Doug Haslam

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Do Journalists Make Bad PR People?


Photo: RogueSun Media on Flickr

I read this short piece, “The Great Journalism Exodus,” by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. In it, he discusses the fact that many journalists are switching over to public relations jobs. That’s nothing new, but we’re definitely seeing more of it in this economy, and with the “traditional” media changing and shedding jobs in the process.

But Goldberg also wrote a couple of things that irked me. First, on whom PR flacks will pitch if the “media” are shrinking:

“…they’ll flack to underpaid, undertrained bloggers.”

Well, yes, in a sense there is some truth to that. But they’ll also flack to passionate people who happen to blog- those bloggers not only are closer to the audience than mainstream media– they are the audience, in a way traditional media tries not to be.  That’s just another short-sighted disdainful slap at those “amateur bloggers” from the ivory tower of print media.

It also gets to another pet peeve, which is frankly perpetuated by many PR agencies and some of their clients: that PR is all about media (including blogger) relations. Of course, that would be a journalist or columnist’s view of the world, and I have certainly seen this point of view played out in a skewed manner too many times. PR is so much more than that- messaging and strategy, crisis counsel (wouldn’t a seasoned reporter be good at that?), and, becoming more important, content creation (I think journalists know a thing or two there as well) are equally important parts of the PR mix.

Goldberg also quotes Richard Mintz of the DC-based Barbour Group:

“Journalists by their nature don’t make great advocates or public relations people because they’re trained to be objective rather than to take sides,” he said. “They also tend to work alone, and they have no business experience.”

Journalists don’t make great advocates? Two things wrong with that: first, a balanced story, even if sponsored (and disclosed as such) by a client, is a better sell to media and the public. It’s more interesting, and gains trust with the media and the audience. Second, while journalism strives to be objective, every outlet, every reporter and editor, every story has a pint of view that affects the outcome, even if only in the slightest. I’ve been a journalist, and I never pretended otherwise. Furthermore, Goldberg’s example of hack-turned-flack is a reporter from the right-leaning (some friends will say I’m being kind)  Washington Times going to work for BGR Group, a PR firm founded by Republican lobbyist and now Governor Haley Barbour. Sounds like a natural fit to me. Taking sides? Believe me, that’s an easy transition, and it was easier for me than I thought it would be 12 years ago.

As for no business experience, point taken. I guess hacks turned flacks will have to compare their business experience to 22 year olds right out of university PR schools (no offense, best and brightest students!).

Most reporters who want to pursue PR jobs will be just fine, as long as there are the jobs for them. I have seen many make the adjustment just fine over the years.

Which side of The Atlantic are you on?

9 Responses to Do Journalists Make Bad PR People?

  1. Ed Nicholson says:

    You make some great points, Doug. First of all, the assumption that everyone posting online content is “underpaid, undertrained,” is simply naive. Credibility will seek its own level (in fact, that’s already begun). The editorial processes that have given rise to trusted mainstream news sources will be applied to online media. As with all other media, the best PR people will be pitching to the most credible sources.
    And I couldn’t agree more about the widespread notion that PR is all about media relations. Everything you mention and so much more goes into effective stakeholder relationship building. It’s a completely different set of skills than those required to create credible news stories. But the smart journalists who make the switch to PR will figure that out pretty quickly and learn those skills. As you obviously have.

  2. Joe Maglitta says:

    Good topic and critique, Doug.

    My brief (18 month) experience as journo-turned PR guy was this:

    Intellectually the work is pretty similar. The biggest challenge in transition, I found, was attitude and values. Specifically,when you’re a journalist, at whatever level, you’re used to a certain sense of power (deserved or not). As a PR person, like it or not, you are in a service business. As someone once told me, there are two kinds of jobs: Those that give people headaches and get headaches. Journalists are former, PR is the latter.

    Concretely, you will go from interviewing a hotshot CEO to being his minion. You better be comfortable with this or it won’t work. Be honest.

    Second, in journalism, truth (in theory) rules. In PR, you are more like a lawyer, an advocate for your client. Not saying you lie (I never did) but have to be comfortable with sins of omission. I made peace by deciding to tell the best story in the most favorable light.

    Other big difference is loss of freedom. In an agency, especially, every minute is tracked and billable. That is quite different than the journo life.

    Finally, switchers must consider if they are willing to be “tainted” for future journalism jobs if/when the industry revives.

    It’s a big move. Think hard and talk to people before you leap.

  3. Doug Haslam says:

    Ed– I think it goes more to thinking about PR as a “communications” profession, and embracing the way that profession is changing. A writer like Goldberg doesn’t have to care about that, because he is media. There’s nothing wrong with that until you try to define the industry, which is beyond his scope.

    Joe (an old colleague)- thanks for coming by- you have provided much sharper advice than I about what to consider if making the leap.

    Something I didn’t mention above- some of the jobs out there are writing- content creation- even “reporting” and *gasp* “blogging” for hire. It’s a new world.

  4. Terry F says:

    This one really got me thinking about why so many PR programs in the high tech and consumer tech space focus mostly on traditional PR. I thunk and I thunk and I thunk. And then it hit me.

    When an agency pitches a piece of business, more than likely they are pitching it to a gray hair (I am one myself, so just cool your jets if you are insulted). These decision making gray hairs usually don’t understand anything but media relations, and the idea of actual public relations is foreign to them.

    So the agency has to cater most pitches to traditional media first and foremost, with social media/direct customer PR as a secondary attack. They need to do this to win, and the cycle starts again where traditional media takes precedence and PR gets addressed if budget allows after everything else.

    Agencies that get it (shameless plug for my old stomping ground LPP) are changing things. But I don’t think the ultra focus on media relations versus public relations will change anytime soon.

  5. Dara Bell says:

    I do not think that journalists make bad PR. Agencies in London look for journalists influence crosses professions and the obvious peoplising skills in each are tranferable.

  6. Tim Allik says:

    The professional titles used in media these days are anachronisms. What is a PR executive, anyway? And what exactly is a journalist?

    Is someone who rewrites AP copy and reads it in front of a camera a journalist?

    Is someone who produces podcasts and video and written bylines for a client a PR executive?

    It’s naive to assume that journalists don’t take sides on some level, however subtle, in the stories they report.

    The conventional dogma among mainstream pundits that there are “two sides to every story” is even more of a stretch. Usually there are many more than two sides.

    You can either tell a good story or you cannot. It’s a human skill that remains unautomated and uncommoditized. I’ve never met a talented hack or flack who wasn’t able to spin a good yarn.

  7. Doug Haslam says:

    Terry– I do agree that part of the “media relations mill” focus is client-driven- that will take time to change.

    Dara– exactly. Lots of transferable skills, most prominently the ability to communicate.

    Tim– I would even say sometimes there is only one side to a story, or that the “other side” is manufactured and irrelevant (sometimes).

    And I was definitely angling on the naivete of assuming journalism is objective. Good journalism covers many facets of a story (if they exist), but even great journalism is not impartial.

  8. Hunter Boyle says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Doug. I have to admit, a lot of this debate seems really outdated to me — and that’s coming from a gray hair. Maybe it’s because, as a journo graduate, I started in specialized publishing rather than as a general reporter. My work as editor was invaluable in making the move to content marketing and agency life, where PR plays a vital role alongside social media, blogging, and other communication and marketing channels that shouldn’t even be broken out separately. There is so much overlap, and the artificial barriers continue to fall away, that in the end it really comes down to getting ideas and stories out — the common ground for journos and PR.

    Having worked with several hacks and flacks, and hacks-turned-flacks, it’s often the ideal fit because they understand the needs and role and certain markets so well, that they can get creative and deliver more than just a one-off story pitch. Maybe I’ve just been lucky to work with some top talents, but that approach seems like it’s built to last, whether it’s dealing with top-tier media, up-and-coming bloggers or anyone in between.

  9. Tim Allik says:

    Tell me of a story that has only one side. I can’t think of one myself.

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