I’ve been in a pensive but inspired mood lately. This particular frame of mind could be attributed to the fact that I’m all set to finish up at graduate school in a few months and setting upon a new path always monopolizes space, good or bad, in a person’s thoughts. During this time I’ve begun to think quite pragmatically about the choices I’ve made academically, and more specifically, about my decision to go on to post-graduate work in public relations after receiving a B.A. in Journalism.
What I’ve been batting around lately is the old power struggle and ingrained belief that journalism and public relations are on opposite sides of the professional and even the societal spectrum. One is credible and respected and the other, supposedly, is not. Is this even true? And if so, how can I and other young professionals trained in both fields reconcile these two backgrounds and passions in our personal lives and careers? PR and journalism do not complement each other in practice or in theory and they certainly do not share the same skill sets. Or do they?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, “Journalism graduates have the background for work in closely related fields such as advertising and public relations or communications, and many take jobs in these fields.” So, considering this assertion, the long-held discrepancy between the two professions and my belief and experience that other young communicators are indeed in the same boat as I am, I thought this a worthy topic to explore.
In 1961 L. Feldman conducted a study, that back then, was the first of its kind and was subsequently built upon by other researchers. His study included 746 city editors of newspapers and 88 officers of local Public Relations Society of America chapters across the country, with the ultimate goal of comparing how journalists and public relations practitioners assessed each other. This study, as well as later ones in the same vein, found discrepancies in the attitudes of the two groups on dimensions such as credibility, professionalism and occupational status. For example, journalists generally held negative attitudes toward public relations practitioners, their values and professional status, while practitioners actually looked upon journalists as credible purveyors of high news values, and to themselves as attributing to its production.
Studying journalism in school, reading the works of and looking up to iconoclast journalists I.F. Stone and H.L. Mencken, muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and especially reading such anti-PR texts and blogs as “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” and PR Watch, in the realm of public communications and especially media relations I found, as did Feldman, that there does exist some stigma of public relations as the evil sibling, communicating messages solely with an eye toward gaining something, and journalism, the saintly one, out to serve and inform.
This has contributed greatly to the friction in my thinking mainly because I do in fact believe this description of journalism is definitively true. But is this a zero sum, either-or argument, with the negative description of PR practice inherently true if you believe journalism is the altruistic, above crass-commercialism, credible profession its practitioners, students and society believe it to be? I do not believe so.
Journalism and news are irrefutably oriented toward a public agenda and a general audience. It performs the vital functions of keeping the republic and its citizens informed, unruly and immoral corporations and governments are kept in check by accountability journalism and through adept and trained analysis, good journalism verifies and explains in understandable terms complicated events, issues and processes.
Journalists also contribute mightily to the marketplace of ideas, flooding it with worthy illustration of “how the other half lives,” disseminating and stirring up community knowledge and supplying multiple view points in their articles, all leading to much-needed choice and information for us citizens. And as the authors of the 2009 CJR report on reconstructing American Journalism write, independent journalism makes accessible “issues of race, social and economic conditions and the role of government in people’s lives.”
But is PR really the evil sibling possessing no intrinsic value and offering little worth toward our society and the marketplace of ideas? And again, can these two passions and background of mine mesh together to form an effective and ethical PR pro with an eye toward increasing exposure and access to different ideas and content, while at the same time driving action for clients? Without a doubt.
Although the PR profession is not perfect, and pro’s have sometimes hidden behind the brands they represent, pushing out impersonal messages without genuinely engaging the community they are attempting to reach, I believe that through the web, the evolution has already begun and we who are trained in the craft of journalism can make the public relations profession more effective, more cognizant of and better targeted toward the real needs and interests of myriad publics – which translates into successful and worthy PR. Good PR leads to effective communication, between practitioners and consumers, and even between practitioners and bloggers, analysts and journalists. The journalistic skills of knowing how to produce and package compelling and newsworthy content, for both traditional and digital media, along with the recognition of the special obligation we have as communications professionals toward transparency, ensures efficacious and powerful communication – both for organizations, clients and society.
Something interesting that also came out of those studies I talked about earlier on the practitioner-reporter relationship was that researchers found in their data that “For journalists, familiarity with PR practitioners apparently breeds respect.”
On a relative note, the Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Dan Gilmor recently said that “If we understand that journalism education is a valuable step into any number of professions, we should not just celebrate the graduates who’ve gone on to fame (if not fortune) in journalism, but also those who’ve made marks in other fields.”
Well said Mr. Gilmor.
(Please join in on the conversation by commenting and letting me know if you agree that journalism training and its skills do indeed provide a worthy background for PR, and more controversially, is crossing over into a PR career a negative thing for journalists? Those who have completed this career switch, how do you deal with the stigma discussed above? Just Curious!)