Say yes to storytelling and no to brand journalism!

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I have been thinking about this idea of “brand journalism”. I think it is funny terminology that is almost a paradox, conflicting, and has no merit to the pairing of the two words.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a group discussion and one of the ladies from our church looked me and asked, “Bobby…I am trying to figure out exactly what you do.” I had always told people I am a storyteller and I work with organizations to find and tell stories.

This past week, she asked me again, “Bobby…I still am trying to figure out what you do.” I replied jokingly, and with a bit of a smirk in my tone, “sometimes I wonder the same thing.” One of my friends, noticing I need some help in this conversation, pepped up and and helped me with a response, “I think he is a brand journalist, he helps brands tell stories.”

At first, I thought her response sounded smart…but something did not seem right. What are the ethics in brand journalism?

There are numerous online articles pointing to McDonald’s CMO Larry Light bringing the term brand journalism to the forefront.

Larry Light shared in 2004 that mass marketing no longer worked and that “no single ad tells the whole story.” McDonald’s, he said, had adopted a new marketing technique: “brand journalism”.

So here is my question to Mr. Light, who bares the balance of ethics when telling the story of a brand? Specifically, who manages the balance of truth inside this brand reporting? Who speaks for those individuals’ narratives captured in these stories and manages the ethics by which their stories are revealed through these vignettes, narratives, documentaries, videos, social media posts, and so-on.

Here is where my questions emerges. I have lots of them!

Scenario #1
Let’s say we are “brand journalists” and our goal for a campaign is to find stories that represent the best interests of a cancer treatment hospital, revealing powerful narratives that *might* present the cancer hospital in a negative position. During the editing process, do we omit the narrative that paints the brand in an unmarketable position?

Let’s keep examining this situation. While seeking stories about this cancer hospital, we find powerful stories of people fighting cancer, yet these patients reveal truths painting a darker narrative showcasing these patients dying and talking about death. This narrative might provide a rich story, and even put the cancer hospital in even better marketable position, so who advocates for the truth where someone’s dying narrative generates revenue for the organization. Who advocates for the person whose narrative is leverage for a marketable position unknowingly. Where are the editorial ethics of brand journalism?

Scenario #2
Let’s say we are”brand journalists” and working with a non-profit to find, capture, and tell powerful victim stories of domestic violence? The goal of this campaign is to share how this brand, this domestic violence shelter is helping these victims and their messages will be used to raise thousands and thousands of dollars.

Some would say that the organization needs to create full disclosure how the content will be used. But where does storytelling cross the line when capturing heart wrenching narratives that knowingly will bring emotional responses. Who manages the editorial decision between powerful storytelling, propaganda, and misusing the editing process to create an audience response with the goal of giving. Is this brand journalism? Is this journalism?

Purest View of Journalism
The idealistic, purest viewpoint of journalism is to seek the truth by gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. Journalists are trained to seek the truth, some practice this better than others. When I worked for an investigative journalist team, we found ourselves trying to further distancing ourselves from the business side of journalism…aiming to seek the truth in our reporting with the goal of presenting numerous sides to a story for the audience to draw their own conclusions.

In the world of “brand journalism”, if we chose to use this terminology, how can we separate the idea of marketing *from* telling rich stories by seeking the truth inside the brand. If we are going to truly represent brands and use our journalistic goals to seek real storytelling, we should share all sides of the story and let the audience draw their own conclusions.

So How About This…
The role of social media and social reporting can provide the ethical balance to the transparency of brand journalism. We use the social commentary or social media to create balance in this brand reporting?

***OR***

There is no such thing “brand journalism” and “branded” content is informational, entertainment, and education thus removing the need for ethics?

How about we just remove the term “brand journalist” from our title vernacular and just stick to good ole fashion storytelling. But, if you want to use the term “brand journalist”, you better be prepared to talk about the ethics behind your stories; and make sure you are really providing a transparent narrative of your brand.

Honestly…I still think the term “brand journalism” is funny terminology that bears no merit for the pairing of the two words.

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