Career Guide

Turning Journalists into Public Relations Pros? Training Required.

An educator colleague and friend recently wrote me to express her frustration with organizations that are hiring former journalists as public relations professionals.

She wrote:
Public relations” is not synonymous with “journalism.” Thirty years ago, public relations entailed much more media relations experience, but today it requires substantial research and communication planning expertise — skills that reporters don’t have.

“Frankly, I’m upset by these recent hiring decisions. These decisions send the wrong message to our current public relations students, as well as all of the fine public relations professionals who are currently seeking jobs in this difficult economy.”

And, she’s exactly right.  Let me enumerate just some of the reasons why:

  1. Public relations is broader, deeper and more intensive than media relations. For example, good public relations involves:

    • Research and analysis
    • Strategic planning
    • Defining measurable objectives that support the organization’s goals
    • Forming mutually beneficial relationships with the publics on whom an organization’s success or failure depends
    • Preparing and training for crises
    • Monitoring the industry environment
    • Being ethical, transparent, authentic and socially responsible
    • Working with legislators, regulators and advocacy groups
    • Moving effectively into online communications and social media

    Last, but by no means least, public relations practitioners are increasingly called upon to prove the bottom-line business impact of their efforts; this means that public relations practitioners must know the science of measurement and evaluation, as well as the language and concepts of business.

  2. Journalists, by trade, are reactors; they react to news events and story leads by writing or talking about them. They aren’t trained to think ahead, and rarely conduct enough research to develop a sixth sense about what threats or opportunities an organization might face in the future. Being proactive lies at the heart of good public relations.
  3. Journalists are accustomed to dealing with the transaction, event, product, personality, scandal and/or crisis du jour. Public relations practitioners focus not only on what’s happening now, but also what’s likely to happen in the longer term. If a practitioner’s goal is merely to score the next newspaper article or television interview, then he (or she) is seriously short-changing his (or her) employer.
  4. Journalists often do not understand the intricacies of how businesses work: they may see a “PR nightmare” where there is a management misstep; they do not understand that expenses are deducted from gross revenues to realize net revenues; and they often confuse net revenues with profits. Without a basic business understanding, they may not be able to communicate with certain audiences effectively.
  5. With no formal strategic-planning training, journalists mistake tactics — press releases, press conferences or special events — for strategies. They lack the understanding that tactics arise out of strategies that are designed to meet organizational objectives. Frankly, there are enough public relations practitioners who fail to appreciate this, as it is.
  6. Many journalists were blind-sided by the rapid onset of social media and its dramatic effects on traditional media and the practice of public relations. Social media emphasizes the development of one-to-one relationships. With “mass” and “general” audiences obsolete terms, today’s public relations practitioners must be capable of identifying the individuals with whom they most want to connect and engaging those individuals on meaningful levels.

While this list may make it seem as though I’m opposed to hiring former journalists to fill public relations positions, to be perfectly clear: I’m not.

The decline of traditional media and massive number of journalist layoffs represent a time of wonderful opportunity for the public relations profession. Never before have we had such an occasion to hire individuals who have a solid news sense, in-depth knowledge of newsroom procedures and superior writing and story-telling abilities — all of which are immensely helpful qualities for any public relations professional.

What I am saying, however, is that without the proper education and training, it’s no more realistic to expect that a former journalist can competently perform a public relations professional’s job, than it is to expect that they can capably conduct a symphony orchestra.

Kathryn D. Hubbell, APR, MS, Fellow PRSA, is a former PRSA National Board Member.

19 Comments

  • Hello from Detroit to Gresham, Kathryn:

    I’ll start with thanks for the strongest portion of your commentary. As a metro daily alumnus of 27 years who switched to marketing communication seven years ago, I appreciate your acknowledgment that “solid news sense, in-depth knowledge of newsroom procedures and superior writing and story-telling abilities” are “immensely helpful” in our profession.

    I also admire your experience and credentials, particularly the Newhouse School master’s in communication management from my alma mater. (Go Orange!)

    However, I respectfully suggest that your essay is distorted by a lack of journalism experience beyond an undergraduate degree and two years as a university staff news editor in the 1980s. While a transition from journalism to public relations certainly is not like moving from the news desk to the features staff, you grossly overstate the distance between these communications fields and are mistaken about “skills that reporters don’t have.”

    I’ll address three sweeping, unfair claims:

    * “Journalists . . . react to news events and story leads by writing or talking about them. They aren’t trained to think ahead . . .” That may have been valid 30 years ago, to apply a time frame from your second paragraph, but long ago stopped being true for print and broadcast journalists. Now that constant news access is in consumers’ palms, editors, producers and reporters differentiate their products through enterprise journalism that emphasizes being proactive and minimizes an old school approach that’s as faded as 1990s newsprint. Strategic coverage planning is second nature and not as dissimilar to its PR equivalent as you assume.

    * “Journalists often do not understand the intricacies of how businesses work.” Really? That’s a mighty broad brush to tar a profession whose members know that management, marketing and bottom lines are life-and-death issues in their industry. You apparently haven’t met financial writers who’ve spent decades as industry analysts, who interview CEOs and CFOs from a base of knowledge, who attend national business conferences and who read trade journals.
    I understand you’re speaking generally, but it says “often.” Many business writers from Detroit’s dailies are now high-ranking corporate communicators at automakers and other firms. Consider this recent LinkedIn discussion comment from Chrysler electronic communications manager Ed Garsten, a professional acquaintance who joined that firm in 2005 after more than 30 years in journalism at CNN, AP and The Detroit News:
    “I use my skills to help my company make better decisions on how to place stories, land coverage and shape releases that will capture the attention of journalists. My colleagues turn to me often and ask, ‘Will journalists buy this?’ That empowers me to be truthful to them…. I’m fitting in very well.”

    * “Many journalists were blind-sided by the rapid onset of social media.” True, though most have long since caught up. Every major newspaper and just about all small ones distribute and promote content via Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. Reporters spot trends, find sources and conduct interviews via SM. Your claim applies to Journalism 1.0, not the upgraded version in wide release.

    Amid what seems like a mass journalism exodus, this topic is timely and surely open to healthy discussion about the relative strengths and shortcomings of newsroom migrants. It’s far too important to dismiss with glib generalities and a puzzling comparison of PR pros and symphony conductors.

  • As a public relations student, I found both the blog and comment interesting and educational. I recently attended a special interest group meeting that focused on “how to get your press releases read” by a panel of former journalists for non-profit public relations professionals. The panelists were former newspaper, magazine and CNN reporters who all now work as consultants.

    On the the flip side, a PRSA and National Board member had shared with me in San Diego that from the employer/hiring perspective, journalists she had come in contact with were not the best for long-term investment plans. From her experience, former journalists often did not stay with companies for more than two years.

    Thank you for shedding light on both perspectives.

  • Sorry, I’ll be much more blunt than Mr. Stamm. This column was judgmental, holier than thou, and narrow-minded. I was a journalism veteran of 13 years, at many print publications in four states, covering a variety of topics. I learned the craft of communications on the front lines, including how to conduct intense research, among other skills. I think most of all, journalism taught me how to know what the public will accept and won’t accept, what issue will create a headline positive and negative, how to handle reporters. I have also found that PR folks can say they know how to write like a journalist or can pretend to know what they are looking for, but unless you have walked in the shoes of a journalist, you can’t really know. I do not disagree at all with the idea that anyone entering this field needs training, but it sure is not limited to journalists. Some are good, some aren’t. Some PR folks are writers. OK. Works for me. The first thing I did after leaving journalism was study, attend conferences, read books on this profession, and learn from people around me. Such would be the case for anyone making a switch to a new, yet related field. I believe the folks in journalism that go to PR struggle the most when they do not have prior management experience, or can’t find willing mentors, which was the case when I entered this field. Face it, like journalism, PR can be a vain profession, with people not wanting to share, or play nice. It is extremely competitive. I remain a member of PRSA, and am proud to call myself a PR professional in every sense of the word. I think we should work hard to improve our skills at every level, and it truly has nothing to do with how we got here.

  • I also am a Public Relations student, and at my university the faculty strive to emphasize the strong relationship between both professions. We are required to take a journalism writing courses as well as PR ones, taught how to write as journalist and we are encouraged to do journalism internships as well as PR internships. It’s important for us to understand both sides, obviously. A lot of faculty have had jobs on both sides and changed back and forth throughout their careers.

    While I think some of your points are solid, I also believe (as a commenter earlier said) that you shouldn’t lump all journalists together. Many have their specialized beats that can be translated well into a related sect of PR. If they are a political writer, they are going to be well-informed in issues pertaining to politics and the history behind it all as well. Strong research skills are an integral part of focused writing such as this.

    You do bring up the fact that journalists will most likely need training before switching, but isn’t that obvious? I’m sure employers that hire journalists will make sure that the journalist learns the way of their company before placing the full responsibility of an intensive project on their shoulders.

  • As someone who has spent time on both sides (15 years Air Force public relations and nine years in journalism as a newspaper reporter), and now back in the PR field, I echo the sentiments of my colleagues above.

    This blog posting was utter nonsense. While I know of some reporters who were reactive and did not think ahead, I’ve met many PR professionals who couldn’t think for themselves, much less for their company. Just because one works in PR doesn’t make them good at his or her job just because that person says they are good. And it takes a lot more than just having “APR” after your name to be good at what you do.

    To suggest that journalists don’t know how to strategically plan, anticipate coverage and build relationships is so laughably wrong, I don’t know where to begin.

    As a reporter, I was annoyed with PR professionals who didn’t know their job, as I am annoyed with anyone holding a position they aren’t qualified to keep.

    While it is true that there is a difference between being a journalist and a PR professional, a reporter entering the PR profession has a wealth of real-world experience that many PR pros only learned in textbooks, discussions on theory, or misnomers perpetuated by top management.

  • Kathryn Hubbell pinged the sensitivity meter big time. I’m one of those career journalists in exile looking to transition to the world of media relations and PR. That’s why I joined PRSA! Just as many journalists might dismiss PR people as “flacks,” I think Kathryn wrongly dismissed many journalists as robotic “reactors.” If you’re at all competent you’ve developed sound critical thinking and analytical skills. With some training and mentoring, a good journalist can bring a lot to the PR table, including a clear view from the other side of the equation. Sounds like a win-win to me. Not something to be “upset” about.

  • Well, it does sound like I’ve pinged the sensitivity meter big time, as stated. Thank you all for your comments. I agree that I should have explained one or two more things in that article, because it does sound like I have tar and feathers out and ready to go.
    First of all, my initial degree happens to be in journalism, and for many, many years I have advised anyone going into PR to be sure to take some journalism courses and some business courses so they would get the whole picture.
    Secondly, I was responding to Deb’s concerns about companies hiring journalists with no further training in PR at all, but expecting them to do a public relations practitioner’s job; or worse, thinking that public relations is only media relations, and that’s it.
    I’ve had terrific relationships with terrific reporters over the years, particularly concerning some work I do in my spare time with service memebers and veterans, and have high respect for them. What I am objecting to is the assumption that some companies have that no further training is needed; it is. I now teach at the university level, and each term have at least one student (if not more) making the transition from journalism to PR; they are invariably surprised at the complex field in which they now find themselves.
    And yes, of course – there are those in our profession who are less than professional. We all need ongoing training, no matter our level of expertise. My comments are directed toward a specific circumstance, and I apologize for not making the a bit more clear.

      • Yes, I have, Angela – and it’s what led me to get my initial degree in journalism. I loved it. However, at the time I was a single parent and while still studying for that degree, realized that as a cub reporter I would have had to cover weeknight city council meetings and weekend police beats, and those were the only times I had with my children. I took some initial classes in pubic relations and that ended up being my specialty area. However – and I haven’t read through my initial post in a while – I wrote that post during and after some time teaching journalists how to make the transition into pubic relations while teaching at Marylhurst University here in Oregon. So I wasn’t writing from ignorance.

        And – not that it matters much with the previous comments, which are years old – I rail as hard as anyone against the stupidity of some PR professionals who think a scattershot approach to the media is the right approach, or who ignore the PRSA Code of Ethics and send out information that is, at best, a pretense; or who bug reporters to death to the point where they lose all credibility. And I believe I made a big point about saying that public relations is much, much more than media relations. All I’m saying is that each profession has areas of expertise that don’t exist in the other professional, and require a bit more training. Someone could write a corresponding blog about why PR professionals need more training to go into journalism, too.

  • As someone who transitioned from journalist to communications/government relations professional, I too take issue with much of the original post.

    In my experience, I think perhaps the strongest value former journalist bring to PR/communications is that they think like journalists and are better able to design strategies and approaches that rise above the noise and clutter and get the attention of their former peers. In my experience, people who have been in the seat of the reporter/editor are also far less likely to pitch anything their boss or client gives them without running the “what would a reporter think” filter than those without such training and experience.

    The biggest negative I have seen with former journalists and one I have worked to address on my own is a tendency to be too negative/jaded to an initial pitch idea. However, if given the option of a professional who pitches anything and everything as is – even if it stinks – to a professional who is willing to take a step or two back to develop the pitch properly, I would always take the later.

  • Am I the only journalist in this e-conversation that has matriculated recently from the PR profession?
    Have worked as a community reporter for four years, but had a long career in public relations beforehand.
    I echo all of the aforementioned colleagues’ concerns with the supposed “PR training required for former journalists”, according to Kathryn Hubbell, APR.
    There is a mighty firewall between editorial and advertising in journalism – Amen. But, that does not mean we are clueless regarding a balance sheet. Ask any reporter – on most beats – economics has filtered into all of our stories thanks to the “Great Recession”.
    Also, enterprise reporting is alive and well as reporters dig deeper thanks to all of the digital tools available.
    The truth is – there are more PR practitioners and fewer journalists – and it is we who have have to uphold the “Being ethical, transparent, authentic and socially responsible” – because we communicate your your valuable pitches.

  • Well, I’m glad to know that journalists are the ones who are responsible for “being ethical, transparent, authentic and socially responsible.” That sure takes off a lot of pressure. For 27 years, I’ve been obsessed with following PRSA’s Code of Ethics, as have most PR practitioners I know; and colleagues in other areas have been obsessed with following IABC’s Code of Ethics. And I guess we can eliminate the classes on legal and ethical issues in PR studies. Whew. Thanks for letting us know!

  • Kathryn,

    I respectfully disagree with your analysis on journalists entering the PR profession. You must remember that, just as the PR landscape has changed, so too has the world of journalism–thereby altering the role of a journalist. Journalists conduct more research than most PR reps and utilize social media as a new platform for reporting information. The reason that so many companies are interested in hiring journalists is simple: they are, for the most part, very intelligent and hardworking individuals. As long as a journalist has a relatively outgoing personality and a willingness to learn a few new things, he/she can be successful in PR.

  • So glad this page has the disclaimer that the views of authors do not represent the policies and positions of PRSA. For as long as I can remember, PRSA members and chapters have worked hard to build good working relationships with the members of the Fourth Estate, based on mutual respect for each other’s roles in informing the public.

    Compiling a list of “journalists are” and “journalists aren’t” statements that imply that journalists must be pretty stupid (don’t understand the difference between gross and net revenues??) seems as counterproductive as reporters who write comments about PR people as “flacks.” And while it may be fun to take pot shots at reporters, can we truly claim that ALL public relations practitioners are strategic thinkers, know their way around a 10-K and never do anything reactive?

    I’ve known many journalists in my time who were among the smartest people around (dare we mention Paul Krugman?) And some, not so smart. Ditto for PR people. (Full disclosure — I was a reporter for 6 years before spending the last several decades in PR, and I have a graduate degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.)

    I’m just not sure how strategic it is to insult and demean the very people that many corporate, agency and not-for-profit public relations pro’s have to work with on a day-to-day basis as way of advancing organizational objectives.

    Kathleen L. Lewton, APR, Fellow PRSA, MHA, MSJournalism, Past National President, PRSA

  • As a students in The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, I plan to use my studies as a strategic communications major to effectively compete in the journalism would today. I hope my knowledge in the school as well as PRSSA will help me in both areas of news and information, and public relations. Your post has helped me realize how competitive the environment of public relations really is.

  • I left journalism seven years ago for public relations, and I’ve no love for my former profession — nor for a lot of people who practice it. Nonetheless, I found this column just a tad patronizing in describing the skills — or lack thereof — of journalists and their ability to transition to our field. Quite frankly I’ve encountered plenty of veteran PR people who were just as blindsided by the transition to social media and who also mistake tactics for strategy. Many people leave journalism not just because they have to, but because they recognize that it has been a hidebound professional for many years. They want to embrace new storytelling technologies in ways that their employers do not allow. In fact, I found entering PR without many preconceived notions or ingrained habits a blessing in an age of rapid change.

  • You’ve made some strong points that stand well on their own merit, but you’ve left plenty of room for exceptions to the rule. As others have already pointed out, there are many exceptions that can and do walk through that opening with relative ease. Good journalists are not limited by the editorial direction of the publications they serve, and many have done remarkably well in a variety of other careers requiring significant mental agility. I would argue the same is probably true of public relations professionals as well. I would sincerely hope that the line of thinking reflected in this blog doesn’t evolve into a disguised argument for selecting a younger candidate over a seasoned professional.

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