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Ex-journalists are not qualified and do not have the relevant experience to be ‘parachuted’ into the head of the organisational public relations function.  When this occurs, “it is a disaster waiting to happen,” according to one of my peers. And not least because public relations is a two-way process and journalism is a one-way process.

Public relations professionals are trained to create mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders. This necessitates an understanding of, and capability in, communicating in a meaningful, valuable manner with all relevant parties. Journalists communicate to, not with. Hence, their strategic communication and relationship management experience and capabilities are limited.

Strategic communication is about so much more than opinions or news being broadcast (journalists’ specialty) with little concern for the response they will provoke amongst stakeholders/audiences.

Public relations is not about the ‘control’ of relationships. Rather, it is about facilitating a best-possible outcome between an organisation and its stakeholders. Principles of public relations that need to be considered for this to occur include:

  • Dialogue – at the very heart of effective public relations (i.e. not simply ‘broadcast’. Inherent in the notion of dialogue is that an organisation is actually hearing and responding to what its stakeholders are saying and, hence, respecting them)
  • Negotiation (i.e. to bring about a win-win scenario)
  • Collaboration (working together with stakeholders to generate fresh perspectives, new ideas and resolutions to issues)
  • ‘Accommodation’ (i.e. modifying or evolving processes and behaviour).

These principles are not what journalists are trained in. This is not to say that they are not capable of applying such notions, but without requisite training (e.g. university study) and experience they will obviously be way behind the 8-ball compared to those who have done the training and have the experience.

Journalists’ attitudes are too negative to build relationships

“I have never seen a journalist succeed on the corporate side,” said Paul Cargill, Global Communications Team Lead at Cargill. “A PR professional is, at the core, an advocate. They find a way to tell their company or client’s story when there really isn’t one. They always look for ways to promote their client in ways that will be accepted as news.

“A journalist is the opposite, said Paul. “He/she is a trained sceptic. Their skill is to poke holes. When one does that inside a corporation, it is not welcome. Yes, you need to bullet-proof messages or pitches with tough thinking. But if you are not perceived as trying to make the story work instead of pointing out how it won’t, you won’t be around long.”

They are also typically negative, prioritising discussions on bad news. PR pros do flag the negative with our organisations, but our focus is on building mutually positive relationships and that will not occur by being ‘down’ on everything.

Stakeholder advocates

One particular dimension that academic study emphasises that I believe ex-journalists struggle with is the notion that strategic public relations professionals need to act as ‘in-house activists’. At its most elemental, this means the PR pro will often represent the views of external organisational stakeholders and prompt an organisation to evolve based on these views.

This may be in the context of changing the nature of a development of pristine bushland, what constituents are included in a product, how a product is manufactured (e.g. no sweat shops please) or simply the way in which information is communicated to stakeholders or how the organisation-stakeholder dialogue should take place.

Public relations requires leadership

To quote my modest peer of mine again, “PR is a management function; journalists (even senior ones on $$$) are typically ‘worker bees’. It’s quite a head shift to move from one to the other. I know that even at 21, fresh out of uni I saw my job as helping management succeed – whereas journalists moving into PR tend to have quite a different mindset about their function in an organisation.”

Communication strategy

Ex-journalists have no background in the design or analysis of market research, a critically important element of public relations. Market research provides us with the data we need to put together holistic, evidence-based communication strategies and to create benchmarks against which the success of our work can be measured.

Nor is a journalist is not trained in employee communication or community liaison. They have no experience in the sensitivities involved or the most effective means through which to communicate to these stakeholders.

Which leads me to the fact that, OH YES, journalists have no training in putting together these holistic communication strategies, the absolute screaming Jane bedrock of what we do.

As my mysterious peer said to me, “PR is a strategic discipline – journalism is not. (Just eight words, yet so much in that!)”

We don’t shoot from the hip in one-off communication salvos (a la an article in a newspaper or a segment on a white trash current affairs show), we develop strategic themes and drivers to underpin coordinated and multi-faceted activity that uses a range of communication tactics. The communication strategies are often relevant for years. They are not stories that are produced then quickly fade out of focus.

Public relations’ tactical breadth

PR is not a synonym for media relations. Nor is crisis communication the only function a senior PR operative undertakes. And whilst media relations is a major component of crisis communication, it is only one element.

Public relations – as we surely all know!!! – is comprised of a diversity of these tactical communication elements. Journalists are frequently not familiar with the nuances, challenges and opportunities of these elements:

Without having worked in some of these areas in a hands-on capacity, a person’s ability will be limited when:

  • considering whether they are an appropriate tactic to include in a communication strategy
  • empathising with the person implementing their tactical implementation
  • providing counsel, direction and leadership to those implementing the tactic
  • knowing what elements of the tactic to prioritise, partly because they will not be aware how long each element takes to complete.

Journalists often take a biff and barge approach to their content. Sometimes it’s hit and miss. Strategic communicators cannot afford to take this approach. It can take years to establish (and win back, where it’s lost) good will and a positive reputation.

One of our roles is to find areas where organisations and their stakeholders can ‘accommodate’ each other, as well as identifying commonalities then building upon them, rather than deepen divisiveness.

Public relations build. Journalists – after you strip away the spin of being society’s conscience – are too focused on destruction. They, unlike public relations professionals, are problem not solution-oriented.

There is a world of difference between the two professions.

In a following post I will posit a range of reasons why ex-journos can be excellent PR practitioners? Would you like to pre-empt my thoughts? Did you agree with those notions I captured here? What do you think, and what is your experience of, journalists who have been parachuted into head of PR functions?


There has been a lot of comment on this through a range of LinkedIn discussion groups already, including Public Relations Professionals, Corporate Communication, PR Professionals and the Public Relations Institute of Australia. A number of these comments on ex-journalists being the boss of PR have been summarised in a post on this blog.

PS. I’d welcome you joining networks with me through my LinkedIn profile. Send me an invite!