Knowing the difference between content marketing and journalism

what-is-content-marketingNow that the internet has taken over the way we absorb information, we have entire new industries cropping up that generate “content.” Content used to come primarily from printed sources — books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Then radio and tv, but now from everywhere and everyone. Naturally the credibility of the content we find online varies, to say the least. But generally, we still rely on mainstream journalists to give us some level of credible, ethical writing. At least, some of us do.

There’s a whole new profession called ‘content marketing.’ Once upon a time we called it mostly advertorial, but it’s basically producing information for a marketing purpose, that’s not really advertising. Wikipedia describes it as:

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.

So clearly this is not journalism. People will pay for content marketing, but you can’t pay a journalist directly to write about you. At my journalism school we were taught about the horrible error of “business office must,” where the ad sales guys try to influence who or what gets covered in the paper, but we ethical journalists push back for our neutrality. PR people understand that, which is why we pitch reporters, hoping to get their attention, but don’t pay them for coverage. But content marketers have not all learned that.

vasn_20120630_final____c5_83428_i001Take the case last fall in St. Louis, Missouri, of a lobby group, Grow Missouri, that offered to pay journalists to write blog posts promoting their tax reform messages. A representative of an agency working for Grow Missouri  emailed reporters asking them to write blog posts for the lobby group saying lovely things about Grow Missouri. but these are the same reporters who usually cover the issues in which the group is involved.

So to be clear, this is NOT good PR, nor is it ethical PR. But then again, it wasn’t really PR at all, was it? It was an attempt at content marketing, but with the wrong writers.

And what happened? Well, the reporters who were approached laughed, ignored, and then posted the emails they were sent by Grow Missouri and blogged about how wrong they thought this was. So of course that made it worse, because now it was public. The agency that sent the emails apologized, but by then Grow Missouri had fired them and they weren’t smelling so sweet in public opinion.

…we mistakenly contacted five journalists who cover politics, asking them to write articles that would appear on our client’s blog. Our team did not realize the conflict that this would cause for these individuals.

PAC tweetPAC tweetThe issue of journalists being in conflict comes up all the time (watch for a later post from me on the CBC’s recent troubles with one of their ‘journalists’), but this story just goes to show that while the internet may have changed how we get our content, the credibility of mainstream media hasn’t changed, really. And that’s a good thing.

Responding to bad reviews should not create more bad PR

In an era where our smart phones are practically velcroed to our hands all day, it’s not surprising that apps and websites that review consumer experiences have a lot of power to influence public opinion. This is especially true in the hospitality industry, where consumer reviews are overtaking media reviews in importance.

Run a tour company? Better get more positive reviews on Expedia or Travelocity. Run a hotel? Keep an eye on comments on or Expedia. And it’s not just travellers reading and writing reviews. Locals have their own sway over restaurants in a way not possible before. Yelp reviews have become super important to restauranteurs, even if they don’t want to admit it. The power of an individual to whine out loud, whether right or wrong, is now huge.

So now that you’re dealing with disgruntled individuals and not journalists with editors or codes of ethics, what do you do with bad reviews? When I teach media relations, I always advise that any bad publicity or errors in media coverage must be viewed in context. Weigh the negative impacts of any complaint you might make (pissing off the writer or editor, for starters) against the importance of having any incorrect information corrected. If they got your title wrong, leave it alone. If they got your URL wrong, maybe do something. But what do you do when the negative effect is from a consumer review? images-1

One Ottawa company thought they should threaten to sue. CLV Group, an Ottawa property rental firm, was not pleased when a former tenant posted unflattering reviews of them on Google and Yelp. And while she posted anonymously, CLV Group somehow figured out who she was and sent her a threatening legal letter demanding she take them down. She’s a student who was frightened enough by the letter to comply, but later went to CBC who published a story about it. CLV doesn’t look good in all this, and I would never look to them for an apartment rental after that. CLV responded to CBC saying:

“When anonymous comments are posted by a resident where the content and details of the posting make it clear who the resident may be, we attempt to reach out to the resident to rectify their concerns.​”

Wow. Reach out, sure, but threaten legal action and costs? Well, that’s one approach. But perhaps an equally defensive but better PR approach is the one taken by a Kansas City restaurant.

A woman wanted to order takeout from Voltaire. The restaurant told her they don’t do takeout, sorry. But she was unhappy at how she felt they treated her, and threatened to post a negative review on Yelp. And she did, a one-star review.

Unknown“Most unfriendly and arrogant restaurant in KC. Just called Voltaire to try to order some food because we’re in a late business meeting across the street…they said they won’t pack food to go. My husband spoke to the manager…and asked if they can pack our dinner (which we would pick up). The hostess flat-out refused to answer our question about the food or to try and work with us so we could get food in our meeting. My husband asked to speak with the manager. The manager, Jamie, said, “our food is plated beautifully, and we can’t put it in a ‘to go’ container.”  So thanks, Jamie, we’ll just starve. (What the manager said is just not true by the way–we’ve eaten there before, and they did pack our food to go.)…We regularly travel to NYC and eat at a variety of restaurants, which are more than happy to accommodate people by packing food to go. This restaurant thinks they’re too good for their customers. They will soon learn that if you ignore your customers, they’re going to start ignoring you. I would not even give this place one star after this experience, and I’m dismayed by their unprofessional and arrogant behaviour.”

Not the most mature review I’ve read, but hey, she was angry and took to the interweb to vent. We’ve all wanted to do that at some point. But the real key is the response from the manager, who stood his ground and made the reviewer look pretty silly.

“I sincerely apologize that we don’t offer “take-out” food at our restaurant…We have never offered take-out food as we believe the food we prepare should be presented as we see fit, (usually) on a plate inside the dining room… Although we do allow our guests to take their uneaten food with them in to-go boxes after they have dined with us, we have never offered “take-out” food.

If you were actually starving, as in a life threatening condition requiring nutritional sustenance, we would be happy to assist you..we do make exceptions for emergency situations.

…I can assure you that we don’t offer “take-out” food because we feel we are “too good” for our customers; we just prefer to have our guests dine with us, allowing for the proper presentation (and temperature) of their fare that has been skillfully prepared by our kitchen.

It was made REPEATEDLY clear in the conversation with your husband that he is a lawyer. Let me provide the following analogy/role reversal…it may assist in clarifying your request.

YOU: I want to hire you to handle my divorce.

ME: But, I’m a tax lawyer.

YOU: I don’t care…I want you to handle my divorce.

ME: Sorry, but I don’t practice that form of law.

YOU: Just handle my divorce, I’ll pay you…it will be fine.

ME: I don’t feel comfortable providing my services as a divorce lawyer, as I am a tax lawyer. You won’t receive the service you are wanting or that I am willing to provide.

YOU: Well, I travel to NYC often, and in NYC, Tax lawyers handle my divorce litigation all the time. I don’t know what the problem is. I’ve told you I’m a chef, right?

ME: Well, that’s nice sir, but I really can’t help you. It goes against my business practice.

YOU: If you don’t represent me in my divorce, I’m going to post it all over the [most frequented social media review of lawyers] that you refused to provide me with the service I requested, and make baseless allegations about how you are very pretentious, arrogant and unprofessional. I will also try to prevent you from getting any additional business by damning you on said social media platform. Now will you represent me?

ME: I don’t take kindly to threats.

Thanks for your feedback.  We will let you know if we decide in the future to practice divorce law, I mean, provide “take-out” food.”

The reply is saucy, biting, sarcastic, and most of all, funny. It shows that the restaurant has a sense of humour and a sense of pride in how they serve their food. It makes the reviewers look petty, without actually being mean to them. Personally, I’d visit this place if I find myself in Kansas City. Of course, not everyone likes this kind of back and forth, and while Voltaire got a whole lot of publicity for their response, one comment from the foodie community perhaps summed it all up best:

“Apparently all sorts of immature people (on both sides of the street) in KC.”

Note: I’ve edited the review and the response a bit for brevity, but you can read the full text online.

Air Canada loses dog, then spokesperson steps in doo doo

It started out as just a lost dog, but then it spun out of control when Air Canada’s spokesperson sent an email without checking who he was sending it to.

This is Larry, a greyhound who was flying Air Canada from San Francisco to Victoria, BC in October 2013, but (something many of us have experienced), his flight got canceled. While waiting for the flight to be rescheduled, Larry was let out by an employee for a walk (probably to use the facilities, if you know what I mean), when Larry made a run for it. (Larry later got hit by a car and died, sorry to say)

A reporter from a Sacramento TV station emailed Air Canada’s Vancouver spokesperson to ask about Larry the day he got lost. She responded quickly with a good statement. Then the reporter emailed her back with follow up questions, asking for quick responses for her deadline. The Vancouver spokesperson turned to Air Canada’s manager of corporate communications in Toronto, Peter Fitzpatrick, for advice. Well he must have been in a bad mood, because he was exasperated with the reporter’s questions, that he couldn’t answer.

So Fitzpatrick sent an email, intended for the Vancouver rep, that said “I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog. Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the U.S. media spends its time.”

But you guessed it, he sent it instead to the reporter, who was not amused at being dismissed in this callous fashion. And they aired Fitzpatrick’s email in their story. The dog owner responded with: “Oh my God. I guess I wouldn’t expect anything different from a company that would allow something like this to happen.”


Remember, as a spokesperson, your every word can be public. This is more than just a misdirected email, it’s a reminder to never, ever take any reporter’s query as less than serious. Otherwise, the going can be really ruff.

Don’t assume a bad-news story is over just because it happened a few years ago

Ah, Abercrombie and Fitch, don’t you know the internet is forever?

Abercrombie+&+Fitch+picLast week, the interweb was alive with buzz that Abercrombie and Fitch, the retailer for “cool kids,” didn’t want fat or ugly people to wear their clothes. Were they unjustly targeted? No, it seems their CEO actually said that, and its true they don’t sell X-tra large clothes for women (but ironically they do for men, it seems). But that was all old news, as in reported back in 2006.

Ah, but then an industry analyst gave an interview this month pointing out these fact, and suddenly social media sprung to life with retweets, reddit comments, tumbler posts, etc. talking about what a “scumbag” A&F’s CEO is.

As the Globe and Mail reported, this situation shows how a story can find new life in a social media age. Even when there is s nothing new about how many people think the retailer’s  standards of beauty are, one comment from an analyst can stir things up and bring a social media storm in an era when everyone is a commentator on social media.