

  8. Hey Michael – the Chomsky link was a head-scratcher because, despite the title, it never addresses the topic of corporate journalism. And you’re using a different (just as valid) definition of corporate journalism: buying influence in mainstream media. That’s different than what I’m talking about.

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