Might there be such a thing as a truly journalistic approach to corporate communications? I’ve been seeing the phrase “corporate journalism” tossed around lately, and it has me wondering…
I think, in part, this depends on your personal definition of “journalism” for it is indeed a subjective and malleable concept.
For some people, “journalism” is a quasi-sacred term reserved strictly for the product of traditional news organizations (or journalism schools) and the writers, editors, photographers, and producers who receive their training there. Others don’t believe traditional news organizations hold a monopoly on journalism and their definition of “journalism” might include independent publishing efforts such as certain personal Web sites and weblogs, ‘zines, community radio or tv. For some people, goals such as objectivity and practices such as source requirements independent confirmation are the hallmarks of “real journalism,” while others think that journalism and advocacy are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
But what about official corporate/organizational communications projects such as newsletters, intranets, Web sites, and HR materials? Can these efforts adopt a journalistic approach that would be more meaningful than a veneer? What might be the advantages for this approach, and its potential pitfalls? Is “corporate journalism” anything more than a propaganda strategy?…
In a Nov. 2003 article, Tim Slavin published an excellent article, “How To Create An Editorial Process To Publish Web Content.” In the last section of this article, “Media Journalism Vs. Corporate Journalism,” Slavin writes:
“…Fact-based reporting of corporate activities reads better and is better received than watered-down writing. Employees buy into organizational changes, for example, if facts are reported in detail with context that relates to their job situation. They don’t buy in if change is presented with boilerplate happy talk.”
I agree with Slavin’s statement that a journalistic (“fact-based”) style of writing is more likely to persuade (achieve “buy in”) with the audience than blatantly self-serving “happy talk” (like the Monsanto Pledge). Facts always offer far more potential credibility than happy talk, and credibility aids persuasion. However, if that writing is offered with the primary goal to persuade readers to adopt a particular opinion or take a certain action, rather than to be informative so they can make their own decision, things get murky journalistically speaking.
Personally, I’m in favor of using a journalistic approach in corporate communications. But I think there’s more to it than simply including facts and eschewing blithe happy talk in corporate communications. I think it takes courage on the part of the corporate communications/PR people to step beyond the simplistic goal of persuasion to acknowledge and address controversy, shortcomings and skeptical or critical perspectives without being dismissive. In short, to try to fairly present more than just the preferred corporate view.
I can understand why this approach isn’t common. Corporate communications (including internal communications with employees) is generally about PR which in turn is mainly about controlling the message in order to control the outcome (opinions and actions). Companies and organizations generally prefer to be in control, especially when it comes to their own employees. That’s understandable but personally I think that goal represents naive wishful thinking than anything else.
The fact is, employees, customers, shareholders, and other targets of corporate communication efforts can and will make up their own minds.
These people know that there is always another perspective besides the official one. Whenever they read something positive from an organization, some part of their mind is asking hard questions, many of which start with “Yeah, but…” They’re probably aware of the major controversies and critics the organization is facing, and they may also be aware of the larger historical or political context surrounding the issue or organization.
Employees in particular often are keenly aware of past and present discord between corporate messages, policies, and actions. They do talk to each other, after all, and they also remember what they personally experience or observe. Often, the biggest barrier to “employee buy-in” is not the style in which a proposed policy or action is described in the company newsletter, but rather the company’s true history and reputation as perceived by its employees. The more spotty a company’s past track-record is with its own employees, the more important it is to address those concerns honestly, fairly, and directly.
A more journalistic approach to corporate communications could be one step to repairing or enhancing credibility, both inside and beyond an organization. This means reporting facts, yes but more importantly, presenting a full range of relevant perspectives and concerns, including those that run contrary to the organization’s claims or goals.
Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Organizations usually are judged more by what they do than what they say. However, words still matter and the more credible those words are, the more likely they are to affect actions. Adopting a truly journalistic approach to corporate communications is about establishing real credibility. It’s about respecting your audience’s ability to make their own decisions.
Yes, it’s fine to clarify what your company’s “official” position is just don’t pretend it’s the only one (or at least the only reasonable one). Not trying so hard to be persuasive may end up being the best way to state your organization’s case and achieve good long-term results.
MORE RESOURCES ON CORPORATE JOURNALISM
- Beyond Spin: The Power of Strategic Corporate Journalism, a 1999 book by Markos Kounalakis, Drew Banks, and Kim Daus
- The upcoming Corporate Communicator’s Conference, (May 19-21 2004, Las Vegas), features a course entitled, “Live the reporter’s life in corporate journalism—and win over more readers,” intended for print or broadcast journalists who’ve made a career switch to corporate communications.
- Creating Meaningful Change Through Corporate Journalism, Axiom’s Post & Review, June 2003, by Sheri Fiegehen.