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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Good people win in PR

What better way to start the year than stating the obvious that good people come first in PR? The ability to deal effectively with a wide range of people is the all-important number one skill of an effective public relations professional. Being a good person, then, provides n incalculable benefit to making a significant contribution to excellent stakeholder relations.

PR delivering on brand promisee

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Of course, there are a range of factors nothing to do with being a good person which help make a PR practitioner effective at their job. The second most important characteristic, for instance, being the ability to write effectively. By this I mean more than a Facebook or Twitter update. Examples range from media releases to annual report content to thought leadership pieces.

At the core of the writing skill is, of course, the ability to tell a story. This is an ability which professionals must be able manifest face-to-face with organisational stakeholders. Not only that; like any form of professional communication, the story needs to be articulated in a fluid manner responsive to the interests and concerns of the stakeholder being communicated with (e.g. customisation).

For this to occur as effectively as possible, a significant degree of empathy is required in the storyteller. Whilst it is not an entirely necessary characteristic in this context, having a sophisticated empathy capability will provide insights into stakeholders which helps build bonds between them and the PR professional.

And as storytelling so often entails collaborating with others, empathy facilitates gaining information to build and enrich the content and stories which are being developed.

Empathy is a pretty hard characteristic to fake. People tend to see through the facade of those who aren’t sincere in its expression. Which can also be said of people’s perception towards organisations which fail in delivering their brand promise.

Traits of a good person

Some of the traits of a good person – honesty, integrity, trustworthiness – are those which the anthropomorphised organisation must also possess in a large enough degree to ensure positive organisation-stakeholder relationships.

So being a good person is analogous in the practice of PR, as well as also being necessarily inherent in the manner in which professional communication/stakeholder management is applied for it to be as effective as it can possibly be.

Leadership in PR by being ‘good’

For me, a lot of it boils down to how you choose to treat and deal with people. This commonly manifests itself in the trait of leadership.

Leadership does not necessarily mean you are in charge of a team of people. It is more about the way you go about your life, including your professional life.

What sort of example are you setting? Are you the sort of person/professional who others less experienced than you aspire to be like? Do you publicly praise and privately criticise? Do you make it a habit to communicate with people face-to-face or under the cloak of email and/or social media? Do people seek your advice?

Will people come to you for help even when they know it will negatively impact on their own reputation? In other words, are you a calm port in a gathering storm?

The subtle forms of leadership noted here are a direct reflection of the sort of person you are perceived to be. Because human relationships and the impact these have on reputation are such an integral element of public relations, leadership has more resonance and importance in this professional discipline than many others.

If you can’t walk the talk (and who would argue that PR does not have a large amount of ‘talk’ inherent in it?), then it is likely you will not reach the heights you may perhaps aspire to within the realm of public relations.

Half-glass full for PR

The PR attitude to our discipline is a necessarily half-glass full one.

At its most fundamental, an employer or client will simply not tolerate a negative, defeatist approach to stakeholder relations. Whilst pragmatism is a necessary feature of a business environment, underlying this a positive approach to achieving objectives needs to applied.

Being positive and primed for success is more likely to come from a good person than from one who by default sees little chance for triumph. Being positive also feeds into the energy which is applied to difficult situations, ones where a greater degree of strategy and creativity is required.

Can you describe situations where being a good or ‘less than good’ person in PR has impacted on results achieved, or the impact on others of taking one of the two approaches? Can you describe benefits of being a good person in PR, and/or why is a particularly unique or relevant to the practice of the discipline?

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Don’t discriminate idiot: age & experience in PR

Age delivers experience, one of the strongest influences on competency and excellence that exists, with PR being no exception. Whether it involves any form of writing, managing a crisis, developing strategy, integrating public relations into broader business and marketing activity, managing teams and working with colleagues, or simply having developed a humility that comes from the realisation that everyone makes mistakes – it’s what you learn from them and how you deal with them that matters most – age=maturity=PR/business ROI.

Mature age public relations expert

Yet, according to Australia’s outgoing commissioner responsible for age discrimination, from the age of 45 employment options start to shrink for people. “From that point on, one of the greatest barriers to employment is age,” said Elizabeth Broderick, who worked in her role for three years.

Gender discrimination is not tolerated, as Ms Broderick said, so why should age discrimination be any more acceptable?

I was nearly fooled into discrimination by age

A few years ago I was recruiting for a role that reported to me. There were a number of younger, as well as an older, candidates. Compared to the others, much, much older in fact. And considerably older than most of the team I had working with me.

Yet, according to the job specs this was clearly the most qualified and suitable person for the job. But I wavered.

What if this person wouldn’t fit into the fast-moving, fluid culture of the team I already had? Would the candidate be able to offer the insights into new technology that were emerging for web and digital communication? (Somewhat ironically, this role was all to do with managing a website, supposedly young turk turf…)

But I hired the old guy (oh yes, he knows who it is!), and you know what, here’s what happened:

  • He educated all of the team, but me especially, on a range of digital communication capabilities
  • He was way ahead of most other IT/web-related professionals I’d interacted with
  • He recognised age as a perception-barrier from other people so worked extremely hard to deliver not just what was required by the role, but to provide value-add on top of that
  • His energy levels and devotion to the job meant you had to prise him out of the office and even then, as we soon learnt, he’d continue working on delivering beyond best practice outcomes at home
  • His experience enabled him to navigate turbulent political waters and interact with those unhappy with change (because this guy led a huge seachange in website communication at the organisation) successfully
  • He provided sage advice to me many a time, sometimes specifically relevant to his own role and sometimes in relation to leadership, management and business communication in a broader sense.

And you know what, he also became a good friend. Not just of myself, but of all those younger folk in the team as well. Multiple wins all round.

Suffice to say, lesson well learnt.

Why age rules in public relations

Hopefully (!), the more you do something the better at it you get. The flipside of this is that you can also get jaded by it, losing enthusiasm and hence an edge or creativity or freshness that is required. Like most things, it comes down to the individual and their attitude.

Certainly, as writing is PR’s number one skill, we can do with all the expertise we can get. I’ve found younger people in PR to often possess very poor writing skills. Age can be a real winner in this regard.

The more you write, the more feedback you get, the more lessons you learn – the better you get. Either that, or you get unemployed.

Dealing effectively with people – whether they be journalists, senior management, colleagues and others – is probably PR’s number two skill. And as you age you naturally encounter a range of different people and are put in a range of situations, many of them confronting. These experiences impact not just on knowledge, but in the array of responses we develop to resolve and leverage them for the best possible outcome.

This is nothing against youth (which has plenty going for it too!) it is just a simple result of aging. Age definitely wins in these regards!

Within PR, age seems to me like it should be perceived as having excellent POD. This is an industry dominated by youth. Perhaps this is partly because it is a female-centric industry and women tend to leave the workforce (due to family commitments?) as they age. I don’t know, I’m just speculating, because having a lot of women in PR is one of the best things about the industry.

The dwindling of PR professionals as we age underlines that in PR we should be trying to hang onto older workers for as long as possible. The knowledge they possess is equally important, and in many situations vastly more so, than whatever we learn from doing a Masters degree or deep-diving into social media 24/7/12/52.

Funnily enough, in my experience older people in the workforce tend to behave in a young way. That’s if you characterise the young as having:

  • Energy
  • Creativity
  • A willingness to try something new.

We could all do with a bit more age in our workforce.

What examples do you have of either age discrimination in the workplace or where older employees have delivered excellent value? What do you think it is about older workers that adds value to the workforce? Or do you disagree; do you only want to work with young people in the PR industry?