Yesterday, journalist and Silicon Valley Watcher Tom Foremski wrote a piece on ZDNet posing the questions “Can public relations become ‘brand journalism’? What is it?”

‘Brand journalism’ is a new, fairly self explanatory term which – unsurprisingly, as a journalist – Tom Foremski doesn’t like:

“I have little confidence in PR people becoming ‘brand journalists’ for the simple fact that PR is not journalism. There’s no such thing as brand journalism, or innovation journalism, or anything-else journalism. Journalism is journalism.”

For the most part I agree with him. Part of the problem is the term. Brand Journalism is an oxymoron – and a pretty horrible sounding one too. Branding is by its nature promotional and journalism should be balanced and probing.

Part of the background to all this is that media is becoming fragmented, brands are discovering that they can create their own content that consumers/business customers will engage with, and people want to get interactive with media.

Funnily enough, I don’t think the media’s ever been that comfortable with the interactivity element of citizen journalism, or blogging for that matter, and feels a bit threatened by the whole thing. It really shouldn’t. Journalism is essential for reporting, verification and analysis.

I disagree with Tom saying that the media isn’t involved in the ‘every company is a media company’ concept that’s being bandied around. The media itself is very, very happy to get into bed with businesses to fund content. While journalists are flocking to work in PR and marketing departments or agencies. The problem is that hiring a journalist alone doesn’t make content compelling.

Who controls the message?
The fact is that the dynamics have just changed. We can all see that the media doesn’t control the message any more. We now have a complex inter-dependency between three groups: the media, institutions (e.g. businesses, government, charities) and individuals.

All of these groups create content, conversations and stories – let’s just call it ‘stuff’. Stuff is created, shared and endorsed by various parties. For example, a group of people might attend an event organised by a business and tweet about it, which is also written up by a journalist and live-blogged by the brand (probably employing the journalist’s former colleague!).

We see this model in practice over and over. Whether it’s election debates, watching the X Factor or attending the a company’s product launch, these three groups are almost always present, vying for attention but equally dependent on each other.

Some people will like the stuff they read, hear or watch, others won’t. The question is how to decide – and measure – what is the most influential stuff. For me, a big factor is trust.

From the banking crisis to News Corp, or from expenses scandals to the Jimmy Savile affair, many of our institutions have had bloody noses this past year or so.

When it comes down to it, the question of brand journalism becomes irrelevant: the role of public relations is to try and marshal these three groups, measure what’s working and help various parties earn trust. It’s something we all need to work on together.

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