Regarding “journalist” Rupert O’Dwyer’s recent screed about the Public Relations Society of America:
“Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should: [...] Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
Writing a prescribed course of action and then listing the names and email addresses of the “Top 50 Society Chapter Presidents” is “advocacy” – not news reporting. Just sayin’.
In other news, the crickets who have been chirping during O’Dwyer’s non-response to the phone and website hacking allegations against his organization are getting really tired.
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.
I was talking to a couple of colleagues yesterday over coffee about teaching Public Relations and something occurred to me.
PR students are, in some cases, better experts on some areas of PR than their supervisors.
Public Relations is a relatively young discipline. Many people who practice PR have no formal education; they’ve acquired their expertise informally – usually through experience.
As a result, the people who lead PR departments or agencies frequently don’t have a broad-based understanding of the profession. They may have come from hospitality with event-planning expertise, or from a news background (which gives them media relations expertise). While they have a very deep and nuanced understanding of those disciplines – they have relatively little or no awareness or education about some other areas of PR – which is a very broad field that encompasses many responsibilities, practices and tactics.
In my experience, this has proven to be true. I’ve worked in PR for over a decade and the majority of the leaders I’ve worked for fit this description. They have very strong skills in particular disciplines, but they invariably have blind spots as a result of how their knowledge was acquired. They may be experts on handling crises, but lack skills in measurement. Or they may excel at writing, but know very little about the legal concepts that apply to PR.
That broad base of knowledge is what the Public Relations Society of America’s “Accredited in Public Relations” (APR) designation works to remedy – the gaps in the whole profession that may have been missed through one’s career in the profession.
It can be intimidating to be an intern or an entry-level PR pro sitting at the table with leaders who have decades of experience on you. PR pros who are young to the practice should take confidence from the fact that in addition to the fresh perspective they can offer, they may also offer leaders knowledge they may not have.
This window of opportunity likely won’t be open forever though.
Public Relations is now a formal degree offered by an increasing number of colleges and universities, so eventually the majority of PR pros will have some formal education. I tried to track down the first college/university to offer a PR degree and found references to Boston University – but despite Google and leafing through a couple of PR textbooks I’ve not been able to locate a history of PR higher education (and if anyone knows the historical roots of formal education in PR – I’d love to hear about them).