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Journalists Make the Best Public Relations People? I Didn’t get that Memo.

March 30, 2011 3 comments

Press to PR

I’m going to respectfully disagree with Jim Crawford’s post over at PR Breakfast club (4 Reasons Why Journalists Still Make the Best PR People) that journalists make superior public relations people (compared to…?).

It’s a great example of the distorted picture of public relations that the mainstream culture has of the profession because it myopically focuses on only a handful of public relations duties (or assumed duties): writing, media relations, client relations, and advertising.

To be sure, journalists are skilled communicators who bring a lot to the table when they become PR pros – but the vast majority of the duties associated with PR aren’t ones that journalists would typically get hands-on experience with in the course of their work.

Specifically, there are some aspects of Crawford’s analysis I’m not compelled by:

  • Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no shortage of PR people that fit the picture he paints of himself; brash, willing to tell the king he’s wearing no clothes, and possessing an inclination to cut to the point.  Conversely, there are journalists who are obedient, sycophantic, and prone to digressions and loquaciousness.
  • In point of fact, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Code of Ethics demands that PR professionals “act in the best interests of the client or employer, even subordinating the member’s personal interests” (which means telling them when their proposed course of action is unwise even if it means losing the contract).
  • Journalists have a low BS threshhold?  I wasn’t aware of that.  Neither is the American public; their trust in the news media is at record low levels according to Pew research.  Moreover, journalists are the 9th most mistrusted category of professionals according to a recent Gallup Poll.
  • “Non-News” is a staple of news coverage; particularly in television (as the Daily Show routinely demonstrates).  Moreover, the majority of the public is rarely compelled by hard data when it comes to selling a point of view.  “Non-news” like personal anecdotes and testimonials (regardless of their statistical significance) routinely shows up as more persuasive.

More generally, some of the areas that journalists may not be as versed in:

Advocacy:  One need only glance at the studies done on public opinion in the U.S. to see that the news media are being gamed pretty hard by (unethical) PR people who exploit the conventions of journalism to create false equivalencies.  Case in point: interests funded by the fossil fuel industry who have managed to convince an increasingly large segment of the U.S. public that the scientific jury is out on the human contributions to global climate change.  Communicating effectively on behalf of someone is an important skill that is different from trying to give equal time to two or more sides of an issue.

Flexibility:  Like a defense attorney, being a public relations pro sometimes means working for the best interests of a client you may not agree with (particularly in an agency setting).  It’s a different skill than trying to ensure the facts are presented and that all sides are fairly represented.

Transparency:  Journalists by and large are required to conceal as much as possible about their opinions, and to abstain from public activities that might lend the appearance of bias to their work.  From campaign donations to voting.  Though I’ll readily concede they’re not always followed – the ethical codes that govern public relations demand transparency.

The “E” in “R.A.C.E.”/”R.O.P.E.”:  Evaluation.  What happens after a story is published?  Are journalists analyzing its impact/ROI to see if public opinion has moved?  In most cases, no – they’re on to the next story.  If anything, they’re unfortunately assessed on how much revenue their ownership is able to bring in based on viewership which isn’t exactly a barometer that produces the highest quality news gathering (see “Fox News”).

Journalists can make fantastic PR pros, but the idea that they’re de facto better PR people (than even those schooled/trained in PR) is bunk.

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