My colleague Karl Pearson-Cater here at Ciceron is a journalism major. Over the past 20 years, he’s put CityPages.com on the map, worked at the Star Tribune, and then helped grow online news startup MinnPost.com. Clearly, this is a guy with a true journalism pedigree, and let me tell you, he has opinions about what is and what is not journalism. (We have many a pleasant argument over this, over beers, of course.)
We had a dozen-year open job offer for Karl here at Ciceron, and he took us up on it in 2011 when we threw him into the corporate digital marketing meat-grinder. In his role as senior content architect, he helps clients think more like journalists and less like marketers. This is a huge mental transformation for many trained marketers. And, frankly, it’s often a challenge for Karl. A marketer’s mentality—especially in a publicly traded company where quarterly results are expected—is to “sell, sell, sell.” A journalist’s mentality is to carefully fact check, tap subject-matter experts, and create content that is in-depth and entirely truthful. Karl’s job is to foster the latter mentality.
Here are three major reasons why corporate journalism is real journalism. Or will be.
1. Because corporations no longer have just customers—they have audiences.
In the modern era of followers, friends, “Likes,” and opt-ins, corporations are growing audiences who have chosen to be informed, entertained, engaged, and activated. In many, many cases, the sizes of these audiences are staggering—millions often, hundreds of thousands even more. Ask Newsweek (digital-only as of last week) if they’d like millions more subscribers. There are companies and organizations that have more followers than small cable channels, city newspapers, and magazines. Get this: Oreo has 31 million Facebook followers. This is a direct, earned audience they never had only a few years ago. What is Oreo’s content and journalism plan for these people? Whether Oreo or anyone intended to, these companies got into the publishing and entertainment business.
When most organizations got into the “social media” business, they didn’t do so as a means to create a long-term, engaged media audience. They weren’t intending to begin an online corporate Web TV channel or radio station or magazine. They did so, largely, to create a new marketing and advertising channel. Yet, when you speak with consumers, that is rarely their intentions. They opted in because they wished to establish a deeper relationship with a brand they truly like through deep-form content and conversation—not taglines, endless contests, and marketing drivel. They want to feel like they are a part of a community of people who also enjoy the brand’s products or services, and involves participation from the real people who work for the brands they love.
2. Because in this era of unavoidable consumer transparency, the absolute truth matters.
The last election was a focal point on the intersection between stated brand claims (a candidate’s stated position) and fact checkers. If you think corporate America isn’t under the same microscope, fuggetaboutit. Advertising is full of claims, from “the cleanest” to “the safest” to “the most green”—and on and on. Advertising and marketing no longer operate within the comfortable confines of a restricted media environment, where a very few media outlets could sway enough “voters” (consumers) to give up their cash. A simple Google search will uncover where brand claims fall short of actual consumer experiences, because each consumer is now an individual channel. En masse, they’re huge. For example, if you’re a one-star hotel on consumer review site TripAdvisor, no advertising campaign will turn you into a four-star hotel. That’s a fact.
Content creators within corporations need to use journalistic standards in investigating their own products, services, and cultures. They need to be internal pied-pipers for consumers, the front lines of anticipated public reaction to claims. This means that internal people need to be 100 percent honest with one another. If a corporate journalist doubts a claim that the product development team is making, she should have the right to dig deeper into that claim because, the reality is, if the claim is indeed false or even slightly false, it will be exposed, and the entire brand suffers. This, to me, is journalism.
3. Corporations need to be susceptible to criticism if the facts present themselves.
Traditional journalists make mistakes, not because they’re journalists but because they’re human. Corporations are no different. (Did I just say, “Corporations are people?”) Corporations makes mistakes because they’re composed of humans. The more transparent and human companies are, the more likely they are to be able to respond to criticism. As social channels continue to tear down traditional access methods to companies, companies will inherently become more human. We see this everyday on channels like Twitter, where customers may rant publically, only to be shocked when a company representative actually listens, responds, and solves a problem. That point of contact—in a very human and public channel—is new to consumers. They still don’t expect brands to respond or even care. But the high-performing companies that have embraced social engagement will be the first to tell you that their relationships with their customers are more real, more intimate, and more loyal. This new breed of customers is the one who becomes highly networked brand advocates. And if you’ve been reading this blog for any time, you’ll know that that’s what I believe to be the Holy Grail of corporate performance.
I posit to you then that corporate journalism shares the same basic tenets of traditional media journalism. I greatly welcome the debate on this. Please remember, however, that the ideas I’ve shared above are not embraced widely, but the debate keeps surfacing. Understand that I’m speaking of a future state, not a current one. I would expect you to critique how organizations of all types are using these emerging channels. Most not well. I’d love to hear your stories of brands doing it right.