Journalism and the Corporate Blog Problem

Blame—or perhaps credit, depending on viewpoint—for corporate blogging’s impact on news reporting belongs to Vic Gundotra, Len Pryor, and Robert Scoble. (Robert claims to “have completely moved to social media“; he’ll be back, so I link to his blog.) These three people played pivotal roles bringing to life Microsoft’s Channel 9 blogsite, which launched a decade ago.

I am in process of restoring my blog posts made to TypePad during the last decade, starting with 2004. The process is manual, rather than automatic, so that I can check links and also get some sense of who I was then as filter for better understanding who I am now. This morning I reposted, unchanged, “Corporate Blogsite: Marketing Veiled as News“, from April of that year. A week earlier, Channel 9, which is that post’s focus, went live. 

Number Nine, Number Nine…
The “Channel” connotations are interesting, and I would argue revealing. Channel eludes to broadcasting, something the blogsite did then and does today. But the word also means direction, like channel news and information down a predicted path, such as by public relations people rather than journalists. But Channel 9 did much more, by seizing information control from journalists. That’s the observation I made 10 years ago in the Veiled post:

The timing gives Microsoft considerable control disseminating news when mainstream news channels are churning stories about changes to a major upcoming product. The people being interviewed work for Microsoft, the interviewer works for Microsoft, and the website where information will be disseminated belongs to Microsoft…

Companies’ public relations objectives often conflict with those of news agencies, one of the biggest being objectivity. Many companies do their best to “spin” for the most positive outcome possible. Microsoft’s spin site is Presspass, and having this kind of PR website isn’t unusual for any company. But companies managing news, disseminating news through a blogsite is something altogether different.

Channel 9, eh, channeled a trend already well underway—and led by employee bloggers like Robert Scoble. Their seemingly independent voices made more acceptable for journalists to quote them rather than press releases. Today, it’s standard practice for, say, Google to disseminate news via a blog, rather than press release, posted by an employee, whom other bloggers or journalists quote. More from the decade-ago post:

It’s one thing for employees to run individual blogs or post to others and it’s something much different for a company to put up a blogsite that disseminates news and information…I predict that if Microsoft’s Channel 9 experiment delivers favorable results, other companies will take a similar tact.

Corporate Copycats
Other companies did follow the lead, particularly in the tech sector. What seemed so innocuous in 2004 is a plague upon responsible reporting in 2014. Corporate blogposts come in two formats:

  • Where an employee, rather than journalist, is interviewer (Channel 9 model)
  • Where an employee announces information about something, typically new product

Lazy bloggers and journalists perpetuate corporate blogging by freely quoting [Insert Name Here] company employee when they might never quote a press release. I’m guilty of this sin, too. But today, I repent! I will no longer source corporate blogs. 

My feelings about the practice, while always conflicted, have changed because there is too much sourcing employee bloggers and not enough original sourcing. Corporate bloggers are doing their jobs—and quite well if journalists quote them. But the news gatherer’s responsibility is different—enabling corporate public relations isn’t on the list.

There is no difference between a press release and employee-posted blog. It’s best to quote neither, with perhaps exception of data that reputable analyst firms might provide. If you think that corporate blogs aren’t vetted for their PR value, please give me $90 change for my $10 bill. It’s a Hundred. Can’t you see where I Sharpied another zero? The bill is good as gold.

“Channel 9 is a brilliant marketing concept”, I praised 10 years ago. “Marketing is the key descriptor. The site is run by people paid to evangelize Microsoft products. Their job is to win over developers to Microsoft products”.

The mission of today’s corporate blogs is no different—to evangelize, and to market. Hehe, let’s split the connotation from marketing, as in advertising, to the a place. From the nursery rhyme: “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig”.

You’re the hog, Mr. Journalist, that corporate public relations specialists—I didn’t use the F word—want to bring you home fattened up for their evangelism efforts. The employee blog is one way they feed you for the slaughter.

Photo Credit: Duncan Hull