Match of the Day News vs. corporate content

Posted in Digital, Reporting on 20 March 2015 By Simon Harper, Head of Digital and Strategic Consultancy

Two news stories last week got me thinking - one directly, and another indirectly – about how companies can get their message out online to the people they want to hear it.

You might have heard that the journalist Peter Oborne resigned as The Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, aiming a forceful rebuke to his former employers as he did so. To summarise: he was unhappy at what he saw as interference in the newspaper’s coverage and editorial impartiality by advertisers, or one in particular.

Centrica also announced their full-year results, to considerably less outrage and revulsion than in previous years. The reason being that profits were down 35% in 2014, meaning a reduction in investment in energy projects, a cut in the dividend, and reduced work for contractors. Somehow those effects were less worthy of outrage than the previous years’ profits, as they were seen as a product of high household energy bills. Offended of Tunbridge Wells doesn’t like high bills.

The latter story is the one that has the most obvious relevance for you, the corporate communicator. At this point I’ll declare an interest: in a previous agency role I worked with Centrica on their digital corporate communications, so I know the effort the company has put in over the years to make its voice heard online. And undoubtedly they’ve had a lot of success in helping to shape the debate over energy provision, and whether we can have lower bills while still keeping the lights on and reducing the effect on the environment.

Yet it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go. Perhaps that’s because a high energy bill will directly affect the average punter, while a drop in profits or a reduction in energy investment might be seen not to. Of course in reality they will have an effect: a dividend cut will impact on the thousands of retail shareholders that Centrica has, while a drop in the share price (about 10%) isn’t good for those of us with pension funds invested in Centrica. That’s a lot of us by the way. And as for a reduction in energy investment….I’ve just returned from South Africa where planned power cuts are being implemented thanks to historic under-investment in the grid there.

My point here is that many people still aren’t joining the dots in the energy debate, which prompts a couple of thoughts. One is that all companies – especially big ones – need to do more to shout about the benefits that their success brings to society in general, not just shareholders. And the other is that the struggle to get your voice heard and shape debate is an ongoing one.

One way of engaging with your audience on an ongoing basis is by producing interesting, stimulating content: stories, blogs, images, videos….’content marketing’ if you will. We’ll be writing more about corporate content strategy as the year goes on so look out for more blogs: for now, it’s enough for us to say we’re excited by the possibilities it brings for our clients to be more creative and impactful  in their digital – and offline – presence. It can be just the sort of thing companies with complex and difficult messages to get across, might use: continuing publication of content allows companies to build a dialogue and reinforce messages in a way that a blunt press release never can.

All of which brings me back to Peter Oborne. His spat is symptomatic of a growing tension between advertising/corporate content and editorial content: in this case a straightforward accusation of an advertiser having influence over what was and wasn’t covered in a newspaper. There’s a subtler side to this too as Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson explored in the FT last year; lines can become blurred between journalism and corporate content.

What Oborne-gate shows is that people don’t mind bias, as long as they know about it. Does anyone who reads the Daily Telegraph really think it is completely impartial? Or do they read it because they want a right-leaning tinged view of what’s going on in the world? But a conservative slant on events is a bias the reader knows about; interference from an advertiser isn’t.

So if you do decide to step into the world of corporate content publication, you need to be transparent: create a site which doesn’t clearly state that it’s your mouthpiece, or try to exert influence over an outlet which is seen to be impartial, and you run the risk of controversy a la Oborne. It’s why using your own platforms – or creating them – might be better than getting your content on someone else’s site. And if you do get it on someone else’s site, insist on it being clearly marked as yours, and that they must go to great lengths to be seen as impartial.

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