In a recent Financial Times Magazine feature piece, FT’s US news editor, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, examines the muddying of the waters between journalism and PR known as “brand journalism.” The piece–a must read for PR professionals and journalists—delves into this relatively new form of reporting in which the content is produced by companies and marketed using the tools of social media and digital publishing to speak directly to consumer. The practice is rapidly becoming one of the biggest hot button issues facing journalism today.
At the crux of the debate is whether brand journalism passes for journalism in today’s BuzzFeed-ified media landscape. Brand journalism also tends to assume readers are aware of conflicts of interest and are able to draw their own conclusions about the credibility of the information. Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, Apple, General Motors, Nissan and others have warmed to the practice of late, allowing them to sidestep traditional media (while shielding senior executives from unwanted questions) to get their message across.
One of the other main drivers for the rise of brand journalism is the widespread cost cutting and layoffs that have affected newsrooms for nearly a decade. As Edgecliffe-Johson notes:
“Employment in US newsrooms has fallen by a third since 2006, according to the American Society of News Editors, but PR is growing. Global PR revenues increased 11 per cent last year to almost $12.5bn, according to an industry study entitled The Holmes Report. For every working journalist in America, there are now 4.6 PR people, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 3.2 a decade ago.”
Think about that for a second: for every journalist there are nearly FIVE public relations professionals. And that is actually down slightly from the 5.3 to 1 ratio in 2009, but considerably higher than the 3.2 to 1 margin that existed a decade ago, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
As newsrooms continue to search for ways to do more with fewer resources, and as companies continue to find success in bypassing traditional media outlets, the likelier it seems that brand journalism is here to stay. Of course, journalism roles aren’t the only ones changing. The role of the traditional PR practitioner is evolving, too, as communications is becoming more about SEO and social media than pure press coverage.