Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Split Between PR and Journalism? Why Not Do Both?

It's official!'s recent ranking of the best 200 occupations in the United States echoed what many have been saying about the state of journalistic profession in North America for a long time, ranking 'newspaper reporter' a paltry 196 out of 200 professions. (In case you were wondering, 'lumberjack' was ranked #100 and software engineer #1.)

Public relations executive, meanwhile, was ranked at #70. The U.S. News and World Report ranked it even higher at #41, noting that the average annual salary for a US PR exec is an impressive US$91,810. The CareerCast survey did, however, note that it was the seventh most stressful profession in the country, following enlisted military soldier, firefighter, airline pilot, military general, police officer and event coordinator. Nobody ever said life was easy on the 'dark side'.

Not surprisingly, news of journalism being the fifth-worst job in the US swept the journalistic community, with reactions ranging from indignation to a sort of masochistic embrace of the aforementioned ranking as a badge of honour. Others still retorted along the lines of,"well, it may not be great, but at least I'm not in public f*cking relations!"

There is more than a modicum of disdain for the PR profession among the ranks of journalists. PR execs, we are told, are the Sith Lords to the noble Jedis of the press. The journalists who migrated to public relations are the turncoats, the Sarumans corrupted by money. Even some ex-journos within the PR profession can be heard making similar remarks. An anonymous journalist quoted a colleague who made the jump as saying, "I miss [journalism] every day, except twice a month - pay day."

Today, Ragan's PR Daily published an excellent piece by Aurora University Communications Director Dave Parro entitled '8 Reasons Journalists Should Consider PR'. While he didn't specifically cite the elephant in the room (money), he did provide eight compelling reasons why public relations has many of the same appeals of the journalistic profession except without many of the downsides that have made so many journalists demoralized. The reasons he cites are as follows:

  • You still get to tell great stories.
  • You get to shape the story.
  • You get to be an advocate.
  • You still get to regularly learn something new.
  • You don’t have the emotional baggage.
  • You get to be optimistic.
  • You still have constant deadlines.
  • You understand what makes a great story.

Of these eight points, number three is perhaps the most counterintuitive to many journalists with a jaded view of public relations. PR people for the most part gravitate to organizations whose mission and goals are aligned with their own. While this isn't always the case, at least early on in a PR career, it's certainly the ideal situation for anybody in the profession, and it goes without saying that the most effective PR professional is one who is highly engaged and committed to the cause of an organization.

Likewise, the best journalists are more often than not people who are dedicated to a specific set of issues and pursue it day in, day out. And given the ever-more monopolized and corporatized nature of newspaper ownership and the effect this has on editorial content, it is tempting to suggest that journalism is the wrong place to be for a person with strong convictions and a desire to tell difficult and not-always-popular stories. For people like these, could the 'dark side' in fact be the best road to take?

However, I maintain that this Manichaean view of journalism and PR isn't necessarily the case. Why couldn't one do both? After all, the advent of blogging and citizen journalism means that anyone who can write and conduct and interview can do 'journalism'. Granted, there are limitations to what one can do in this capacity. As an independent journalist you don't have access to the same resources that a reporter for a major newspaper has, and as a PR professional you don't want to be doing independent work that conflicts with your obligations to your employers or clients. Moreover, your connection to a specific organization can potentially be a liability, depending on where you work and what you're reporting on.

On the other hand, provided you avoid any potential conflicts of interest (which ideally is a non-issue due to the focal points of your work aligning with what you care about), this is as close as you're going to get to living the superhero dream while still upholding your adult responsibilities. In the comic book world, Clark Kent and Peter Parker supported themselves as reporters while serving as flamboyantly costumed public advocates of justice in an extracurricular capacity. Today's Kents and Parkers are invariably PR guys by day and online caped crusaders against ignorance and misinformation by night, one Tweet and blog post at a time. Many of them even have their own costumes, which they wear to blogger conventions.

The downside to this? In the list of the most stressful professions, 'superhero' was conspicuously absent, but one can only imagine that given the demands of the job it probably outranks even soldier and firefighter. And if PR exec is already at number seven, adding 'citizen journalist' to your mantle is unlikely to bring that down at all. But if you're an adrenaline junkie who cares a hell of a lot and can survive on three hours' sleep, go for it! You might want to come up with a catchy pseudonym first, though.

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