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