A post that ran last week on Ragan.com (“What makes a good PR pro: A degree or a journalism background?“) asks a question most PR practitioners who have been around the field for some time are acquainted with: Just how crucial is newsroom experience for a successful transition to public relations?
Just because the question surfaces regularly doesn’t mean it’s a good one to get in the habit of asking. Journalism and public relations have so much in common, they’re practically indistinguishable. Both are essential elements of the news cycle. Both, when performed well, add context—either fact or opinion—to what is happening in the world. Both provide clarity instead of noise. And both are fairly thankless crafts when considering their rotten reputations with the proverbial end user: readers and viewers.
The writer asks whether journalism experience trumps a degree in public relations, then concludes that it does. Here are three reasons why that’s the wrong question to ask.
- Working in a newsroom is not the only way to hone one’s news judgment. At times, I’m in the position to make PR hiring recommendations. I don’t care how often an applicant has been in a newsroom. What I do care about is being able to observe the news they’re reading, the content they’re digesting, and what they think about topical issues. This is why aggregating content on platforms like Twitter and Tumblr is a must-do for anyone who aspires to work or ascend in public relations. It is easier to evaluate the true news judgment of an amateur with a regularly updated blog, for instance, than a staff reporter whose copy may have enjoyed the services of outstanding editors.
- Journalists get to be thorough; PR pros often have to be resourceful. The most reliable way to favorably insert a client into the news is not to pitch that client as the headline, but to instead offer new insights on breaking or developing news. Pitch around the industry, not the client itself. This demands a resourceful PR pro who can balance newsworthiness with opportunities to further a client’s business interests. Good journalists are accustomed to going wherever the story might take them. Good PR pros, on the other hand, are uniquely skilled at knowing where they want the story to go before it gets there.
- PR and media relations are not synonymous. This is the most egregious mistake the previous column makes. Having journalism experience does not mean an individual is well-positioned to provide adequate client service, generate new business, excel at messaging, or know how to demonstrate value to clients through measurement. Media relations, which the author seems to use synonymously with public relations, is but one part of the equation.
There are, however, some specific PR functions journalists are particularly well suited for: creating and aggregating content on behalf of clients.
As corporations become more acquainted with the many benefits of self-publishing content directly to audiences, they’ll turn to PR firms (as opposed to ad agencies) that have specialized offerings meant to streamline the process of creating content, delivering it to audiences and monitoring how readers use it. Some might call this kind of self-publishing at the corporate level “blogging,” although I think that buzzword denotes an act that’s light on strategy and challenging to sell up the ladder to decision-makers.
Journalists who are able to demonstrate that the news they’ve covered has consistently shaped opinions constitute the ideal type of professional to create content on behalf of clients. The PR practitioners’ role in all of this is much more akin to that of a managing editor: assigning topics to cover, managing writers, and ensuring the content is deployed transparently. This service will be a primary growth area for many PR firms going forward.
Former journalists do have valuable, intangible assets to offer the world of public relations, and they are an optimal pairing with PR programs that are heavy on content creation and digital media, not traditional PR offerings that currently typify most agencies.
Andrew Graham is a media strategist in New York, specializing in finance, energy and public policy. He is also a consultant to PR firms and helps agencies structure new programs while supporting high-priority client initiatives. He has worked as a journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @andrew_graham.