Image for Brand Journalism Expands Where News Media Declines

Journalism isn’t dead. It has just shifted newsrooms. As traditional news outlets have shed staff and news holes have shrunk, “news” writers have gravitated to corporate offices to join the ranks of brand journalists.

Brand journalists, like their news counterparts, tell timely stories based on factual reporting. Brand journalism isn’t intended to be corporate press releases wrapped up like news. At its best, brand journalism seeks to cover meaningful and relevant stories that otherwise would be untold and to provide useful detail that reporters would overlook or not have space to include.

For public relations professionals with traditional journalism backgrounds, the shift to brand journalism has been easy in one sense and hard in another. They know journalistic principles and style. However, their new “editors” are corporate bigwigs who aren’t familiar or even friendly to journalism. The risk in brand journalism of veering too far afield from news journalism is producing stories that PR-wary consumers would view as gussied-up versions of puffery.

With brand journalism, the intention is to build reputation and promote expertise, not generate leads for somebody to sell something.

Given the antagonism some CEOs have toward journalists, it may seem improbable they would approve transforming their communications departments into brand newsrooms. But increasingly they are.

The trend is generally lumped into the category of content marketing, which employs journalistic forms to promote products or services. Brand journalism goes a step further to put the priority on information, not promotion.

“People were already talking about and doing content marketing, but the Ragan Consulting approach was more journalism-based,” says Jim Ylisela, a former Chicago investigative reporter and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “With brand journalism, the intention is to build reputation and promote expertise, not generate leads for somebody to sell something,” Yisela says brand journalism centers on stories about people and topics of interest to viewers. 

Some brand journalism practitioners have created websites that look like the websites of news outlets. An example is Blue Sky News, the brand journalism site for Pittsburgh International Airport. “We want it to look like a news site, not like a content marketing site,” says Bob Kerlik, editor of Blue Sky News and a former news reporter. “Blue Sky News has journalistic-style stories because that’s what people want to read.”

Kerlik aims the site’s stories at the traveling public, airport employees, airport users, airlines and members of the community. The COVID pandemic has created an opportunity to report on impacts to travel. “At one point we had nearly 100 United Airlines planes parked on our center runway,” Kerlik recalled. “We did a video of our airport CEO standing in front of the planes. We got picked up by a ton of national press.”

The spread of coronavirus has yielded an opportunity for health care organizations to share trusted information from the insider point of view of medical professionals and their patients. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts has the equivalent of its own news service. “Our site complements our corporate mission of providing access to quality, affordable health care for all,” says Jennifer Miller, the site’s managing editor and a former managing editor of the Boston Herald. “We know health care is complex. Our mission as a brand journalism site is to help clarify those issues, with the ultimate goal of helping our readers attain better health along with improved understanding.”

Switching PR strategies to brand journalism involves more than flipping a switch. It should start with an honest discussion about what brand journalism is and isn’t. That should lead to creation of an editorial mission statement. The mission statement will be essential to recruit a staff that understands the role of brand journalism and what makes it distinct from content marketing and other kinds of PR promotion. Then, corporate executives have to show faith in this at-once tried-and-true, yet novel way to connecting with people.

Miller says the transition to brand journalism can be relatively seamless. “It’s storytelling. It’s fact-based. It’s timely. The idea is to get important health news out to the public. When I was at the Herald, my job was leading a team to report the most important local news of the day – with the best interviews, the best writing, the best videos – with real clarity and empathy.”

Brand journalists and their corporate editors need to remember they aren’t a substitute for independent news media. Even if they aren’t corporate flacks, the job of a brand journalist is unavoidably brand-centric. That’s not bad. It’s just not the same as the role of a free press.

[This blog relied on “Why and how companies are turning to brand journalism” posted by and featuring Ragan Consulting clients.]