August 15, 2011

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 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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