Alibaba’s Alizila is PR. Be proud!

I just read a post from Forbes’ Hana Alberts on Alizila, a homegrown company news site for the Alibaba Group. Alibaba has hired an experienced journalist, Time Magazine veteran Jim Erickson, to develop the articles for the site:

Erickson isn’t “selling out” in the traditional sense of the word, that is, he’s not morphing into a press release writer or a corporate communications executive. He will instead remain a reporter — just one who’s getting a paycheck from the only company on his beat. Call him a corporate journalist.

Erickson, who co-wrote a biography of Bill Gates, is the managing editor of the site — and, at the moment, its only writer. Alibaba, which believes this initiative is the first of its kind, say it’s not a marketing tool but rather a “quasi-independent news outlet.”

“All my life I’ve known journalists who have gone over to what we call ‘the dark side,’” Erickson says. After 25 years in journalism and a brutal layoff, he felt Alibaba offered him a middle ground: “I could still be a journalist, but I wouldn’t be subject to the same constant financial pressures.”

I’ll give this to Alibaba Group: I think they’re one of the few Chinese firms that gets international PR. Granted Alibaba is not cut from the same cultural cloth as the big SOEs and red-chip firms, but even controlling for that they’ve done a good job telling their story.

Although it still feels like a work-in-progress (and is labeled “beta”), Alizila is a good idea. This is the digital age, and as mainstream media are stretched ever more thinly companies need to get better at telling their own stories directly to the audiences that matter to them.

But I wonder about two things. First is the effort taken to stress that Mr. Erickson remains a journalist and not a PR person. As a PR person, when I look at this site I see PR: A house platform for telling stories about the company and making the company more visible.

In the end, can you be a journalist in the sense most of us understand it and report impartially on a daily basis on the company cutting your paycheck? What will happen when there’s a real crisis or serious problem that demands coverage or investigation? What will happen the first time someone in an executive suite wants to kill or amend one of Mr. Erickson’s stories?

Some of the stories on Alizila do delve into Alibaba’s challenges, but none of them is what I would call confrontational. Ms. Alberts quotes Mr. Erickson remarking on an Alizila article he wrote on Alibaba’s efforts to tackle counterfeits on the site, saying, “I’m certainly not going for the jugular, but if you’re in PR it goes against every instinct in your body, because you are drawing attention to the fact that there are fakes on the website.”

I’m in PR, and as an outside observer it doesn’t go against every instinct in my body. The availability of pirate goods on Alibaba isn’t a secret that’s being suddenly revealed. Personally, I’d see a post on steps the company is taking to control a known problem, even one that embeds some criticisms or discusses past problems, as generally positive. If that story had been on a third-party news site, I’d grade it as positive with regards to Alibaba because of the emphasis on the company’s actions to resolve the problems and the positioning of the piracy problem as a widespread issue afflicting the entire industry (a classic PR technique, “broadening”). If it had been a story earned through PR, it’d be good PR.

The second question is why jump through hoops to make this look like a news site rather than harnessing Mr. Erickson’s talent and experience as a straightforward company blogger? He could cover the same topics, dig into general industry news, use a more engaging voice, and probably achieve similar visibility results for the company, without having to maintain what to me seems like an unsustainable air of impartiality. He could be an advocate in the best possible way.

Perhaps it has to do with how the audience they’re trying to reach will perceive a blog as against something that looks like a news site (although they’re also active on several conspicuously American social media networks). Or perhaps it’s simply the approach that everyone is comfortable with. There is a blog on Alizila, but although the posts seem shorter than the “news” articles, the voice is similar.

Ultimately, Alizila is PR. There’s nothing wrong with that. They should embrace it and be proud. Get past the “dark side” stuff. Good, honest communication and good storytelling are both part of good PR. And there is certainly a role for journalistic skills in good PR, nutting out the stories and telling them well (which is why our industry is full of ex-journalists, although Imagethief is not among them). But trying to distance such efforts from PR strikes me as disservice to PR and journalism alike.

With all that in mind, I think Alizila is interesting, especially coming from a Chinese company. I’m curious to see where they take it and if they launch a Chinese version.

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