Melanie Deziel on how to strike the right balance between church and state

“Setting up a brand storytelling team as a publisher can be really challenging. You obviously have concerns about the separation of church and state and you want to make sure in many cases that your editorial integrity is protected. Not just literally but also from a perception standpoint,” says Melanie Deziel, branded content consultant. 

But how do you know where to draw the line between church and state? How do you know when enough is enough?


Below are highlights from the interview which have been slightly edited for clarity.

Looking for the right talent

If your audience thinks that there’s something untoward happening that’s just as bad as actually having a problem. So you definitely want to be aware of any limitations you might have with regards to access to your editorial team.

In most cases that means setting up an entirely separate team, often sourced with former journalists.

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Whether you use freelancers to come in and help on a per project basis or you hire a dedicated team as many publishers have and set up that whole content studio, you’re looking for the same kind of talent you’d want in your newsroom.

If you are a publication that specialises in in-depth reporting, then you probably want some freelancers who have experience with in-depth reporting. If you’re a video publication and you focus on snackable, social content then you want someone who’s got experience in that realm.

What does your audience expect?

Essentially, building something that mirrors the skills that are required in your newsroom is going to give you the best chance to create brand content that aligns with your editorial content and meets your audience’s expectations.

If you are a news publisher, breaking news or finance, your audience has an expectation that the editorial content you create is independent of influence from brands.

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In most cases, they’re expecting it to be honest, really straight-and-narrow content. In those cases, it could be really dangerous to have those same people working on brand content because it brings their judgement into question. You definitely want to protect that by having a separate team work on your brand content.

But if you’re working at more of a lifestyle publication, maybe a fashion magazine or a home decor website, there’s a little bit more latitude. Your audience probably doesn’t have the expectation that brands are not at all involved in what you do. They actually come to you for recommendations of products whether it’s clothing or makeup or a brand of curtains to put in your living room.

Therefore, you have to be able to acknowledge your audience’s expectation. Does the audience expect that brands have a presence here? Are they okay with brands having a presence here?

If they are, in the case of a lifestyle magazine or something, then it might not be so bad to have your editors have some level of involvement.

Transparency is key

But I do think it’s a judgement call unique to every publication. My background as a journalist, coming from that hard news side of things, I always err on the side of keeping it separate. I think it doesn’t hurt you know to protect it even maybe more than you have to to protect that integrity.

But I understand that there are a lot of publications where that’s not part of their guiding mission and it’s okay for them to have some of that. So I think it’s just a judgement call for every publisher.

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One of the things that we debate a lot in the native ad industry is how we disclose things and the transparency. It’s so important that the publishers’ readers understand that the content they may be reading or viewing is coming from a brand.

I think a misconception is that anyone is trying to hide that. A brand doesn’t spend all that money to create a piece of branded content only to have no one know that they played a role in it. They’re marketing. There’s an intent to have someone know that their brand is doing this.

So I think it’s important for all of us to make sure that that transparency is key.

Can you sleep at night?

I think the biggest challenge for us is that there’s no unified way of doing this. Every publisher has their own rules. Most are trying their best to disclose it, there are some who don’t for various reasons, but for the most part, you’re just trying to find the way that makes sense to your audience to help them understand.

Sometimes that means the URL of the website is different. Paid post dot, or sponsored dot, something like that. Oftentimes it’s on-page, so you might have a coloured bar at the top, you might have sponsored in the headline.

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And sometimes there are even other things too. You may have a gray background or a line at the bottom — at the New York Times we had a line that would say, “The news and editorial staffs of the New York Times had no role in this content preparation”.

So again, every publisher has to make their own judgment call and as long as long as you can sleep at night knowing that you’re doing the best job you can to make sure your audience is not deceived, I think everyone is happier.

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