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New ventures such as Abrams Research are blurring the lines between journalism, public relations, and corporate advertising
Thanks to the Web, companies have direct online access to consumers. Take that fact, stir in the surfeit of unemployed journalists (or fearful employed ones searching for safer perches), and you get novel kinds of businesses forming around news and media professionals.
Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based company that sells anti-virus software, launched Threatpost.com on Mar. 11. The site, which focuses on computer and Internet security, aggregates articles and videos from across the Web. It employs two journalists to blog, edit the site, and produce its podcasts.
Moving into media is an odd step given the wholesale carnage afflicting all sectors of that industry these days. But privately held Kaspersky is not after a media business. It's not selling ads on the site, though it may run promotions for business partners. Threatpost, says Kaspersky's chief marketing officer, Randy Drawas, "is not a profit-generating enterprise." Rather, the company wants in on the "public discourse" concerning the issues its business revolves around. To sidestep concerns about favoritism, "we draw the line" at product news and reviews, says its editor Ryan Naraine, a tech journalist hired by Kaspersky in May 2008 as a public-relations staffer.
There are antecedents to Threatpost. Brew Blog, begun by a journalist hired by SABMiller in 2006, so steadily broke news about rival Anheuser-Busch (BUD) while maintaining Miller-centric promotional bona fides that a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal sang its praises last year. (Miller shuttered it last September, citing changes in strategy.) Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) community site for parents, babycenter.com, is something of a (forgive me) granddaddy of this genre and a conspicuous success story. Purchased out of bankruptcy by J&J in 2001, it's still one of the best-trafficked parenting sites—to the degree that I once heard a top magazine executive more or less blame it for the decline of parenting magazines.
Changing times inspire different moves, but some of the new dance steps bother the chaperones, the ones who are concerned about the distance that news professionals should keep from public-relations or marketing efforts. And lest you find journalistic ethics to be unduly fussy, one recent case has also raised such concerns among some PR practitioners.
Meet Abrams Research, the newish consulting venture from former MSNBC anchor and general manager Dan Abrams. It aims to help companies suss out winning corporate and media strategies. It does so with a panel of compensated experts, who, among other things, can help hone new ideas or marketing messages.
Now for the controversial bit: The company claims these compensated experts include active journalists and bloggers. Promotional materials suggest clients—Abrams says there are around 20, but won't discuss them—may "tap into the knowledge of high-profile figures from top publications." He denies that any of the journalists consult for companies they actively cover. (Which would be great for his clients but would violate every journalistic principle in the book.) Abrams is also mulling launching sites covering various areas, possibly starting with media, with the idea of having his experts blog and drive business to his company. (One possible name is Mediaite; the suffix "ite" also could be appended to other topics. One disclosure: My wife founded mediabistro.com, with which Mediaite would compete.) But it's the notion of journalists serving as corporate consultants that has triggered more allergies in observers, as a simple Web search shows.
Abrams' company guidelines forbid journalists from working on projects that violate their employers' ethics codes. But his is a venture in which the participation of most serious journalists would be forbidden at any level, whether they work full-time or freelance. (It's against the ethics code of BusinessWeek, to cite just one.) In an interview, Abrams stresses his use of former journalists, but the characterization "former" is notably absent from his marketing materials' description of his journalist contacts. The loyalties of Threatpost's editors are clear. There's much more muddiness in Abrams' new venture.