Why journalists don’t always make the best PR pros

Having started my career in journalism, I know all too well the love-hate relationship PR professionals and journalists have with one another. We need each other, except when we don’t. It often seems we coexist just to rant about the other’s follies.

This perception prevailed until the Great Recession. Then, something curious happened: a surge of laid-off journalists began careers in public relations. The U.S. public relations industry grew in revenue by 4 percent in 2008 and 3 percent in 2009, while American newsrooms shed 15 percent of their workforce, losing 8,300 reporters and editors, according to ASNE. Suddenly, PR looked like a promising career for someone with great contacts and the ability to tell compelling stories.

Call it the great journalism-to-PR migration.

What could be wrong with that? At the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), we’re honored to have former journalists join our ranks. In fact, this select group makes up one of our fastest growing member sectors.

But where there is prosperity, concerns often can be found lurking in the shadows. Carol Northrup, a PR professional in California, wrote in the PRSA LinkedIn group that she feels journalists come to PR with a “communication culture of false urgency,” and a lack of appreciation for the “depth and reach of what reputation [management] really entails.”

I echo Northrup’s sentiment. I know many journalists who enter PR with stellar contacts, superb storytelling skills and a well-honed, experienced knowledge of the media business. They know how to sell a story — to their editor.

Yet how many know how to pitch new business to a client? Or perform market research to develop a strategic communications plan that improves awareness of a company’s product or service? Or realize public relations has an industry code of ethics?

The latter came into play in May when USA Today exposed an attempted smear campaign by two Burson-Marsteller employees who happen to be former journalists. In an effort to stir a privacy controversy — on behalf of their client, Facebook — concerning Google’s Social Circle feature, ex-CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio violated two of public relations’ core ethical tenets by shielding their client’s identity and circulating misleading, if not false, information. They were roundly excoriated in the media, and PRSA made clear the industry’s stance that smear campaigns have no place in public relations.

How PR and journalism can be similar

Assuming that incident is an anomaly (and I believe it is), let’s consider the parallels between PR and journalism. Both have a mutual interest in communicating clearly with the public. Both require a curiosity for news and an ability to tell a story beyond “just the facts, ma’am.” To be sure, many PR professionals got their start in journalism, or were educated in J-schools. They know and respect the realities and challenges reporters face daily.

Now, as more journalists migrate to public relations, I’m left wondering: Do reporters know and respect the realities and challenges of PR?

New York radio veteran Debra Caruso, now in media relations, put this question into perspective recently in a Ragan.com post. She postulates that “the most successful PR people are those who think and act like reporters.”

She’s not alone: 64 percent of Poynter readers agree, though opinions varied. Davina Gould commented that, “Journalism experience can provide important entry-level training for any PR pro, and not just for those practicing traditional media relations.” Conversely, Leigh Fazzina says she’s seen some journalists fare poorly in public relations because they fail to realize that “media relations is just one of many areas of communications and public relations.”

Caruso bases her claim largely on that latter misperception. She writes that journalists have the news judgment to know what stories to pitch, they write clear, compelling and accurate press releases, they have an appreciation for deadlines and their media connections are impeccable.

All of which are terrific assets … if you’re planning to spend your entire day pitching stories. But that isn’t the reality of modern public relations. Not by a long shot.

How PR and journalism differ

It takes a lot more than contacts to be a successful communicator. For beleaguered journalists looking to start a career in public relations, here are five business-focused tips to keep in mind:

  • Know your audience. The reader is no longer your primary target. In PR, it’s a combination of client, employer and a variety of new audiences that can shift daily. Your storytelling skills will be invaluable, but so will your ability to change directions at a moment’s notice.
  • Understand the short- and long-term business implications of your work. If you work at a PR agency, you will be making hundreds of decisions a day on behalf of clients. Not every decision will be grand, but each will impact the client’s business. A mistake in an article you write may lead to a correction in the next day’s paper; a mistake in a new business pitch could cost your employer hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Know, respect and appreciate PR’s ethics code. Like journalism, our profession is based on stringent ethical standards. We expect every professional to uphold those standards.
  • Be an advocate. While advocacy and journalism don’t mix, the former is key to success in public relations. Whether advocating on behalf of a client or employer, you’ll be expected to promote others’ work.
  • Focus on outcomes, not outputs. Most PR professionals are judged on the business value of their work. In other words, how well your work helps an organization grow its business or reach key audiences. This is the reason why publicity is a minor subset of public relations. Publicity itself rarely achieves business goals. Only strategic communications can help businesses succeed over the long run.

These tips won’t guarantee success, but they will help you understand and appreciate the role of modern PR.

Rosanna Fiske is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. She is also program director of the Global Strategic Communications master’s program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University in Miami.

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  • Anonymous

    I think it is unfair to tag an entire profession as sleazy. Each profession has its rotten apples … after all there are a few sleazes in journalism to be fair.
     
    The reality is journalists need PR people as much as media relations pros need journalists. I believe it would be very difficult for a journalist to do his/her job without a PR person. Good PR people will know the ins and outs of their clients or company. The PR person will be able to give journalists all of the information they would need and provide access to the people that journalists need to talk to, to make their story valid. Yes, every company wants to be shown in a positive light and it is the PR person’s job to make sure that the company is shown in that light. However, PR people do not lie about the facts. Just as there are people in journalism that do not follow the code of ethics, there are people in PR that I am sure do not abide by the code of ethics. But then again this happens in every profession … it is not restricted to just journalists and PR professionals.
     
    If I were to make the statement that any PR person could do as good, if not better, of a job at telling a story as a journalist … I am sure that journalists would tend not to agree with that statement. Every profession has its expertise and I completely agree with Rosanna’s article… there is SO MUCH MORE to PR than just being able to write and tell a story. As many have pointed out … media relations is simply one aspect of PR. Journalists have the potential to make great media relations professionals, however bottom line is that journalists do not always make great PR professionals since the breadth of PR is much greater than media relations. 
     
    I could also make the argument that journalists are a single-skilled profession … either you can write or you can’t and anyone can learn to write. However I am not that naive and I understand it takes a certain skill… just as good PR professionals need to culminate a certain skill set that involves much more than just writing, selling and strategizing.  
     
    I believe that PR, as a profession, is not respected because it is not understood. Until you have actually lived the life of a PR professional … it is unfair to put an entire profession down and stereotype all PR professionals as sleazes or flaks.
     

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GIR4BV3SNEV3WRXHRGD336AO6Q jeda85

    Someone told me that’s flack or flak..somethings
    PR in this case maybe the same with this site
    http://thaidt.webchuyennghiep.net/phong%20khach%20than%20thien.html
    but in this page i use SEO but in the some ways, it’s not diffent much, PR for all. Flack is like this or what?

  • Anonymous

    You’re glorifying what is really a sleazy profession. Most flaks I dealt with had no training in journalism, couldn’t answer questions beyond the simple point they had chosen to sell their story and never called you back if ever you needed them. Journalism and PR are very different animals. In PR, the idea is sell, sell, sell. If you sell, sell, sell, somebody will buy. Also use technojargon like strategic communications. It means nothing, but it will impress a 5-year-old.

  • Anonymous

    Flak. They catch flak.

  • Anonymous

    I was a journalist for 40 years and got lied to all the time

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Fiske, I have to disagree with your statement that for public relations people, “the reader is no longer your primary target.  In PR, it’s a combination of client, employer and a variety of new audiences that can shift daily.”  I disagree competely.  Good, simple, direct writing works with any audience and should be employed by anyone trying to convey a message.  That’s why reporters, who write for wide audiences, have the write/right skills.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been doing pr for 20 years and I have never lied to a reporter.

  • Anonymous

    flack

  • http://www.derekdevries.org Derek DeVries

    Another reason journalists don’t always make good PR pros is that research, writing and pitching are only *some* of the tasks public relations professionals perform.  The field incorporates myriad components from event planning to design to crisis communications to reputation management.

  • http://in.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110728022125AAZIBIE Gamefly

    If there is a way to tie sales performance to the timing of when a story ran, that would be a good measure.http://in.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110728022125AAZIBIE

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Saunders/603809847 Mike Saunders

    “Having started my career in journalism…” 

    Alas, you never say where and for how long. 

  • Anonymous

    TV reporters tend to transition to PR better than print reporters. The main reason that journalists don’t always make good PR people is because is PR is promotion and reporters can’t sell. PR is sales and marketing. You are in the business of promoting products, services or positions through media. Yes, you have to have an understanding of how a newsroom works, but in PR you have to be able to sell a story. Reporters typically have no understanding of how sales people work in their own company, much less in external PR.

  • http://www.prsa.org/ PRSA

     I also wanted to add that of the many successful journalists I have worked with, both as reporters and when they changed careers to PR,

    few have had the training in research, finance and business
    that a public relations professional needs in order to address the varying
    communications needs of many stakeholders and audiences. This is further
    evidenced by the journalists – former and current – who are currently enrolled
    in my university’s Global Strategic Communications program, covering advertising
    and public relations.  They come from many different countries and states,
    including former reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Minneapolis Star
    Tribune, and The St. Petersburg Times among many others. Yes, they know how to
    write.  Yes, they are very smart and resourceful.  Yes, they know how
    to frame and tell a good story.  But most of them don’t know what’s the
    best research tool to apply depending on what you’re trying to find out, let
    alone how to word a qualifying question for a focus group, how to transcribe
    the codes of any research or what’s a valid scale on a survey. And to date,
    I’ve only found a couple, who happened to be business reporters, who knew how
    to read a P&L statement or an EBITDA.

     

    The main issue to keep in mind is that most of us who make the jump
    from journalism to PR think our new careers will be tightly woven to our last
    one. That’s the case if all you do is media relations. But, again, media
    relations is only ONE of the many tasks a public relations professional must undertake.

    Rosanna Fiske
    PRSA

  • http://www.prsa.org/ PRSA

    John – Glad you enjoyed the post. You make several great points,
    and I don’t discount the credibility factor of journalists from the AP, CNN,
    Wall Street Journal, etc. when they are pitching stories to other journalists.
    But I think you discount the equally strong credibility factor that businesses
    have whenever a PR agency comes into a new business pitch with a former CMO, an
    MBA grad and a 20-year agency CEO leading the account team. As I noted in my
    post, PR is much, much more than getting a client’s name in the media.
    Actually, in my last agency job, media relations was a small piece of the work
    that I did. And, honestly, as you move up the senior ranks of public relations,
    you tend to do less and less media relations work, and more and more
    strategizing on overall communications – to different audiences, of which the
    media are but one. There is a business-enhancement component that is equally
    strong, especially at a time when every business looks, feels and talks so
    similar to their competitors. Having that business-focused background on staff,
    along with strong reporting and media skills (such as from former journalists),
    I would argue, is the ideal mix for PR agencies.  I know that type of
    background (journalism mixed with business) is what helped my career in PR.

    Rosanna Fiske
    PRSA

  • http://www.prsa.org/ PRSA

     

    This is really where the advocacy component of PR takes over. What
    happens when you get that push back from a client, from a skeptical potential
    partner for your client or from a reporter who just doesn’t see the news value
    you believe is inherent in the story or idea you are promoting? It happens to
    every PR pro. And this, in a way, is where many journalists add great value to
    PR: they know how to push back and add that extra key point that will help
    their stories see the light of day. They’ve done this for years with their
    editors, and I know from my own experience as a former journalist, it takes a
    while to learn how to find that right balance between being pushy and getting
    your point across.

     

    But there’s also a broader issue here that even those who have years
    of experience in PR can struggle with: understanding the business aspects and
    value of what you are advocating. It’s for this reason that PRSA is such a
    strong advocate for business education for our members and the profession. We
    believe that to be successful in public relations, you need a variety of skills
    and knowledge, two of the most important being strong business and financial
    expertise.  These can help you see beyond the news value of something and
    to understand and advocate for how your client’s work improves a company’s
    bottom line.

    Rosanna Fiske
    PRSA

  • http://www.prsa.org/ PRSA

     

    Dionne – Thanks for adding additional context from a reporter’s
    perspective. You’re right that one of my central points was that media
    relations and publicity are not all of PR. They are minor components of a much
    more diverse and broad profession. That’s why there are dedicated media
    relations firms and then there are more general public relations firms. Having
    great media contacts and great media knowledge is fantastic, but as I say in
    the piece, will only get you so far. After a while, you have to move past going
    back to those same contacts and pitching, and more importantly, if you want to
    advance your career in public relations. That’s certainly not to say that
    journalists who start out in PR doing mostly media relations won’t be
    successful in their new career. Many will and they do add great value to our
    profession – in media relations. But it’s rare that you can be that singularly
    focused in any profession for years or decades. Public relations requires a lot
    more knowledge in the social sciences.

    Rosanna Fiske
    Chair and CEO
    PRSA

  • http://www.prsa.org/ PRSA

     

    Dionne – Thanks for adding additional context from a reporter’s
    perspective. You’re right that one of my central points was that media
    relations and publicity are not all of PR. They are minor components of a much
    more diverse and broad profession. That’s why there are dedicated media
    relations firms and then there are more general public relations firms. Having
    great media contacts and great media knowledge is fantastic, but as I say in
    the piece, will only get you so far. After a while, you have to move past going
    back to those same contacts and pitching, and more importantly, if you want to
    advance your career in public relations. That’s certainly not to say that
    journalists who start out in PR doing mostly media relations won’t be
    successful in their new career. Many will and they do add great value to our
    profession – in media relations. But it’s rare that you can be that singularly
    focused in any profession for years or decades. Public relations requires a lot
    more knowledge in the social sciences.

    Rosanna Fiske
    Chair and CEO
    PRSA

  • Anonymous

    As a former reporter, to me the main difference between being a reporter and being a flak is that flaks have to lie to reporters. I know a flak who lies out of both sides of his/her mouth. It’s always very interesting when both you and the flak know the flak is lying.

  • http://twitter.com/NicWirtz Nic Wirtz

    So there’s no difference whatsoever? 

    A journalist should know their audience, one of the first things you’re taught at journalism school is how to write for an audience. A journalist that doesn’t know there’s isn’t going to be around for long.

    A mistake in an article a journalist writes could cost their employer hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Know, respect and appreciate the PR code of the ethics. So that would be like the journalism one?

    Focus on outcomes not outputs. So it’s a results based business, just like journalism.

    The one possible difference could be advocacy, admittedly this is not something journalists do as they are meant to be impartial. However, we’re seeing many digital media journalists/curators advocating others’ work.

    How PR and journalism differ was a very misleading sub-heading.I’m glad you highlighted the 15% job losses in journalism, since 2006 it is more than 27% in the US. There are currently roughly four times as many PR pros as journalists.Like many knowledge workers, the difference between PR and journalism is the application of very similar skill sets.

  • lenderchick

    I’m a former reporter who has also crossed over to the darkside doing PR for a publicly traded company.
    I love being able to write stories and press releases where I have to be neither fair nor  balanced. I also adore being a champion for my company.
    However, there is quite a learning curve. Writiing for a company is vastly different that writing news. It went against the grain at first that I didn’t need to get both sides of a story. I also wasn’t used to writing quotes for people.
    I have had great success at picthing stories, but last week, a reporter surprised me when he asked me why on earth would I think he might be interested in writing that story. I resisted the urge to tell him that a. he might want to get to know his audience better and b. because he’s a freaking reporter and needs to do his job. It’s a little distrubing to a former reporter when other’s news values do not agree with your own.
    (The thing I miss the most about being in PR now, is the dynamics and fast-paced environment of a newsroom. There’s nothing like it, and PR can’t compare. But PR pays much better!)

  • http://twitter.com/DigitalDionne Dionne N. Walker

    Also former AP here – you’re missing her point. I’m reading that point to be, in a nutshell, that just because you can sell/write the hell out of a story, it doesn’t mean that you will hit the ground running in PR.

    Fact is, most reporters don’t want to face the fact that we a) don’t know everything and b) don’t know everything and also c) don’t know everything. We also hate the notion that PR people aren’t entirely stupid (just mostly stupid) and that they may actually have skills we can’t pick up in our sleep.

    I learned this when I tried to answer some sample questions for a PR certification. I knew full well I wouldn’t be actually trying to get the cert, but was curious and figured – like most reporters – that I would breeze through. WRONG! I had no familiarity with these terms, concepts, etc. I winged through a few, but it was very eye opening. I crashed and burned!

    I’m definitely a believer that most PR folks are absolutely bass ackward stupid when it comes to media pitching and could benefit from a year or seven in a newsroom; my inbox is testament to that. But the notion that a journalist could just come tap dancing in there and do better is not only misguided, it’s a little arrogant. And I say that as someone who has thought this for YEARS.

    Oof. I just defended PR people. My commitment to departure is sealed.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnNemoPR John Nemo

    I’ll take a former journalist over a well-heeled PR person with zero newsroom experience any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Most anybody can do the “non-journalism” PR items you mention – market research, focus groups, understanding a code of ethics, pitching new business – with a little training and time. What you can’t replicate is years of experience and contacts in the mainstream media machine. Plus the storytelling skills and insider knowledge journalists bring to the table simply cannot be replicated by earning an MBA or APR. There is no substitute for the training and experience I got as an AP reporter, for instance.

    Granted some journalists might not have the right personality for PR, or be good in front of clients or be a natural salesperson-type, but so what? If you need someone who can gin up tons of coverage in the mainstream media and/or tell great stories using print/video/audio/photos for a client, journalists are going to excel if they were any good at their craft to being with. You can always find and hire someone to do market research or schmooze clients. Those people are a dime a dozen, aren’t they?

    Former journalists also offer level of credibility with clients/customers that you can’t replicate as a non-journalist. I see it all the time – when a former journalist trots out his or her credentials, potential clients go gaga. True or not, there’s a sense that a former AP reporter or TV producer must REALLY be good at understanding the media, because he used to do it full-time! And perception is reality in PR, as we know.

    Also, on the ethics issue, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. I know plenty of unethical people in PR – and most (if not all) are not former journalists. Ethics is something you either have or you don’t. It’s a personal/moral makeup issue, not a profession-based issue.

    Thought provoking piece to be sure. Thanks for sharing it!