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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Who should be spokesperson in a crisis?

The best person to be an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is its leader. Unless, of course, it’s not. Expertise, empathy and credibility are key factors a spokesperson needs to possess if they are to be effective. And if the big kahuna lacks these qualities – aren’t you setting yourself up for failure by using her?

You can lead a horse to water...but CEOS?

Expertise is needed to be able to discuss all relevant crisis issues. Without this expertise, the leader will come across as unprofessional and insincere. The lack of sincerity perception stems from them being seen as not caring enough about the situation and the impact it is having through his lack of knowledge, especially if human lives or the environment are involved.

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It has been observed time and time again that unless an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is perceived as empathising with those being impacted on,s then she will be failing in her role. Empathy will manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • The way in which language is being used. Are people, for instance, being referred to in a caring enough manner? Are their families being referred to?
  • Actual physical presence. A leader who is able to locate herself physically at the actual site of the crisis, or within close geographical proximity, will be perceived as having more empathy with the situation and those involved than a leader who is on another continent or who is, for instance, in a capital city miles away from a mine disaster in a distant rural area
  • Clothing. Would you agree that a leader who is in high vis workwear, at the site of a mining crisis, is more likely to be perceived as having empathy to the situation than a leader who is in a corporate office set up for a media conference office wearing corporate suit and tie?

Or, on the flipside, is a corporate leader normally seen in a suit and tie going to be perceived as ‘try-hard’ and insincere by, all of a sudden, donning the gear of the ‘common man’?

The credibility factor in crisis spokespersons

The issue of credibility is relevant to both expertise and empathy. Credibility is rarely won overnight. Like reputation, it’s built up over years. And a challenge with this is that different groups of stakeholders may perceive totally different levels of credibility within people.

The CEO of a mining company, for instance, may be credible to employees and business media, but may not be credible to environmentalists, politicians and environmental media.

It would seem patently obvious to me a public relations/corporate communication etc employee should not be the spokesperson for an organisation in a crisis.

Despite PR professionals being adept at proactively communicating key messages, responding elegantly to difficult questions and effectively positioning the organisation, I would argue there is no way known stakeholders will perceive this as positively as the organisational leader putting himself out there.

What were we saying about sincerity? If an organisation doesn’t care enough for one of its leaders (if not the leader) to take the time to lead from the front in difficult times then, really, does it care at all? And if it doesn’t care – then why should I?

Being practical, however, there are subtleties to this situation. It may simply be that there is so much media wanting information, an organisation’s corporate communication leader may well need to respond to media with a smaller, and/or less geographically relevant, readership etc as the organisational leader simply can’t tick all the boxes. That would seem an appropriate use of resources to me.

Desire – impacting on the credibility of crisis spokespersons

One challenge it is not unusual for anyone leading corporate communication for an organisation to face is having a CEO who does not like being interviewed by the media. Escalate this to a crisis situation and, um, it’s only human nature that this dislike turns just a little bit more passionate.

At the end of the day, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

If the CEO is someone who isn’t normally the organisational spokesperson as a matter of course (e.g. for good times), then there is a strong argument for her not to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis:

  • She won’t have done the hard yards of consistently dealing with the media, so will probably come across as clumsy and lacking in expertise and empathy – not to mention she may well not have done the requisite media training, so won’t have the technical skills to adroitly manoeuvre her way through difficult lines of questions
  • Stakeholders may not attach credibility and relevance to the CEO as she isn’t normally seen in the media. Whereas they may attach relevance and credibility to the spokesperson who does normally represent the organisation.

Whilst without any doubt whatsoever there is a very strong argument for any CEO or CEO-equivalent to be adept at dealing with the media, there is a difference between what should be occurring and what the reality is.

And, yes, whilst having the desire or passion for communicating to important organisational stakeholders should be a default, considering the profound importance stakeholder relationships and organisational reputation are, sometimes it’s just not a happening thing.

So if this passion and desire does not exist, I think there is a strong case for using a senior organisational employee who does have this passion and, just as importantly, possesses the expertise, empathy and credibility to do the job well.

Multiple media spokespeople for organisations

In a crisis, to help with consistency of messaging and positioning, by default it is best to have a single spokesperson as much as possible. An assumption in this observation being that the spokesperson is doing a pretty good job!

Outside of the crisis situation, however, I am an advocate of there being multiple organisational spokespeople. As long as the organisation’s brand and positioning has been clearly defined, which includes the tone it should use in its spoken, written and visual communication, then multiple spokespeople achieves multiple organisational benefits.

Having multiple spokespeople achieves a number of outcomes:

  • It helps external stakeholders and employees understand talent is recognised and the organisational leader, for instance, is humble enough to recognise this and not want all employees to operate in his shadow
  • In enriches and humanises the brand
  • Employees operating in a specific area of the organisation will have a deeper degree of expertise on topics than employees from outside this area. By allowing them to speak on behalf of the organisation, it builds awareness of the depth of capability of an organisation
  • The ownership the various spokespeople have of certain areas of the business and the frequency with which they deal with the media, for instance, will make them more attuned to issues in the media and amongst stakeholders. This gives them enhanced capability to be an early warning issues management detector for an organisation
  • It provides ‘insurance’ for the brand if the leader or other spokespeople leave the organisation. If all media commentary is centred in one person, if she walks out the door so does a great deal of brand equity.

So, one spokesperson for one crisis. But business as usual? Multiple spokespeople is the way to go

What war stories can you share of working within a crisis and facilitating organisational spokespeople? Do you think there should be one organisational spokesperson or a number of them – in both the crisis situation and a business as usual setting?

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Lack of diversity in communication sources

The preference young people have for gaining information from online sources, especially social media, is creating a situation where people are not encountering opinions and perspectives which aren’t aligned with their own as much as they once were. This is resulting in many young people not learning the rationales for different points of view on a topic or, indeed, about some issues at all.

Social media as lightning rod for prejudice

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This is a spin-off effect of social media becoming a more important source of information for people than traditional media. The latter, of course, being partially and theoretically characterised through its:

  • diversity of opinions on different topics
  • wide range of issues it covers, including those the reader may not necessarily have a profound interest in
  • expertise which journalists possess on a particular subject, often gained through years of professional experience and interaction with a range of innovators, thought leaders and arbiters of excellence in a particular field.

Social benefit of the media

One beauty of a communication platform such as a newspaper, radio show or TV news bulletin is that it will feature a diversity of topics and issues. They are essentially ‘magazine’ in format, where those utilising them will learn things about topics they may not even have that great an interest in.

An outcome of this methodology is educating people about society more broadly than would be the case if they didn’t utilise the media. Even on the most basic level this is, at least partially, forcing a person to agree or disagree with a perspective, thereby engaging the thought processes more actively than using a communication conduit which simply panders to the preconceptions and default assumptions of the person.

You can’t possibly offer a fully considered point of view on a topic without knowing its different perspectives and facets. This is a tragedy for society and is an important and regrettable side-effect of the diminishing influence and capability of the media.

It is true, social media and the internet are evolving to mitigate the downside of media’s evolutionary cull. There are, for instance, many online-only sources of information like The Huffington Post and Social Media Examiner which are offering rich, expansive perspectives and information.

But they are the exception. And their existence and popularity doesn’t necessarily mean people will not gravitate towards online sources of content which pander only to their attitudinal and social preferences, prejudices and habits.

Bigoted views in the media

Of course, in principle people have always gravitated to media sources which are more to their liking/political perspective.

Look at The Australian, for instance.

Like most Murdoch mouthpieces which call themselves ‘media outlets’, it is unremittingly right wing in its political reporting and analysis and you are never going to get anything out of this newspaper which offers a vaguely balanced point of view on politics or recognises a left wing-leaning perspective. Yet, oddly enough (and there must be a logic to this I’m not smart enough to figure out), it is the leading Australian newspaper on indigenous issues, on which topic it seems take a balanced and considered perspective.

Compare The Australian’s political reporting to that of Fairfax (aka Sydney Morning Herald/The Age) which, whilst clearly left leaning, is nowhere near as tilted in its reporting as that of the Murdoch-mouth. You will actually get critical pieces on the Labor Party in Fairfax, whereas negative comments about the Liberal Party in The Australian rarely seem to materialise.

Social media richness = informational ghettos

The abundance of content – information, opinion and insights – on social media, then, is accelerating humans’ race towards the safe havens of informational ghettos, where plurality of thought and topics is both diminished and cultivating further diminishment.

Patently, this doesn’t have to be the case. And, in fact, it should not be the case. And it certainly is not an inherent fault in the technical capabilities technology which social media is built on. Hopefully, through education of young people in schools (which is another topic entirely!), the mindset of seeking a plurality of perspectives is one which is a habit not an exception.

But in a modern culture which all so often seeks the simplistic on the back of a reductionist mindset, this is an issue which we all have responsibility for mobilising on.

Do you find yourself running towards safe harbours of social media which cater to your political viewpoints at the expense of seeking opinions different to the ones which you hold? Is the acceleration of social media information sites and the reduction of media titles a good thing? A bad thing? Do you have examples and how this has impacted on the process of business communication?