Today in the AdAge blogs there is a post by Bob Garfield titled “Chrysler’s Twitter Controversy Teaches Us â€˜Brand Journalism’ Is a Lie.” The post is worth a read, if only to reinforce the idea that it’s best to take the pontificating of experts with more than just a grain of salt.
Rather than eviscerating the post point-by-point, the counter-argument can be summed up simply: a misplaced Twitter post isn’t the same as brand journalism.
After taking time to mock the “dissolute musicians and inked-up hipsters in porkpie hats” in Austin, Texas, for SXSW, Mr. Garfield asserts that the person responsible for the Chrysler F-bomb incident was let go as punishment for his transparency.
… Chrysler, instead of stoning him to death, merely fired him. Fired him for being funny. Fired him for being spontaneous. Fired him for being relevant. Fired him for alighting ever so gently, like a canary taking its perch, on a dowel of human truth. You know — the way social media is supposed to be …
While I agree with Garfield’s overall point that the tweet in question was a nugget of honesty–one that hardly threatens Chrysler’s valuation or market position–I take exception with the generalization that the offender’s sacking means that the entire practice of brand engagement via social media is disingenuous.
Chrysler didn’t fire their social media agency simply because of the profanity (we’ve all heard it before). The agency wasn’t fired because the post was funny and relevant (it was neither). Nor were they fired because the post trained a spotlight on some fundamental human truth (who doesn’t have an opinion on the drivers in their city?).
No, Chrysler fired their social media agency because they were being paid to do a job, and they did it wrong.
Of course marketing is smoke and mirrors; the adage about selling “the sizzle not the steak” is a truism for a reason. We’re not saving sick babies, we’re in the business of selling stuff. Brands are dedicating our greater and greater percentages of their marketing budgets to digital. With the capacity for instantaneous communication comes an increased possibility for missteps. That’s why guardrails must be put in place during the planning process, to ensure that communications remain on message and on target.
Bigger than that, though, is this concept of brand journalism. If a brand is simply parroting their commercial messages through digital channels, they’re not engaging in brand journalism. True brand journalism is the creation of original content around a subject topography that is interesting, relevant, and valuable to a brand’s demographics. It is the practice of engaging in social listening and constructive, transparent response to customer issues. There are plenty of examples of brands at least making a valiant attempt in getting engagement right.
Digital agencies charged with speaking on behalf of a brand must be held accountable for what they say and do. Posting a hackneyed personal opinion with no connection to the brand or the campaign–however accidentally–is a mistake that proves the agency isn’t ready to handle the responsibility. It doesn’t mean there aren’t thoughtful, useful ways to engage in brand journalism.
Come on, Bob. I’ve heard your insights on NPR and listened intently. You founded ComcastMustDie.com, which arguably led directly to Comcast‘s concerted effort to improve their customer service–to the degree that ComcastMustDie.com itself died. Your position as a sought-after expert in marketing brings with it an enviable pulpit from which to preach. Painting an entire field with one broad brush is too easy, and I expect better.
After all, it was journalist and satirist Craig Brown who said, “Journalism could be described as turning one’s enemies into money.” Isn’t that what marketing is all about?