Journalism and PR at odds?

Journalism is partially predicated on confrontation and divisiveness. In one word: conflict. The discipline, by default, tends to believe conflict is needed in the majority of stories told. It’s what sells ‘papers’ (or so some people think), what generates eyeballs and, these days, instigates the viral dimension.

In many cases I am sure this is true, as old school and tiresome as it sounds to a PR professional like myself. The question, however, is whether a professional schooled in this ‘half glass empty’ attitude can cut it in PR, which by default has a ‘half glass full’ mindset.

Listening to, empathising with and understanding the perspectives of others is a fundamentally important part of public relations. Then there comes negotiation, potentially applied to seek stakeholder and organisational change.

My presumption is that journalists are not trained as fully in these skills as PR practitioners and, just as importantly, they are not educated as to the relevance and importance of these approaches.

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Of course, anyone moving into a new field can learn these skills, but here is another presumption/observation I’ll challenge anyone to refute: most journalists do not study PR at university after they change professions.

A result of this is they will probably not understand the strategic power and potential of public relations to a sufficiently sophisticated degree. This is partially because on the job learning is simply not capable of replicating the intellectually demanding and rigorous environment of an excellent masters course in this or any field.

Journalism is a poor introduction to achieve organisational change

Organisational evolution is as important to PR as stakeholder behavioural change. Journalists can’t be expected to realise this or understand the strategic depth of PR and its capability of helping achieve this (to start with, anyway).

It takes education and practice to achieve this capability. I would not like to see PR become focused ONLY on stakeholder-focused awareness raising and behavioural change, at the expense of achieving organisation-stakeholder mutually beneficial outcomes, so (ex-)journalists will be dragging the PR chain in these latter aspects.

The big bonus of journos moving into PR

Clearly, the advanced capability of journalists to write and/or to tell a story in a compelling manner is their USP. And it’s one PR can absolutely benefit from.

Additionally, journalists are trained to not accept the status quo but, rather, to challenge orthodoxies and dig deeper to ascertain the crux of the issue.

And they frequently have plenty of experience in dealing with a range of people, from CEOs and politicians to the broader community. Similarly, many have reported on a diverse array of issues so have a strong understanding of society and, in some cases, specific industries.

And of course, due to their many media contacts, they will have an advantage in placing stories in the media.

All of these traits are highly valued in PR.

Sales skills needed by agency PR professionals

For anyone, journalists included, moving into a PR agency at a senior level, by default, involves the procuring of new business.

So, selling skills are highly valued. Journalists, not normally trained in this aspect, would do well to bear this in mind, no matter how the issue is positioned in the PR agency’s recruitment pitch. Not that you find sales as part of any PR undergrad or masters course I’m aware of, either – which is a whole other story!

With its greater remuneration and diversity of tactical dimensions, not to mention the societal benefit effective implementation of PR can have, I can certainly understand the allure of the discipline to those working in the media. All of us, however, should consider the ramifications of the two fields seemingly moving closer and closer together.

Collaboration between the media and PR is increasing by the minute, with the primary driver being the economics of contemporary media. Which in turn is being massively influenced by the internet and its star recruit, social media.

What do you think the impact journalists moving into PR is having, and will have, on the discipline? What are the positive outcomes for both professions? Can you give examples? Will the increase of trained journos in PR create opportunities for all parties, or lead to a diminishment in the value of public relations to business and undermine utilisation of its strategic heft?

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Journalists’ migration to PR: ramifications for universities

The impact of journalists moving into public relations is increasing in significance due to media’s downsizing. Key consequences for PR include: improved writing, confrontation rather than cooperation, increased and better quality media coverage, diminished capability of PR impacting on organisational behaviour and less PR graduates being able to secure roles and develop careers.

In summary, journalists’ migration to PR is enhancing the discipline’s technical or tactical capability, whilst undermining its strategic heft and influence.

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PR and journalism students and graduates

One of the more interesting (and less discussed) impacts of journalists’ move into PR is how this will impact on opportunities for less experienced practitioners and the way in which university education manifests itself (both for PR and journalism students).

Right now, with the devastating loss of jobs in the media and the resulting migration into PR which is occurring, if I were formulating a university journalism course, I’d be integrating a healthy component of PR-related information.

  • There is a high likelihood the journalism career will be cut short so give the student a helping hand in starting a new career if push comes to shove
  • Having an understanding of PR will assist journalists in understanding PR and building mutually beneficial relationships with practitioners
  • There is increased pressure on journalists to provide more content than was once the case due to there being less journalists, yet a higher demand for content due to the digital platforms of most media, exacerbated by these platforms’ high rate of content turnover (e.g. refresh, refresh, refresh). A journalist, then, who can manage PR sources to deliver a product to she is happy put to her editor, then all power to the journo and more fuel to her career.

It seems to make sense, too, that if professionals from one field move into a second field, then there must be less opportunities for those which exist (or being educated to exist) within the first field.

This rationalisation is somewhat complicated by the likelihood that migrating journalists are generally going to be more experienced and mature than the emerging PR professional, so to some degree it’s an apples vs. oranges argument.

Nevertheless, there is one pot of money to remunerate all employees, and there will be prioritisation of one candidate over another and not everyone will be a winner. This includes the likelihood that positions will be shaped to leverage this new reality, with an outcome potentially being there will be more positions available for experienced writers than, relatively speaking, business communication ingénues.

In conjunction with my advice to journalism course designers, my advice to those responsible for running PR courses is pretty one-dimensional: get your graduates to be much better writers than they currently are, because the profession is sick and tired of poor writers emerging with degrees, then having to do the hard yards which PR educators failed to achieve.

Note: I’m going to extend this discussion in a post I’m publishing next week, which discusses the question: are journalism and PR at odds? Join me then!

And perhaps advice to educators in both disciplines is to make sure you are training your students in editing and shooting video, with the inclusion of the ‘how to tell a story’ dimension obviously being a necessity as part of that process. This is because of the exponentially increasing utilisation of video in digital communication, whether it be news websites, social media or corporate websites. And you can add photography into that mix, too.

You have to wonder, though, with there being less and less positions for journalists, if universities are ratcheting back the number of courses which exist for them. Already I can see the beginnings of an increase in PR roles which are dedicated almost entirely to writing. Will this development see journalism and PR courses become more integrated, or at least collaborate more with each other?

What do you think the influence of journalists moving into PR is having, and will have, on the discipline? What are the positive outcomes for both professions? Can you give examples? Will there be less opportunities for PR graduates, do you think, and what impact should developments discussed in this post have on university courses for PR and journalism?

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Public relations: replacing media as the conscience of business?

Australian media is haemorrhaging.  Multitudes of Fairfax’s most conscience-driven and insightful journalists gone. 50 odd journos from The West Australian gone or going. Where will it stop? But where one story ends, another begins. The reduction in skilled journalists and the concomitant reduction in time remaining editorial staff have, places a heavier responsibility than ever before on public relations professionals operating in a manner serving not just the interests of their employer(s), but also of their employer’s stakeholders and, by extension, society as a whole.

Is journalism dying?

This is not about dancing on any putative grave of journalism, or exploiting increasing challenges the media and quality journalism are grappling with; it is about standing up and helping the media produce quality content. Which begs the question, what is quality content? Well, how about content that:

  • is factual
  • is interesting to those it is targeted at (i.e. different media has different ‘customers’)
  • features a range of perspectives (or two at the very least)
  • recognises people are entitled to hold different views on issues, even if extreme and even if you can drive a truck through ‘truths’ espoused
  • has a narrative.

Other characteristics could no doubt be added to the list. Conflict is probably primary amongst these.

Conflict, resolution and depth in narrative

I’ve been told conflict is what compels people; it’s what sells newspapers. Well, that may well be the case, but in my view the obsession with conflict has led to media developing two contemptible characteristics:

  • Commonly having an unnecessarily negative tenor, both in the nature of stores covered and in the way in which they are covered (quant and qual, if you like)
  • The desperation to find narratives of conflict leading to an abundance of stories which are prurient, inane and catering to the lowest common denominator.

I don’t know how journalists drag themselves out of the bed in the morning to cover these sorts of stories as they are so demeaning to all involved and do nothing to make society a better place. All they do is add to the trash heap of sordid information that clutters contemporary life.

(In my view it is more compelling to provide a resolution, or come close to hinting at a resolution. In this context Dickens, Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, De Lillo – some of the greatest and most compelling exponents of narrative – come to mind. The impatience of media rarely allows it the time to resolve the narrative or, for that matter, capture its subtleties.)

The increasing platforms on which media operates (cable, websites, social media etc), with its insatiable demand for increasing amounts of content, is no doubt part of the reason for its descent into banality. It’s ironic, then, many of the very tools needed to feed the media beast – journalists – are being excised from the juggernaut.

Why media and public relations exist

Making money was always a key part of why media started. That is its raison d’être. Journalism existing for the common good, or as society’s conscience, has always been largely a fallacy; certainly in my lifetime, anyway. Journalism is media’s main tool to help it make money.

The raison d’être of public relations, theoretically anyway, is to assist organisations and their stakeholders change their behaviour so they operate more in line with each others’ needs and wants than might otherwise have been the case. A public relations professional is the discipline’s tool to help it achieve this.

Manifestations of public relations include:

  • helping those without the power, or means, to express their views articulate it to organisations relevant to them
  • helping organisations be as transparent as feasibly possible
  • prompting organisations to change their operations so they are more in line with stakeholder expectations
  • being a positive force, one focused not on divisiveness or negativity or conflict, but one predicated on building bridges with the view to deliver a win-win outcome.

This latter point is one that, clearly, journalism does not seek, nor is it inherently able, to deliver. Journalism operates from the outside; public relations operates from the inside – much closer to where organisational power and decision making resides.

At its best, public relations is the conscience of an organisation. Some journalists achieve this, too, but most media outlets as a whole fail in this because of their heavy weighting towards the negative rather than the balanced or positive.

Various research initiatives have identified in the order of 80 odd per cent of stories in the media are instigated by public relations professionals. So add these elements together:

  • Journalist numbers are being dramatically reduced
  • Most stories in the media are instigated from a PR professional idea or approach
  • The public relations discipline exists to help both organisations and their stakeholders
  • A fundamental tenet of public relations is generating narratives
  • The need for society to hear more good stories and, inherently, the influence this can have in fostering a more positive, amenable and less defeatist mindset in society (okay, okay, this is on my wish list, alright?).

Is something happening here? Is this a tipping point? Is this the opportunity public relations has been waiting for to gain the credibility it has been seeking but, in many arenas, has clearly been failing to achieve for many years?

Can public relations help media not just survive, but evolve into a discipline that is more of a positive healing force than it has ever been before?

What is your experience in dealing with media outlets which are reducing their number of journalists? Is it impacting on your ability to place stories or the nature of their stories? How do you think the rationalisation occurring in the media landscape, as well as the increasing number of media platforms, will impact on how you do your job, or on the practice and evolution of public relations itself?

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