By Stanley Olisa
There is this growing trend of journalists infiltrating the public relations profession with the incorrect belief that as a journalist, that automatically implies that you’ll do well in PR. Having journalism experience is no guarantee that you’ll make an excellent PR professional. And make no mistakes: journalism is not public relations, vice versa. These professions are so different from each other, yet people tend to think that journalists make better PR professionals than people who actually majored in PR in school.
But if you’re familiar with the evolution of PR globally, especially from the American standpoint, you would understand the source of this flawed notion that journalism is akin to PR. Let’s historicise a bit. The earliest entrants in PR were of journalistic extraction – practicing journalists who took a stab at public relations, or I should say publicity, because that’s basically what it was at the time.
The American man adjudged to be the founding father of modern public relations, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, was a journalist (with New York Times, New York World and New York American) before setting up his press relations outfit. Lee related with journalists on behalf of companies, having been a journalist himself. The companies engaged him to craft statements/publicity releases and secure news reportage. And he prospered in this art as a press agent. He’s best known for his publicity work for the Rockefeller family. In this context, it’s safe to posit that PR took its roots from press relations and publicity creation. Lee’s seminal practice must have shaped the understanding that journalism equals PR.
Fast forward to present day, PR has evolved. It has outgrown press relations to encompass other subjects of stakeholder relations management. Thus, jumping from journalism to PR and thinking your success in the latter will be automatic, is a misguided move. Maybe you will excel in an arm of PR called ‘media relations’ but that isn’t the only touchstone we use to characterise competence in public relations.
The fact that you can write hard news and soft news doesn’t necessarily mean you can just port into PR and achieve success overnight. Press releases (news stories) and articles aren’t the only PR copies we write. We write speeches, newsletters, captions, communiqués, scripts, ad copies, blog pieces, etc. Each of these writings has its style. Besides, PR writing is skewed in a unique way. The writings seek to communicate brand essence while journalistic writings aim to set the agenda for public discourse- Agenda Setting function of the media.
PR has become more demanding now, with more expectations from brands/CEOs beyond just news mentions. Practitioners have to master influencer marketing, online reputation management, thought leadership development, digital marketing, crisis communication, issues management, community relations, employee relations, corporate social responsibility/sustainability management, campaign measurement, etc. These specialties aren’t journalistic- they’re core public relations skills requisite to navigate through the complexities in a contemporary and dynamic business setting. Take a journalist, give them a PR role and rate their performance in the above-mentioned skills. We need to stop looking at PR only through a journalistic lens. It doesn’t help the image of the profession.
The only point of convergence between PR and journalism is media relations which entails the PR specialist relating with the media and securing coverage for clients/brands. I agree that media relations is a key aspect of PR because through it, the client gets third-party validation. But the media constitute only one stakeholder group of an organisation, and PR is much more than interfacing with journalists for news mentions. This has become my singsong in my PR articles series. Serious PR orientation is required and this article is an effort in that regard.
Some CEOs engage journalists to organise a media outreach leveraging the latter’s contacts. This is good but you make a mistake if you employ a journalist to head a PR department only on the basis of their journalism experience. This experience will only help in achieving news mentions. What happens to other areas of the PR craft? For example, how will the journalist measure campaign success? By employing the controversial Advertising Value Equivalence method or by clip-cutting? These are now being replaced by more reliable, newer techniques which journalism experience doesn’t avail you. I’m talking about more dependable metrics to assess campaign impact and guide decision making.
Also, while the audience of the journalist seems somewhat amorphous and almost generic, the audience of the PR specialist is clearly defined for every campaign. News is for all; but a press statement, for example, targets a specific stakeholder group. That’s why media selection must be very strategic. We choose the media that best cater to the demographics of our target audience. If it’s an internal communications campaign, only employees and other internal stakeholders are targeted. If it’s a PR campaign to address community activism, then you’re targeting specific stakeholder groups in the host community using local media, opinion leaders and other community bodies. But the journalist’s audiences are not so sharply defined.
Again, the objectives of communication differ. While the journalist writes to inform, educate and entertain, the PR specialist seeks to stimulate a certain stakeholder behaviour that supports the goals of an organisation or a brand. The PR professional communicates to change, for example, an unfavourable perception, sustain public goodwill for an organisation or beef up support for a cause. In PR, we primarily communicate to manage brand reputation and elicit desired supportive stakeholder behaviour for business success.
Let me stress here that success in business depends on your ability to engender and sustain supportive behaviour from your stakeholders. So, instead of over-accentuating media relations as a compulsory skill in PR, I would rather we shifted focus to stakeholder relations management, which also factors managing the media. That way, we’re developing a multifaceted skillset.
PR and Journalism are birds of different feathers. One doesn’t equal the other. That an individual doesn’t have journalism experience doesn’t mean they won’t do well in PR. Similarly, if you have journalism experience, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will be a fantastic PR professional. It’s not so clear-cut. Let’s put an end to this misplaced understanding.
• Olisa, a strategic communications consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.