Publicity-conscious sponsors seek to sell their products without making waves or upsetting anyone enough to get them out of the buying mood. But according to the standard ideology, reporters and editorialists are only after the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help them Woodward and Bernstein. If powerful interests—or financial patrons—are damaged or discomfited in the process of obtaining it, then so be it.
But in the Digital Information Age, the rules of the game are changing and they are changing fast. While formerly independent bastions of journalism have been absorbed by a handful of mega-companies (six corporations now control 90 percent of all U.S. media outlets), businesses, individual entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations and service providers of all stripes have abandoned traditional advertising and public relations and embraced the holistic strategies associated with content marketing.
Content Marketing to Advertising, Public Relations: “Eat My Dust!”
Where advertising craves attention, content marketing seeks engagement. Content marketing teams work to unite clients and their customers under the umbrella of “the greater good,” based on shared worldviews, common agendas and a desire to solve problems in creative and sensible ways. Content marketing respects the diversity of human beings and recognizes the complexity of their needs and interests. What content marketers produce is designed to inform readers and viewers about the world even as it promotes and publicizes worthwhile products, services and ideas.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of content marketing—and its greatest contrast with the past—is its devotion to the truth. When properly done, content marketing doesn’t resort to tricks, gimmicks or simplistic sloganeering. Good content marketing, whether in written, spoken or video form, enlightens its audience by giving it to ‘em straight, which is a departure from the trails blazed by the likes of Darrin Stevens and Don Draper. The best practitioners are dedicated to the belief that people’s purchasing decisions will—and should—be based on big-picture considerations rather than catchy jingles, cute product mascots or excessive regard for well-known brand names. Everyone needs to know what they are getting into, in other words, before they make decisions that might have an impact on the quality of their lives.
Great content marketing teams always have room for outstanding researchers, talented writers and those with expert knowledge relevant to the interests of their clients. But spinmeisters, con artists, propagandists and silver-tonged PR slicksters need not apply; that approach is outmoded and won’t fly in the present climate. The articles, blogs, video presentations and descriptive web copy that occupy their clients’ web and social media sites will be sharply targeted but impeccably honest. Content marketers see that as the best way to please today’s information connoisseurs, who have millions of virtual options and aren’t inclined to tolerate deception, obfuscation or misdirection.
All writing—all real writing, which it can be argued traditional advertising and public relations are not—tells a story and tells it well. The interest it creates and the buzz it generates come from its informational or entertainment value and not from its cleverness or stylistic flourishes. Well-crafted web content for the discerning and discriminating consumer can make its mark by following this formula, as can authentic journalism. While the latter may sometimes have bigger fish to fry (war, famine, comets hitting the earth and wiping out all life, and so on) the intent to inform “inquiring minds that want to know” is equally earnest in both cases.
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery—and a Healthy Sign of Evolution
Within journalism there has always been concern that marketing and PR considerations will corrupt the final product. In a capitalist society nothing comes for free, and as long as profit margins must be maintained, the fears of journalism’s defenders are perfectly reasonable. The takeover of our media by a handful of giant corporations has added a new layer of potential conflict of interest to the equation, making it less likely that supposedly independent journalists under the employ of big money will be willing or able to speak “truth to power” in the style of Lincoln Steffens, Edward R. Murrow, Mike Wallace or Carl Kolchak from Kolchak, The Night Stalker.
In reality agendas—some hidden and some not so much—have always been present in journalism, shaping directions of inquiry, predetermining conclusions and restricting the boundaries of acceptable debate and opinion. This is unavoidable—we are all the products of our environments, our personal ideologies and our general lack of job security. We can never escape the internal and external influences that sap our courage and hamstring our ability to adapt. But despite the limitations inherent in the profession—and in the professional—journalists still have an important role to play in the public sphere. Just because they miss some important stories and don’t get all the details right doesn’t mean journalists are failing to do their jobs. Like everyone else, they do what they can, and to expect perfection would be naïve and unrealistic.
It matters that journalists still have high aspirations, and those of us who toil in the content marketing trade are doing our very best to follow this example. Clients come to us because they have products, services or ideas to sell, that is true. But more than anything else, they want to make a contribution, to be a part of the solution instead of the problem, as the old saying goes. We totally get this, and we take pleasure in helping clients achieve their greatest ambitions.
To make the magic happen, we show them how to broaden and deepen their message and diversify their approach. We provide well-researched material attractively delivered that will appeal to potential clients and consumers because it is relevant, explanatory and accurate. This will include straightforward discussions of the merits of a client’s offerings as well as entertaining, informative presentations designed to please or educate.
If we accept journalism’s commitment to truth-telling as legitimate, it is easy to see the commonalities it shares with 21st century content marketing. To some extent the similarity is based on principle, but it is also rooted in practicality: modern consumers are too sophisticated, too well-informed and too demanding to accept flim-flam artistry or snake-oil sales tactics, and smart content marketers won’t insult their intelligence by resorting to this sort of shadow puppetry.
This doesn’t mean journalism and content marketing are identical. They aren’t and never could be. Journalists are asked to report on the most serious issues we face as a society, and that responsibility transcends what content marketing teams are asked to do, in most cases. But in the end, the intention of both is to inform, challenge and illuminate. If these goals are sacrificed to expediency, in either profession, people will know it and reject the message—and the messengers right along with it.