HSBC ethical issues and Telegraph content marketing

The content marketing trade has found itself on the fringes of a media sensation in the last week – whether the Daily Telegraph’s editorial policy over coverage of HSBC’s Swiss banking arm was influenced by the bank’s advertising spending with the newspaper. Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, brought the issue to light in an explosive post on Open Democracy, saying that the issue was a ‘fraud’ on Telegraph readers and had caused him to resign from the newspaper. For its part, the Telegraph has denied his accusations.

(I should say here I used to be a business reporter for the Telegraph, and in my current job as a freelancer I have written sponsored articles for the newspaper on behalf of HSBC, all clearly signposted as being paid for by the bank.)

Like most industries, members of the media thoroughly enjoy a scandal involving their rivals, and pundits have been delighted to step forward and heap opprobrium on the Telegraph. What is of interest in content marketing terms, however, is that all content paid for by companies has ended up being bashed along with the particular editorial decisions in the HSBC case.

As my colleague Adrian Michaels writes on LinkedIn, journalism published on a company’s own website is a very different thing to sponsored content or advertising space bought in a newspaper. With the former, there is absolutely no possibility the company is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of anyone reading it – it is self-evidently paid for and published by that company.

The reason paying for advertising space in a newspaper is of value to a company, Adrian adds, is because of that newspaper’s trusted reputation with its readers and the size of the audience. Anything which damages the trust between reader and newspaper and possibly causes them to stop buying it undermines the whole point of advertising there.

Furthermore, as Adrian points out, why shouldn’t companies write and publish articles on subjects of interest to them and their customers/readers – a bank may well know more about what’s important to export businesses looking to raise funds than a business reporter. As long as it is absolutely clear to the reader who commissioned and published the article, there is no deception.

No one in the content marketing business would suggest that companies should take up the investigative role of newspapers – that is something which must remain sacrosanctly independent in any functioning democracy. It cannot be done in any sensible way by a commercial organisation operating in the industry under scrutiny. And quite apart from the ethical issues, there would be absolutely no financial rationale for a company to spend money on it.

Informative, lively and interesting features about projects, products and personalities in a company are where corporate-sponsored journalism and content marketing should be directing their attention, with companies making full use of their own content channels and social media presence to do so.

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