Next BP victim: ‘brand journalism’

The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I’ve encountered in a while.

A brand journalist is an in-house newshound, preferably with professional reporting experience, who works for your company instead of an independent news organization. You unleash him or her to mine stories – from the inside – that make good corporate blog posts, video, photos, charts, e-books, white papers and the like. The theory is that the content, conceived and produced by a real enough journalist, will be compelling, polished, believable, persuasive and maybe even authentic.

“Brand Journalism is not a product pitch,” says marketing strategist David Meerman Scott. “It is not an advertorial. It is not an egotistical spewing of gobbledygook-laden corporate drivel. Brand Journalism is the creation of Web content … that delivers value to your marketplace and serves to position your organization as one worthy of doing business with.”

When I first learned of the practice, it was a eureka moment. Media consumers are starving for authenticity, and the business world is generally failing to deliver it. Brand journalism! This was the answer.

So leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.

The company has contaminated the Gulf with “BP reporters” writing eerily feel-good posts and coaxing positive comments from locals. Comments like “there is no reason to hate BP” and “the oil spill was an accident.” One ‘BP reporter’ actually characterized cleanup work as a “ballet at sea as mesmerising as any performance in a concert hall, and worthy of an audience in its own right.” Gag me.

As if BP weren’t already leaking credibility by the barrel, CNN last night tore them a new one for posts like these.

Said media watcher Howard Kurtz, “There isn’t one person in America who is going to be fooled by this propaganda campaign. The reporting has been so positive you’d think they were on BP’s payroll. Oh, that’s right, they are on BP’s payroll. Maybe that explains it.”

Want authenticity? You’ve got it in Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La., and force of nature. “You know, instead of hiring PR people to talk about ballets on the water, if we just do the right thing, sit down and deploy every piece of equipment, there’s something [for BP] to hang your hat on,” he said. “Look in the camera and say, ‘We’re doing everything feasibly possible to save coastal Louisiana, to contain this oil, to pick it up, to make this wrong right. There’s your PR. But don’t just say it. Go out there and do it, and the PR will take care of itself.’”

Pretty good counsel.

I still like the idea of brand journalism, but an unprecedented environmental disaster has somehow yielded an unprecedented PR disaster. So maybe BP should just give it a rest.

Talking ’bout Co-g-g-generation

Before I read this story in the New York Times, it didn’t occur to me that milk and data centers would have much in common. In a nutshell, IT behemoth Hewlett Packard has calculated the biogas generated by manure from a 10,000 cow dairy operation could be harnessed to generate enough electricity to power a one megawatt data center.

“Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship,” said Chandrakant D. Patel, the director of H.P.’s sustainable information technology laboratory, which wrote the report.

And that’s the key word – symbiotic. The natural world is typically portrayed as a zero-sum competition for survival, red in tooth and claw. But in truth it’s equally true that the natural world is a story of highly efficient symbiotic, win-win arrangements – just like the dairy farm co-generation scheme.

From bacteria in our intestines to birds hanging out with crocodiles, natural systems are an ongoing lesson in symbiotic efficiency with nary a niche going unexploited. Human systems need to get more symbiotic. We’ve blogged before on increased efficiency perhaps being a more pressing near term need than alternate energy. Co-generation is a concept that seems a symbiotic natural.

The first Wiktionary definition of co-generation is “the production of heat and/or power from the waste energy of an industrial process.” The city of Aalborg, Denmark provides an example. An agreement with Aalborg Portland, the largest producer of ready-mixed concrete in Scandinavia, delivers surplus heat from the factory’s cement production process to the city’s district heating system (itself a great way to boost building heating efficiency, but that’s another post), providing heat for some 30,000 homes.

On this side of the Atlantic, our client Wheelabrator launched the first large-scale, commercially successful waste-to-energy project in the United States in 1975 providing an effective way to drive a new efficiency into the existing waste disposal process. Today Wheelabrator has five such plants generating almost 230 megawatts of electricity annually.

And co-generation can scale down to the business or even the individual home with technology that seems a closer fit to the second Wiktionary definition for cogeneration: “The simultaneous or serial production of heat and electricity from the same source”.

The world is facing hard choices about energy sources and usage. The efficiencies of co-generation present an opportunity to get more out of things we’re already doing – like walking, for instance.