Never Hire a Journalist to Do Public Relations

Hire a journalist to do Media Relations only – and if they manage to get that right, then check to see they understand what Public Relations is all about.  

If they tell you that Public Relations is all about building the right image, playing nice with media and having tons of coverage, drop them or just leave them where they are.

If their definition of Public Relations resembles the one below, then not only hire them to do your PR, but also make sure you heed their advice because they really know what they are talking about.

“Public relations is the distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication as its principal tools.” Prof Rex Harlow PhD.

Many journalists today, similar to the ones who have recently been invited to take part on BBC’s Radio 4 Media Show, believe that just because they are very good at telling a story or very good at their trade, they would easily transition into Public Relations – nope, they won’t.

As rightly said by Emma Leech, the President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, what Public Relations delivers goes beyond Media Relations.

I met a former TV reporter who had recently been appointed to a rather senior Communication role for the UK Government. He is a very pleasant and knowledgeable person, one with a very keen eye on what a story is all about and should be. But, in all fairness to him, that’s where his knowledge of what Communication and Public Relations was all about ended.

But how about what a Communication Strategy is, what a Crisis Communication Plan should comprise of, the importance of Employee Engagement and reaching remote workers? How about community engagement and investor relations? And what should the Issue Management or Stakeholder Mapping and Analysis focus on etc.?

What do any of these have to do with Media Relations????

After all, none of these fall under the purview of Journalism or Media Relations – they fall under that of Public Relations. And, if you think that anyone holding a microphone into your face would make a brilliant PR person, think again.  

Would you allow a nurse (regardless of how senior they may be) to perform open heart surgery on one of your loved ones? Would you allow a plumber to wire your house? Then why would you ever think that a journalist is the best placed individual to do Public Relations?

There are very few similarities between what proper Public Relations is and does and what Media Relations is all about:

“The media relations specialist is a minor organizational role performed by some practitioners with above-average media experience. This role involves maintaining media contacts, press release placement, informing others in the organization of what the media report about the organization.” Prof David Dozier PhD.

A lot of today’s Public Relations practitioners have a journalism background – some of these are absolutely amazing practitioners and it’s taken them years to hone the skill set necessary to become competent and knowledgeable Public Relations professionals.

It’s understandable why the perception of Public Relations as nothing more than Media Relations is still heavily preponderant today: PR agencies and PR recruiters have “media relations” as one of their first three “must know” in any job description.

And while that is justified since Media Relations is an intrinsic part of Public Relations, on its own is mostly irrelevant. But, as Darryl Sparey puts it so well in his reaction to the recent BBC Radio 4 Media Show, much of the blame lies with Public Relations membership organisations – I’d go further and say that it lies with all of those who work in Public Relations and failed to make the case of what PR is all about and the actual added value that it brings to organisations large and small.

If you “Google” any job – primarily on the agency side – that has a Public Relations remit, the “Media Relations” requirement stands out like a sore thumb. Where you are likely to find more depth to the actual complexities of a senior Public Relations role is in house.

But, even there, the realisation that Public Relations is a strategic management function is not that prevalent because:

“Some others in our world haven’t done interesting things in interesting places and their overly simplistic view and lack of coal face experience means they are not the most credible when building a platform to promote PR as strategic management function.” Paddy Blewer, Group PR Director, Henley & Partners.

Public Relations is an art and science. As with any art, it can be as Michelangelo or Picasso as one wants it – beauty or ugliness are in the eyes of the beholder. As with any science, it can be as Penicillin or Plutonium as one makes it.

Ask any journalist you know what leadership, ethics and strategy mean and stand for in Public Relations, then go deeper and get them to discuss your organisation’s business strategy and objectives and how they would ensure the PR function aligns its activities to meet them, pre-empt potential corporate risks and issues and have a very good grasp of the SWOT and PESTLE indicators for all your core activities.

Don’t bother asking them about coverage: if you do something interesting and good, the media will run your story. If you do something bad and stupid, they won’t be able to contain it. After all, this is what journalism is all about: breaking news and writing stories.

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

  1. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “very valid” in “comment_content” *]
    I think the headline is a bit sensational – it should read ‘ensure you have a mix in your team that includes journalists but also lots of other experience that will deliver on your communication strategy.’
    I have worked with and work with lots of ex-journalists and they have all been amazing and keen to develop. I have also not hired journalists because they don’t know anything more so I can see the point you are getting at. If people are hiring journalists into roles that aren’t media relations or producing publications then I think the article is more relevant. I believe the article should have been along the lines of the fact that our discipline has never been harder for journalists to succeed in given how far it has moved from simple media relations, but I am more worried about how many people working in comms have no qualifications rather than ‘just’ being a journalist. I think your points are very valid, just perhaps not perfectly presented.

    1. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “of this blog” in “comment_content” *]
      Dear Carl,
      Thank you for your feedback and suggestions; they are appreciated.
      As you well know, we all have different styles of writing and making the case of a variety of instances that we come across in our career.
      My article was meant to be read as such, and understood exactly as meant.
      I have the highest respect for journalists and I have many friends who are and have been journalists.
      The various comments to this particular blog made one point very clear: ex-journalists agreed with the points put forward in the post; after all, Public Relations is not Media Relations.
      A “Part 2” of this blog will be published in the next couple of weeks.
      The conclusion

  2. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “oy” in “comment_content” *]
    This is very short-sighted.
    The best PR agencies will employ people from a diverse range of backgrounds and boasting a diverse range of skills to provide clients with the very best knowledge, skills and experience to meet their specific objectives. This just makes sense.
    After all, who wants all strategy and no deliverables? Who wants all theory and nothing tangible? Who wants press releases with no thought to end goals?
    To rule out journalists as merely understanding the “media” side of PR is ludicrous.
    Many journalists choose to work in PR because at its heart PR is about communicating with people. All people. The press, the public, audiences internal and external.
    Journalists know how to connect with people. They know how to speak to people. They boast a set of distinctive skills which someone who has trained in PR does not.
    But they complement these people – as part of a wider operation.
    At our agency we have people in senior positions who have a background in PR, in strategy, in marketing, in digital comms, in advertising and we have me – a former national newspaper journalist who manages all our editorial.
    We work together. On every single client. And because we respect each other’s distinct skill sets, we can offer these clients something many other agencies in our region cannot.
    After all, we don’t pretend that every single one of us knows it all. We know that our 13 heads are better than one – whatever background that one boasts.

    1. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “cialis” in “comment_content” *]
      Dear Ellen,

      Thank you very much for your feedback. You are absolutely right with regard to the value and role of journalists in wider PR teams. They do complement all the other specialisms that make up the complex PR mix and, I said in my blog and in various replies across social media, a journalist who understands what PR is about is worth their weight in gold.
      This article was meant to offer a very pragmatic view of what both functions do and what their limitations are. To say that Public Relations is Media Relations is one of the biggest fallacies in modern history of Public Relations. Notwithstanding that, and very much in line with what you said in your comment above, Media Relations is a very important function of any PR team.
      And there are superb ex-journalists who are amazing PR practitioners today.

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