Meredith Red, vice president of public relations firm Casey & Sayre Inc. in West Los Angeles, was looking for a jazzy new-media way to get the word out about client AT&T Inc.’s water conservation efforts in light of the state’s drought.

So she made a two-minute video about mobile apps that help consumers conserve water and weaved in AT&T’s own water-saving strategies.

She sent the video off two weeks ago to her media contacts, and it was picked up by two local TV channels in Bakersfield, which aired it as part of their news segments.

It used to be that PR firms would cast out a press release to hundreds of journalists and hope some of them would do their own story based on it. But today, many firms are creating their own stories and videos to promote their clients – a controversial practice called “branded journalism.” These videos and articles mimic regular journalism albeit with subtle but distinctly favorable treatment of paying clients. They tend to get picked up by bloggers, various websites and small-town media outlets.

Casey & Sayre has even built a video studio inside its new office in West Los Angeles so that it can do more of these projects.

“Being able to shoot my own video and then going straight to the editing bay and being able to cut that myself, I’m an all in one,” said Red, who is also the firm’s director of technology and digital media.

Michael Sitrick, founder of public relations firm Sitrick and Co., also built a studio inside its Brentwood office after moving there last year. The agency has muscled up its digital practice, adding six executives last month.

But, Sitrick said, branded journalism isn’t the same as getting coverage from traditional media outlets.

“One is voicing an opinion and the other is the third-party, independent reporting that looks at all the facts and makes a determination,” he said. “I’m not saying blogs don’t have their place (and) they don’t have impact. They do, but they don’t take the place of what I call independent media.”

Red, who writes a tech blog on mobile apps called App Chick for the firm, agreed that traditional media is more effective but noted that branded content allows for additional engagement. She also makes it clear to reporters and her audience that the content is branded.

“It’s a bit of a gray area,” she acknowledged. “But I always wear the AT&T shirt so they know I work for the company and there’s no confusion that that’s why I’m there. I’m very clear and up front.”

For example, in her segment on water conservation apps, Red wore a black T-shirt branded with the AT&T logo. She talked about apps that were her personal favorite then ended with AT&T’s conservation efforts, which she presented using “we.”

Traditional start

The firm was founded in 1980 by Barbara Casey, chairman and chief executive. She had been a vice president at Kaufman & Broad Inc., now KB Home, before launching her own public relations business.

Now, the firm has a staff of 15 with about 25 clients such as Beverly Hills developer Casden Properties and Vintage Fund Management, an investment firm in Westwood. Its new office is on Venice Boulevard.

Red said the main appeal of the new office was that it had room for a professional video studio. At its old office, a conference room was converted into a makeshift studio three years ago, around the time it landed AT&T as a client.

Casey said she knew doing branded journalism such as the water conservation video was the next shift in public relations.

“I saw some of the big public relation firms buying up video content companies,” she said. Instead of doing that, she decided to build one herself.

The new studio features three television screens, lighting units for shooting video and photos, an editing bay and a table of audio recording devices.

But the best feature, Red said, is that the studio has a separate entry from the main one-story office so bloggers and new-media journalists can have access to the studio on the weekend and during special events such as the launch of a smartphone. That way, they can use the equipment instead of working from home – and get exposure to clients’ products.

Indeed, the firm maintains a number of close relationships with bloggers such as Juan Carlos Bagnell, an L.A. tech specialist who covers new product releases. He comes to the firm when Casey & Sayre presents new products by AT&T and then blogs about them, sometimes from the firm’s studio.

Recently, Bagnell was working inside Casey & Sayre’s studio, editing video to post on his YouTube channel JuanBagnell.

He said his relationship with the firm has given him an opportunity to create more engaging content instead of rewriting a company’s press release when the firm hosts events.

For example, the firm hosted a bowling night two weeks ago at Jillian’s Billiards and Bowling at Universal CityWalk to promote AT&T’s launch of the curved LG G Flex smartphone. People rolled a bowling ball over the phone to test its endurance. Bagnell couldn’t attend but tweeted the content to his followers.

“It’s infotainment,” he said.

The event drew an audience of 7 million on Twitter, said Red.

She said bloggers operate independently of the firm but she does make its content available to them and other media outlets, a practice many agencies do, such as sending photographs or short videos recapping events.

“What we’re trying to do is create more content and also make things easier on our reporters in terms of supplying what they need,” she said, referring to bloggers and traditional media journalists.

Erik Deutsch, president of the L.A. chapter of trade organization Public Relations Society of America in Los Angeles, said the state of PR has changed from when he started more than 15 years ago.

“Most of what we did was media relations, trying to get clients in the newspaper and on TV,” said Deutsch, also principal at Excel PR Group in Hollywood. “But today, everyone, including every brand, can be a publisher.”

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