Brand journalism vs. Corporate media


July 12, 2013 by Tamara Piety

O’Dwyers the public relations newsletter had this link this week to a report of a presentation given by an interview with former CBC journalist Ira Basen on the intersection between journalism and public relations. Basen is an academic with extensive experience in media and public relations. (For more on his background see this post.)  He reports discussed on something that everyone who is in advertising, journalism or the public relations industry already knows, but which many other members of the public, even very educated ones, are seemingly blissfully unaware of: that is that a great deal of news content today is actually promotional content. In an earlier the interview with Basen there was this quote from an author Clay Johnson, in his book “The Information Diet” about how PR turns into journalism content.

“In an effort to cut costs, journalists often become more filters than reporters, succumbing to the torrents of spin heading their way, and passing on what’s said by the scores of PR consultants. Rather than report the news, they simply copy what’s in a press release and paste it into their stories. It’s a kind of commercially advantageous and permissible plagiarism called churnalism

Apparently Johnson believes that we need to be more discriminating consumers of information and put ourselves on an “information diet,” purposing that not all “facts” are equally “informative.” I submit that this is a predictable outcome of treating all marketing and branding like information. But I digress.

The earlier recent  interview with Basen explored his substitution of the term “Corporate media” for “brand journalism.” media If you (like me) are not sure what either one is, that is probably because you don’t work in PR. Apparently, however, much to the chagrin of PR professionals, brands have been hiring journalists to work in house on the “brand story rather than hiring PR professionals.  Here is the exchange.

JG Do you think it is because of churnalism that one of your newest areas of study and interest—brand journalism—has resulted, whereby companies are now hiring journalists (often new graduates out of universities such as Ryerson) to be in-house journalists, rather than employing public relations-trained practitioners?

IB: I think churnalism is a serious problem for journalists and readers, too, although the latter are probably largely unaware of the extent to which the “news” they are reading is the product of public relations, rather than the independent investigation of a reporter.

But I think the rise of “brand journalism” is driven to a large extent by search engine optimization (SEO). Companies know that in order to rank highly in search results they need to be supplying a constant stream of high-quality content that goes beyond sales pitches and traditional marketing communications. Organizations need to develop “stories” around their brands, and they believe journalists are better equipped to do that than people trained in PR.

Notice the quotes around stories. Basen says, “Brand journalism’s success is rooted in the fact that people today are increasingly ignorant and/or indifferent to where their online content is coming from.” He notes that many times people might go to a web site that offers sponsored content, unaware that this is in any way different from traditional media. However, he notes, “I’m a purist, and I think you can either be a marketer or a journalist, but not both.”  

Apparently, although it is not entirely clear from this post, Basen has relaxed some of his skepticism about the idea that journalism and marketing cannot be combined. The adoption of the term corporate media actually does suggest that you can do both, or at least obscure it a little. And it seems that the main work the new term does is to obscure the conflicting aims.

And that seems to be the push from others in the more recent post article – that “done right,” corporate or brand media can win a Pulitzer.” [Tom Foremski]  And “now [there’s] an opportunity for every company to be a publishing entity, with less need to get past the gatekeeper role of traditional media.”

And this: “[T]here are ethical challenges in being your own corporate media publisher, with a need to “step up your game” in regards to honesty, openness and transparency. [i.e., per Tom Foremski, stop thinking of corporate media simply as a means to promote and market; tell real news about your company, including the bad with the good]”

All I can say is good luck with that. I fear that what is far more likely is that we will be sold on the proposition that it is actually possible to expect a for-profit company to report on itself – “the bad with the good,” but that they won’t actually do so.

Fox? Here’s your henhouse.

NOTE: This post has been edited to make corrections for context and attribution offered by the writer who originally interviewed Basen, Judy Gombita. This was originally posted as “Brand Media vs. Corporate media”


15 thoughts on “Brand journalism vs. Corporate media

  1. Hi Tamara,

    Thanks for your read, link and interpretation.

    Please note, however, that Ira Basen is/was a long-time radio journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, long before he began teaching at (now) four Ontario universities.

    I can only assume that you are not familiar with his award-winning, six-part series, Spin Cycles: Spin, the spinners and the spun (the reason I developed a professional relationship with him, as he provided me with his speaking notes from the Canadian Public Relations Society’s Toronto Society AGM.

    Happily for you, all six parts remain available on The Sunday Edition (CBC Radio) website:

    Judy Gombita (author of that PR Conversations post)

    • P.S. In terms of accuracy, I’d like to point out that the “interview” I did with Ira Basen was a year ago. The current post was not an interview by me, although I did provide and summarize the Young PR Pros “interview” done during the Conversations2013 conference.

      I think it’s also important to give attribution to the source, Tom Foremski, for “done right,” corporate or brand media can win a Pulitzer.”

      This October 2012 post by Tom Foremski was NOT written as a “response” to the July 2012 interview; it simply reflected his opinion, which in turn influenced Ira Basen’s thinking.

      BTW, Tom Foremski was not interviewed for the corporate media CBC Radio documentary that will air in September 2013..

    • Tamara Piety says:

      Judy thanks for the link and the corrections. I will update the post accordingly. I am not familiar with Basen’s work but I gathered from your interview with him that he was a fairly trenchant critic of “churnalism” and the later report (not interview) on his talk suggests that his views have changed. The article was unclear on just how much they changed but it seemed like he was prepared to go along with the Foremski quote. The graphic illustrating Basen’s talk wasn’t legible enough to see any more detail. But that is a rather remarkable change of heart. And if he has changed his mind that significantly it seems notable. It doesn’t diminish the value of his “Spin Cycle” series (which I look forward to viewing), but it suggests that his own thoughts have changed since then and they do not represent his current thinking on this issue. Perhaps he can weigh in?

  2. By the way, Tom Foremski did not use the term “brand media.” (Nor did I insert that term into either my Maximize Social Business case study or my recent one on PR Conversations.) So you might want to correct your reference (above) as well:

    “I prefer the term corporate media. Corporate media spans the entire spectrum of publishing by a corporation. It can include material that is journalistic in its construct and intent.”

    I’ve let Ira Basen know about your post.

    • Tamara Piety says:

      That was a typo. The title in the PR Conversations piece and elsewhere makes clear it should have been “brand journalism” throughout. Thanks.

    • Tamara Piety says:

      I want to note that none of these corrections undermine the substance of the basic point: that many in PR, and perhaps academics like Basen, apparently believe that it is possible for brands to produce something like journalism and the belief that they can do so seems predicated on what seems to me the unlikely prospect that most for-profit companies will have any interest in telling the whole truth about their industries. In fact, just the opposite is happening in the US with the AgGag laws and prosecution in Kansas I believe it was of a National Geographic published photographer for hang-gliding over a feedlot and photographing it. And in response to the Nike v. Kasky case, Nike said fear of liability would prevent it from filing its corporate social responsibility reports which were required in some jurisdictions. So I’m skeptical.

      • I’m curious why you keep identifying Ira Basen as an “academic?” He identifies himself as a journalist first and an (adjunct faculty) instructor to (both) journalism and public relations students, second.

      • Tamara Piety says:

        Sorry, I am happy to refer to him in any way he likes. I thought the point of your references to his university associations was that this was his principal focus now and meant to add more gravitas to his opinions. I am happy to change that too if you like. Whatever he would prefer is fine with me.

      • Tamara Piety says:

        And I would note that the Wikipedia enter you pointed me to lists him as teaching at Ryerson and the interview you did with him a year ago starts with the announcement of a teaching fellowship. It appeared that he was transitioning to full-time academic. Perhaps to those who are familiar with that particular fellowship it would be obvious he is not really an academic. Again, I would like it to be accurate so I am happy to change it to reflect whatever title is most accurate. But exactly how he now earns his living (unless he has moved into PR) doesn’t change the substance of this post. A couple of things are perfectly clear: (a) he has extensive journalism experience so he is speaking from a knowledge base about journalism, (b) he is teaching about the intersection of journalism and PR, (3) he used to think these two things were wholly incompatible, but now he doesn’t (although to what degree and with what caveats is unclear from the PR Conversations piece. It suggests but does not explicitly say, that he has gone all the way with Foremski). This last point is the point of my own post. I remain skeptical that these two can realistically be combined in a way that is good for either one.

  3. My interview with him last year (July 2012) began with the announcement that he was the CanWest Fellow recipient (which included teaching in the University of Western Ontario’s graduate program for that academic year). He’s also a long-time instructor at Ryerson University (journalism), McMaster University (master’s in communication management program) and the University of Toronto.

    I think the confusion is arising from you pulling out different things discussed in LAST year’s interview–which covered a lot of ground about various intersections and the changing landscape–versus this year’s post that is focused, quite specifically, on the upcoming CBC Radio documentary on corporate media (brand journalism/content marketing).

    I was laughing to Ira Basen earlier how it was interesting in the comments section that a fair bit of speculations/assumptions were going on about what he would say in a documentary that has yet to air!

    I can have a sense of what will be in Ira’s documentaries, but I never know everything. And I always learn. And fairly often I’m even surprised at some of his conclusions, simply because I didn’t see that thought process coming.

    Speaking of legal issues, rest assured that the public broadcaster ensures all of its I’s are dotted and T’s crossed on anything produced at the Mothership. (I was at a SABEW session yesterday on The Story Behind the Tax Havens, co-presented by a senior editor with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists; and the producer of the CBC TV segment. The rider clause the CBC necessitated was discussed…..

    • Tamara Piety says:

      I don’t think I confused that much. According to you I have not provided the accurate emphasis on which part of his career is most prominent – journalist or academic; I called the recent PR Conversations piece as “interview” with him when it was more of a “report” of a talk he had given; and I didn’t adequately identify the speaker of the Pulitzer comment. I have corrected these items to the extent I think appropriate. If he wants to offer more corrections I am open to them. But you did write this “Because it was through social that I learned his thinking has evolved regarding the terms brand journalism and content marketing, I’m now sharing pertinent information here.” and this “Although exact content is unknown, I do know that Ira Basen has settled on the term corporate media.” That appears to be what you reported. You linked the evolution of his thinking to Foremski who you then quote. The thrust of the piece seemed to be rather definite on both the adoption of this term and the reasons for its adoption. Perhaps when the program comes out it will emerge that your prediction was wrong. But I think that is a fair reading of the PR Conversations piece.

      • Ira Basen says:

        First, thanks for the interest that you’ve shown in my work. I’d like to clarify a few points regarding your discussion with Judy.
        First, on the issue of “churnalism”, I remain adamantly opposed to it. I have some problems with how the website ( measures what is churnalism and what is not, but it is essentially a measure of plagiarism, or at the very least, unattributed sources, and that’s wrong. And it is particularly egregious when it shows up in mainstream journalism where readers have an expectation that the journalist has followed the codes of his or her trade (independence, verification etc.). So taking a press release and essentially turning it into a “news” story” will get you a high ranking on the churnalism website and that is not a good thing.
        Brand journalism, owned media, corporate media, or whatever you want to call it (more on that later), is a different thing altogether. It is not about lifting sentences from press releases. It is creating your own content and distributing it on your own outlet. If it is properly identified, readers should have no expectation that they are getting a story that seeks to tell both sides of the story, or that the writer has pursued an independent inquiry and arrived at what he or she feels is “the best available version of the truth”.
        That doesn’t mean that it is incorrect, untrue, or of no value. It is just a different beast than “journalism” as we have traditionally considered it.
        When companies first started creating their own media a few years ago, it was often referred to as “brand journalism”. Applying the word “journalism” to this content did not sit well with many mainstream journalists for the reasons I’ve cited above.
        So what to call it? “Owned media” is useful because the web allows anyone to both produce and distribute content in a way that was not possible when a few large media companies controlled the distribution channels. A. J. Liebling once said that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, and now everyone can own one.
        I liked Foremski’s phrase “corporate media”, even though I recognize that most media is corporate media because the NY Times etc. produce media and are corporations. But used properly, it is a useful way of distinguishing traditional journalism from this new form that may or may not be journalism.
        I don’t believe you will get “the bad with the good” with this kind of content, and I don’t think it will ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but it can still be useful in the way that good “service journalism” is useful to readers when it shows up in newspapers and magazines. I do have a problem when this kind of content is not properly identified (“native advertising”) so that readers are not able to make a determination as to its credibility. This is a troubling trend.
        So the fact that I am now more comfortable using the term “corporate media” to describe what used to be called “brand journalism” doesn’t mean I no longer think marketing and journalism are different beasts, and I continue to think the loss of the journalism gate-keeper does not serve the interests of most readers who have neither the time, the skills nor the inclination to be their own fact-checkers.
        I hope this clarifies my thinking on these issues.


      • Tamara Piety says:

        Ira – It does indeed. Thanks for the additional insights. I am happy to hear that your views have not changed as much as it seemed that they had from the PR Conversations piece. I remain skeptical that “corporate media” does the work that you hope it does for the reasons you identify (i.e., the New York Times is a media corporation). I think “brand journalism,” however objectionable to journalists (I think with some reason) as neologism signals to the average reader that there is something distinctive about it and the word “brand” signals the orientation of the communication – promotional. I think the reason “corporate media” is attractive is precisely because it obscures the orientation of the communication, that is promotional as much or more than informational. And given the discussion of these matters in legal, First Amendment circles, I predict that terms like “corporate media” will be used precisely to blur the difference between the New York Times and “corporate media” to argue that corporate media should enjoy full First Amendment protection. I think this is a mistake where promotional content is knowingly and intentionally misleading because what full First Amendment protection would mean is practical immunity from liability. That said, I am all for transparency and I think we are in complete agreement that “the loss of the journalism gate-keeper does not serve the interests of most readers who have neither the time, the skills nor the inclination to be their own fact-checkers.” Alas! I think the demise of the gatekeeper benefits, in the short run, many of the same entities who are now creating their own media. But I think they are short-sighted in wanting to totally control the conversation because where there are no trusted sources we may all suffer — at least that is what I fear. More prosaically, as some outside of the PR industry, it seems to me that without trusted sources, some of PR’s distinctiveness from pure promotion erodes.

        At any rate, thanks for your thoughts and clarifications. I look forward to watching these programs.

  4. I want to thank Judy for making sure I was correctly quoted in the right context.

    Brand media is the same as corporate media and by the way, the New York Times, although it’s a corporation does not produce “corporate media” it produces journalism. Readers know the difference.

    And as for rewriting or reprinting press releases? It happens all the time and it always did. Some information doesn’t require an investigative report, some news items won’t bring down society because a journalist topped-and-tailed a release about something inconsequential.

    Because there are fewer journalists around, companies have to do more publishing themselves. Every company is a media company. The media they produce won’t be investigative, or disclose their problems, failures, or any other truth about them, that’s not the point or expectation from corporate media. It’s promotional because that’s its purpose. It’s not journalism and it’s not called journalism. As in there is no such thing as “brand journalism.” Just because someone writes a press release representing a brand doesn’t make it journalism. And a journalist topping-and-tailing a press release is not engaged in journalism and that’s fine. Space needs to be filled.

    Fewer journalists engaged in journalism is a bad thing. We used to be derided as “gatekeepers” keeping important news from reaching the public. Now there’s a realization that special interest groups can get their way more easily because the gatekeepers are gone.

    It’s a shame that the public won’t pay for the news they should be reading, because special interest groups will gladly pay for the news they want people to read through use of PR agencies and other methods. A democracy relies on each person’s vote counting the same and equal access to free speech. But free speech is meaningless unless someone listens, and without newspapers listening and amplifying the concerns of their communities and local citizens, and pointing out egregious actions by the rich and powerful, democracy will suffer tremendously.

    Could corporate media become something that could fill the gap? Could it produce something that is a social good? Yes, it could. Nissan, for example, is running a TV news network staffed by BBC and other journalists, and it wants to create the best news — not the best news about Nissan, but the best news period. Can Nissan news be trusted? Yes, maybe more than from a traditional news organization. If you don’t trust Nissan news because it is bad, would you trust a Nissan car? Nissan has more motivation to provide high quality news than Fox because it has to protect its brand.. Fox plays fast and loose with its brand all the time.

    • Tamara Piety says:

      Great to hear from you Tom! Just a tiny correction. Judy didn’t ensure the quote was correct but that it was attributed to you versus some nebulous other. Thanks for your exposition of the position and the potential benefits of corporate media or brand journalism. I remain skeptical but perhaps only time will tell.

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