January 11, 2007

By Butch Ward

For the first 27 years of my professional career, I was a journalist. For the past two, I have been a teacher, working with journalists in seminars and newsrooms.

And for the three years that separated those journalism gigs, I did a job I had never thought about doing:

I was a flack. A corporate spokesperson. A public relations professional. Vice President for Corporate and Public Affairs.

And guess what: It was one of the best jobs I ever had. And, no question, it was one of the hardest.

I’m thinking about this after reading that Los Angeles Times reporter John Balzar is leaving the newspaper to become vice president for communications at The Humane Society. I’m also thinking about the roughly 70 journalists laid off this month at my former paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, many of whom must be wondering what they’ll do to earn a living now.

I wondered that once. And for my first few months out of work, PR was not on my list of job possibilities. Like many journalists, I thought of PR as an exercise in spin — the antithesis of the journalist’s search for truth. So what changed my mind?

The answer to that question emerged about five months after I left the Inquirer in July 2001. By the spring of that year, I was thinking seriously about moving on. My job as managing editor was focused increasingly on management’s version of barbering: cut the budget, trim the news hole, shave the staff. We re-budgeted frequently, as revenues fell short of goals and the company struggled to meet its profit-margin commitments to Knight Ridder. My job was mostly joyless — save for the all-too-few opportunities I had to pursue journalism with a staff of truly talented and committed people. They taught me something every day; I still miss them.

So when the company announced it would offer another round of buyouts — the third round in 18 months — I quickly submitted my application. And on a hot Friday afternoon in July, I left the white tower on North Broad Street with a ton of wonderful memories, a check for one year’s pay, a commitment for two years of health insurance — and, for the first time in 27 years, no job.

What will you do, my colleagues asked? Maybe foundation work, I answered; maybe something not-for-profit. I’m not sure.

The only decision that my wife, Donna, and I had made was that, if possible, we would stay in Philadelphia. After 20 years, it had become home. And besides, I was ready to try something new.

Summer ended, autumn moved toward winter, and I still hadn’t discovered that something new. I had done some very important things — like attending all of my daughter Cait’s high school soccer games. I also had networked with a lot of new people — but I remained unemployed. Foundations in the region weren’t hiring; major nonprofits weren’t, either.

And then I had my epiphany.

I realized I was looking for my last job.

Let me explain:

I was the son of a man who worked in the same job for the same company for 44 years. I had worked for just two companies in my 27 years. With my 50th birthday fast approaching, I did the math and figured that if all went as planned, my next job would be my last one.

And that, I realized, was placing way too much pressure on my search. If it were to be my last job, it needed to be perfect. But wasn’t that foolish? Hadn’t I just learned the hard way that even if I found a job I truly loved — like being managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer — that the job could change so much that I wouldn’t want it anymore? And wasn’t I seeing evidence every day that people were losing jobs they loved to layoffs and other types of restructuring?

Just look for a job, I said to myself.

Just look for a job you might like.

And if it doesn’t work out, find another one.

That’s when I first considered PR.

One man I met while networking had just retired as the spokesperson for Independence Blue Cross, the largest health insurer in southeastern Pennsylvania. He said I should apply for the job. Another friend, a former newspaper editor himself, told me the same thing. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the man who would become my boss at IBC was asking people if I might be interested in working there. Within a few weeks, we were talking seriously about an offer.

As we talked, I thought a lot about what it would take for me to accept a job that called for me to represent a company and its policies to the public. Two requirements topped my list:

  • The company had to be engaged in work that had meaningful impact on the community.
  • I needed to feel comfortable with the company’s values. I understood that a spokesperson represents one point of view — the company’s — but I needed to believe I could have a relationship with the media that was straightforward and truthful.

Independence Blue Cross passed both of my tests. Becoming involved in the business of providing health care — and working to improve a broken system — certainly was meaningful work. And I knew people who had worked at IBC for years — people whose integrity I admired and whose values I shared.

So I took the job. I went to the other side. And after a few months, I realized that even though I no longer was a journalist, I was playing an important role in giving the public access to information that — in the case of our health care system — was contributing to a fuller, richer debate.

I found that this was honorable work.

Along the way, I learned the story of Lawrence G. Foster, the former Newark (N.J.) News reporter who led the public relations department at Johnson & Johnson. It was Foster who led the company’s public campaign to recover after seven people died after taking Tylenol from packages laced with cyanide. That PR campaign — which included the decision to pull all Tylenol products off every shelf in America — is a model of transparency, honest media relations and true concern for the customer. It helped save a company.

So honorable work? Yes. But PR at Independence Blue Cross was difficult. (at least as hard, I told old colleagues, as trying to grow circulation). Fighting the bogus, but widely held, notion that health insurers are causing America’s health care crisis is a withering challenge. Each day I wrote press releases, answered reporters’ questions, arranged interviews, collaborated with the CEO on speeches, prepared testimony for public hearings and drafted responses to questions from the insurance department. I helped prepare publications for our members and plan IBC’s sponsorship of a hugely popular 10K race each spring.

And along the way, I saw journalism from the other side. I had it done to me, as they say.

Some of the work was excellent. Though not necessarily flattering to IBC, it was conscientiously gathered, the work of reporters clearly focused on getting the story right. But some of the work was not so good. On more than one occasion, we were the subject of stories that, figuratively at least, had been written long before I was invited to offer IBC’s point of view.

So why did I leave PR?

I left because Karen Brown Dunlap, Poynter’s president, asked me to join Poynter’s faculty. It was a job I had hoped to someday have — and I was honored to be offered the chance. I didn’t run from PR; I ran to a new career in teaching.

Any regrets?

Sure. Most of all, I regret that I so rarely see the people at IBC, with whom I shared three years of hard work and camaraderie. It is the same regret I have about leaving the Inquirer. I miss the people.

But I will never regret the decision to take a job I might like. While I’m never happy to learn that people are leaving journalism — especially when the decision is made for them — I’m now able to reassure them that their abilities to write, to gather and to organize information, and to think analytically, will serve them well in the business world.

And, I can assure them one other thing: PR — like journalism — can be a very honorable way to spend one’s life.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
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