Are corporate journalists real journalists? Better question: Does someone actually call themself that?

Yesterday, I received an email from Joe Pulizzi, the guy I credit (and blame*) for the popularization of the term “content marketing.” In it, he asked me my opinion of an issue that came up on a conference call he had participated in yesterday related to preparation for a SXSW panel with some typical SXSW panel name like, “Toaster Ovens vs. Traditional Media: The Bake-off” or something like that.

Anyway, Joe asked me this:

“What would you say if someone said that corporate journalists aren’t real journalists? “

Later, he clarified his question somewhat with the following edit: “What would you say if someone said that corporate (or brand) journalists aren’t real journalists?

I wrote him back an email (which I re-read this morning and discovered my e-mail and blogging style are similarly long-winded and rambling) and he asked if he could add it to a post on his blog (apparently as a long-winded, rambling addendum). Yes, I said. Here is his entire post. It has a good discussion thread on it. (Okay. I haven’t actually read the comments, but if any say, “I agree with Rex,” please vote it up.)

Below, is the way I answered his question: What would you say if someone said that corporate journalists aren’t real journalists?.

However, I must add one thing as a preamble. I’ve never heard anyone actually describe themselves as a “corporate journalist” and I think this entire issue is sort of like Jay Rosen’s description of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” columns that have appeared in the past few weeks. The similarity is this: That some un-named group of people out there are claiming they are corporate journalists (whatever that is) and are saying they serve in precisely the same role and practice the same principles as a news journalist in a traditional media company context — and this “claim” enables real journalists to respond with some sort of indignant harumph and lecture the 2 or 3 people in the world who care on what is the reality of journalism.

Corporate media, however, is just like any other kind of media. There is programming that’s called “News” — (like 60 Minutes, for example) and there is programming called “Entertainment” – (like 30 Rock, for example). News is real. Entertainment is real. People with lots of similar talents (writing, producing, editing) work on either news or entertainment or any of those other things in-between (Fox News, for example).

In other words, I don’t know of any corporation that’s hiring “journalists” as investigative news reporters assigned to bringing down the man unless (there are, no doubt, some ombudsman-like employees of some company, somewhere, I guess) they’ve just been caught in some scandal, perhaps.

Corporations are, however, working with companies like Hammock and recruiting other great content strategists and talented story tellers to help them create and manage all types of media designed to help them build deep, direct, honest and clued-in relationships with their customers, members, alumni, supporters, etc.

For real.

Now, for my response:

What would you say if someone said that corporate journalists aren’t real journalists?

First, I’d say, “What’s a corporate journalist?”

If the answer is, “someone who is a journalist who works for a corporation like Bloomberg Inc. or Dow Jones Inc. or The New York Times Inc.,” I’d say, “As long as that person who is being paid by a corporation practices real journalism, then I guess they’re a real journalist.”

However, I assume, the assertion is being made by someone who is implying that no one who is paid by a non-media corporation can be a “real journalist” when it comes to writing about the corporation for whom they work.

It might seem to be a bit surprising, but I both agree and disagree with the underlying premise I assume is contained within the person’s assertion.

I don’t believe someone who is paid by the corporation to be an advocate on behalf of the corporation (for example, a public relations executive, lobbyist or investor relations person) can be a “real” journalist. When someone writes about the corporation in an advocacy or promotional way, then I don’t think the label “corporate journalist” should be applied to them.

But here is where I disagree with the premise.

The vast majority of writing and production in the development and execution of corporate branded media does not fall into the category of “news journalism” — it’s more likely service or business-to-business reporting, informing and story-telling. And, in such a case, I think individuals who work “for” corporations are as legitimate and “real” as those paid for by a “news” corporation.

Great companies can be “real” in communicating directly with their customers. Indeed, that’s one of the cornerstones of becoming a great company. Does this “real journalist” think a company must go through a third-party media corporation to engage in a conversation with its customers?

Great companies, associations and institutions realize that when people have stepped forward to buy-from or join or attend or support them, the role of the corporation is to help enable those individuals to be “better customers.” Helpful, informative and inside knowledge presented in insightful, entertaining or productive ways are what great corporate media should be all about. If the content is not legitimate, or is merely puffery, then it will serve neither the company’s nor the customer’s needs — and it will fail.

But “failing journalism” is another topic. We’re talking here about “what is real.”

Here’s what’s real: This topic has an air of deja-vu-ness about it, as I recall the decade-old debates about the “realness” of citizen journalists. Despite being featured in Dan Gilmor’s seminal book on the topic, “We the Media,” for being the first “citizen journalist” (blogger) to blog from inside the White House, I never quite understood the term — for the same reason I don’t understand the term “corporate journalist.” [White House posts, reverse chronological]

All content is created by real people. If that content is transparent in terms of source and agenda, then it’s real.

Whether or not it’s “journalism” is not really important.

*I don’t like the term content marketing and used to say I’d never use it. However, I finally and reluctantly, surrendered, and the term content marketing is now used as a partial description of what the company, Hammock, does (not all of our content is about maketing). This change came because of one of my core business beliefs: “Even if you think it’s inaccurate — even demeaning — it’s hard to pay the mortgage if you refuse to use the phrase your potential client is googling in an effort to find you.” That belief also means that, if one day, potential clients start googling for “corporate journalists” when looking for what previously has been called lots of different things, I’ll happily print up business cards that say, Rex Hammock, corporate journalist.