The evolution of brands into content producers in their own right is a controversial topic. Whether it’s flying in the face of nature or “new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it” (to badly misquote Stella Gibbons and Douglas Adams in a single sentence) probably depends more on your professional background than your age. Last week, Women in Journalism & Women in PR staged a debate with a panel of experts from all “sides” to explore both the opportunities and risks for brands and journalists.
The panel at WiJ/WiPR Working with Brands debate: Eleanor Mills, Jackie Hunter, Louise Court, Helena Raven, Jo-ann Robertston
All the panel seemed to agree that readers are above all interested in the quality of the content, and less concerned whether the source is “pure” editorial or a brand. However, transparency is important too – sponsored content should be labelled as such. Branded content can be as good as the editorial that surrounds it, and can even protect that editorial – for example Eleanor Mills (Chair of WiJ and Editorial Director of the Sunday Times) pointed out that the power of a Sunday Times review isn’t available to buy and having clearly branded content can help to reinforce the independence of neighbouring editorial for readers.
Jackie Hunter, Managing Editor, WSJ Custom Studios, noted that the best results are obtained with brands who know what they want to achieve and who they want to reach with their message. Trusting the journalists they work with to understand their audience can lead to a story that readers will appreciate, enjoy, and crucially for the brand, one that will be widely shared. Helena Raven, Head of Digital, NSPCC, later said this can mean “getting the brand out of the way” – forget about logos and mentions and concentrating on the story that matters to people – for example, the young lives changed by the NSPCC, rather than the organisation itself. In short content must work for the reader or it won’t work for the brand.
Problems can arise when a brand doesn’t set out with a clear vision and starts asking for changes and tweaks late in the process – larger companies where there are more people involved with something at stake are particularly vulnerable to this. A lack of clarity can lead to frustration for journalists who are used to working at speed and prioritising deadlines, while the brand wants to keep perfecting the content. At the same time the journalists must provide value by “pushing back”. Jo-ann Robertson, deputy CEO at Ketchum, noted that one of the roles of a PR professional as well as the journalist is to keep challenging the brand to focus on telling a memorable story where the brand’s presence is subtle.
Finally, as we work so closely with journalists I was particularly struck by the opportunities branded content can offer for freelance journalists. Both Eleanor Mills and Jackie Hunter noted that many outlets prefer not to use staff or regular, bylined journalists for branded content, in order to keep a clear division. However Louise Court from Hearst noted that experienced writers, who are known by readers to have expertise in an area, can provide integrity and it’s possible for them to work on branded content without lowering their journalistic standards. As always the important thing is the journalist’s understanding of their audience and subject and this authenticity is key to the quality of the final content. This makes good journalists worth paying for (something we like to hear at DWPub) and rates for branded content can be as much as 30-40% higher than traditional editorial commissions. That higher fee is well-earned though – it means you’re working for the brand client as well as the editors, and you may get more questions and find more rewrites are required than usual.
The hour-long debate was so packed I’ve not been able to do it, or the speakers, justice. I can only conclude that as traditional media is forced to find more ways of funding high volumes of content for demanding readers, journalists, brands and PRs are going to be working together even more closely than before, and we all – as readers as well as content producers – need to keep pushing for higher standards.