Can Brand Journalism and Ethics Co-Exist?

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brand journalism ethic coexistDo ethics matter in business? Do they matter in journalism? How about brand journalism?

Let’s consider a fictional example.

“Did you use exceptional measures?”

“IF we used sarin, here’s how we used sarin.”

This is a pivotal exchange from an episode this season of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, which just ended its second season on HBO. Actually, the turning point is not this interview of a general who is – in the hopes of the questioning TV producer – whistleblowing on the illegal use of nerve gas during a Marine rescue in Pakistan. It’s the surreptitious editing of the clip after the interview to remove the word “if” by the mission-driven producer.

Of course, he was wrong to do that.

It’s easy to sit back in the armchair and throw darts at journalists in the heat of a story. Boo them even. Tell ourselves that yes, they are as devious and evil as we believe them to be.

Not that what the character Jerry Dantana did was right, but we CEOs, marketers, brand journalists, and PR pros all need to take a hard look at our own ethical behavior. How different are we, actually? We use influence every day to earn more revenue. And when we do, how truly honest are we in our drive to land that big contract?

For businesses, whether they are media companies, retailers, food giants or manufacturers, the line between persuasion and truth is fine indeed. But it’s important for us to hold that line. After all, we hold social contracts with our markets. Customers expect businesses to treat them well and fairly, and they should expect us to try to make the world a better place.

One thing I’ve learned from working in big corporate media companies: They are run by people, most of whom are well-intentioned. Yes, there are employees who, like Jerry Dantana, will believe that sliding the line just a little bit is okay if it helps the greater good. And I believe that many people come to work each day convinced that they are making the world a better place.

But when things go wrong – and they often do – it’s because it’s hard to see the big picture when you are just one small cog. The food industry is a good example of this phenomenon. I recently finished reading Michael Moss’s book, Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It would be easy for me to cast the food giants as evil, greedy corporations. After all, they’ve engineered our food to encourage us to eat more calories than we need – literally expanding their market.

But what I took away from the book is that many of the players believed they were doing good, by giving consumers what they wanted or solving the hunger crisis by making food more affordable. Over time, they held onto these beliefs even as they played a role in changing consumer behavior and shifting the problem from hunger to malnourishment (and making quite a lot of revenue and profit).

Journalists and businesspeople aren’t all that different from each other, much as we like to think they are. Both have the same goal: to persuade and influence. (No editor, producer or journalist will admit to this, of course. They’ll say that it’s the truth they’re after. But they do influence, whether intentionally or not.)

What sets journalists apart is a strong code of ethics to tell the truth for the betterment of society. Businesses might also have internal codes of ethics, and they might say that they’re doing good. But they also have a fiscal responsibility to owners, shareholders, and yes, customers. That fiscal responsibility means that brands have an inherent conflict of interest.

Their mission is to make more revenue and to do that they must sell more of their products. Objectivity plays a much smaller role. The only place you’ll find Macy’s Santa directing customers across the street to Gimbel’s is in the movies.

As brands become publishers, though, we need to reconsider the ethics of providing one-sided or incomplete information. There’s good fiscal reason to lean toward objectivity at the risk of sending customers elsewhere. People buy from brands they trust, and socially responsible companies tend to have higher revenues.

As marketing becomes more fact-based and news-driven – more focused on brand journalism – we need to recognize that it might be in our best interests not to edit the clip.

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