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Whilst I believe that ex-journalists are not qualified and do not have the relevant experience to suddenly become the head of the organisational public relations function, they also have the potential to be great PR function heads, for a number of very valid reasons.
But first they need to be educated on what constitutes public relations, including its strategic dimensions and its underlying academic rigour. And, secondly, they need experience in a hands-on capacity so they understand the tactical breadth of the discipline.
Journalists are great writers
The most obvious reason why ex-journos can be excellent PR pros is that they should be very good writers who write compelling content. Writing is the most important tactical characteristic of public relations. It’s even more important than being a nice person and pleasant to work with. Without this skill you can’t work effectively with the media, for one, but nor are you able to undertake the other elements of public relations to any great effect.
A challenge in the writing dimension, however, is the diversity of mediums that a PR pro needs to write for: chatty newsletters and brochures, rat-a-tat-tat digital media, white papers, media releases op-eds etc. Each need a different approach taken. But, still, a decent ex-journo should be able to deal with this.
An ex-journos’ experience in the following elements should also stand him or her in good stead:
- The importance of fact checking and issues research
- Looking beneath the surface of a story or issue to get to the crux of the matter being communicated on; identifying the drivers behind the issues; determining what is authentic
- Being able to identify the most interesting elements of a story/issue and engaging with readership/target audience/stakeholders.
The irony of this is, of course, is that whilst a PR pro operating in a leadership capacity edits fairly often, they aren’t being paid to write a lot (for external consumption, anyway – their writing is more communication strategy and senior internal stakeholder-targeted in nature.) Writing is for those less experienced. It is simply better ROI for the organisation.
Pressure cooker journalism
Journalism is often an extremely pressurised job, one that involves delivering quality, and often complex, content in a short timeframe. It also involves being aware of political, high-level issues and the ramifications of those issues. This gives journalists an excellent background for crisis communication and crafting messages and other content for stakeholders such as politicians and C-suite executives.
The intensity of working for the media also means journalists develop a tenacity and toughness. Either that or they go home in a screaming mess. Tenacity is valued in any profession or field of endeavour, but toughness is a double-edged sword.
Empathy is a very useful characteristic in strategic communicators. We need to be sensitive, as do organisations, to the needs of stakeholders. Toughness, inherently, can lead to a reduction of trust and working together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. So whilst not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, it needs to be judiciously applied.
Strategic high-level communication
There are fundamental characteristics of public relations that journalists should be good at delivering, at a strategic and conceptual level:
- Empowering the marginalised; giving voice to the voiceless (thus helping develop social equity; one of the most meaningful and rewarding dimensions of being a public relations professional)
- Embracing of a plurality of perspectives (e.g. balanced reporting)
- Tolerance (e.g. giving a voice to those who may not be of the social majority and who may be socially marginalised)
- Thought leadership (this is what editors/producers want to see and it is a characteristic that assists with an organisation’s branding).
Senior journalists have numerous connections in high places (government, corporate, NFPs, industry associations etc). These connections can assist an organisation in aspects such as lobbying and facilitating strategic alliances all of which can help achieve communication and business objectives, sometimes by minimising awareness of certain issues impacting on organisations and sometimes by raising awareness of an organisation, the issues it is facing and its products or services.
Journalists are also being forced more and more to face the demon of two-way communication through the media’s seeming inexorable shift into the treacherous domain of social media. Organisations are in a similar position. PR pros are way ahead of the media in this area, but there are no doubt a number of journalists who have both skills and a strategic capability in this area.
I dislike ex-journos being parachuted into head of PR function roles. They don’t have the training, the strategic nous or the leadership skills to effectively undertake such a role. It happens with ex-politicians as well, but that’s a story for another day.
Organisations are blinded by the perceived power of yesterday’s hero – traditional media – when they make such appointments. They will be better served if they rely on strategic communication professionals that possess the proven acumen and creativity needed to be the best possible leader of an organisation’s relationship management (i.e. PR) team.
If journos want to get into PR, get a PR education and build their way up, thus getting an understanding of the subtleties, knowledge and skills of the profession – great!. Much smarter way to go. Actually, hang on, that’s me!
Journalism and public relations: bed partners
After producing an initial draft of this article, I posted a couple of discussions on LinkedIn in groups like Public Relations Professionals, Corporate Communication, PR Professionals and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (here is the first and here is the second).
Most that responded were ex-journos, most were defensive in character and most could not tear themselves away from a seeming obsession with media relations. Hey guys, we do more than that!
In the main, the two-way symmetrical, relationship building and accommodation aspect of public relations was ignored. The broader strategic capability and multi-tactical design, management and implementation issues took a low profile.
I found this disturbing. But I also found it enlightening. Having said that, there were numerous comments which shone a unique and insightful light on the symbiotic and incestuous relationship between journalists and public relations professionals. Funny too.
And on this issue, I think that’s a good idea: keeping a sense of humour. Because as different as the two professions are, they are and will remain for some time to come (until that social media harlot usurps journalism entirely) partners in passion, partners in crime and partners in compromise.
But let’s leave the final word to David Meerman Scott, who in his New Rules of Marketing and PR (Second Edition), has some very positive words to say about journalists in this Web 2.0 world: “one of the best ways to create great web content is to actually hire a journalist…[they] are great at understanding an audience and creating content…it’s the bread and butter of their skill set…what better person could there be for running your online media efforts?’
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? Do you think that it’s great news to have ex-journos working in public relations? What have you learnt from them? and if you are an ex-journo working in PR, why the switch and what do you think about the reality of the profession compared to your thoughts before switching to the ‘side of light’?
PS. I’d welcome you joining networks with me through my LinkedIn profile. Send me an invite!