“Corporate Journalism:” More Effective than Corporate Communications?

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.


5 thoughts on “Corporate Journalism:” More Effective than Corporate Communications?

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  1. The issue as stated is pretty clear, and hardly bears arguing. But as we know, many corporations actively resist anything other than boilerplate “happy talk” (love the phrase). We can tell them time and time again their communications are being disregarded, and that the Pravda approach is actually reinforcing employees’ suspicion, the resistance is very deeply entrenched in some cases.

    Having said that, luckily there are exceptions!

  2. Positively reinforcing! Any parallel resources for the local government sector?

    Spin that’s spun out of control: I live in a community of 14,000. Our Community Services District board of directors spent $500,000 on a PR consultant last year (with an unknown sum to be expended after July) to help it navigate through a highly controversial sewer project that’s proposed for the middle of town. Unfortunately, the role of the communications consultant has been to uphold the board’s defacto no-‘contentiousness'(civic/civil questions)-allowed policy. The board’s votes are consistently 5-0, with no discussion (among themselves, much less involving the public). The CSD lands itself on the front page and editorial pages of the county’s leading newspaper on a regular basis for out-and-out Brown Act violations and similar questionable actions. It inundates the community with pounds of glossy newsletters, brochures and other communications collateral, with no acknowledgement of citizen concerns or questions. Their most democratic tool — televised meetings that are carried live and replayed — is painful to watch. Often lasting till midnight or later. Usually placing public comment at 11 p.m. or later. The CSD and staff (and pr consultant) routinely do not respond to journalists’ calls or queries, much less the public’s. They have turned down opportunities to hold or in any way participate in facilitated community workshops and forums.

    In this case, communication probably cannot be resusitated without the election of a fresh voice or two.

    But suggestions or resources would be appreciated.

  3. Thanks, Amy, for elaborating ideas that I had only gestured towards in my article.

    It strikes me that the promise and problem with facts is that they can be checked now and in the future. If a company says x, their credibility is on the line if x turns out not to be true and the company is perceived as knowing that beforehand. So stating facts will probably cause resistance on that basis alone. Facts require responsibility and ownership.

    Your point that employees (and investors, suppliers, and others tied to the company, for that matter) get their facts and information from many sources also is well spoken. I would argue that, while companies cannot control this information, they can direct the tone of the “conversation” by being transparent and proactive. The corollary is politics where contrary facts can be dug up and published but politicians still manage to spin their version and often set the terms of the debate. For me the key word is “debate” which implies a conversation among views argued as equals until people determine their relative values.

    Here’s an interesting example to consider: Wal Mart’s recent TV campaign with local people and employees talking up how much Wal Mart benefits their communities is a clever bit of propaganda to wash out news of their legal troubles with over working and underpaying employees, and the negative impact of their pricing power on employee salaries. No one appears to have the money, time, or interest to join Wal Mart in the “debate” about what the facts are and how to interpret them (it may be Wal Mart’s positives outweigh their negatives). There are limits (and reasons for limits) to what a company will say and how it’s critics, employees, suppliers, and others will respond in a conversation.

    I’d also suggest that old line, button down corporations are more likely to be less transparent than companies that fly by the seat of their pants. The more fluid and responsive a company, the more facts matter because business decisions are often made on the facts in a decentralized (empowered) fashion to seize market opportunities. Big companies are slower and so facts matter in a different way for them.

    Excellent points, Amy. Thanks for illuminating some interesting issues.

  4. AWOL
    I only found time to post eight items this week. Too much work. What I did find, though, was of some interest: Firms Look to Limit Liability for Online Security Breaches, 57% of Consumers Will Give Email Addresses to a…

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