10 March 2008

Why did the reporter cross the road?

[Cross-posted to The Persuasion Business]

Geoff Meeker poses an interesting question in a couple of posts at his Telegram blog.  Meeker himself is a former journalist who crossed over to what many reporters refer to only half jokingly as the Dark Side.

Geoff's asking for some comments and with any luck reporters and people from the communications/public relations world will join the conversation.

He poses some questions to get things started:

What is driving this exodus? I suspect that it’s primarily a matter of money. Do governments and corporations pay that much more than the media (okay, I know, but how much more)? What should news outlets do to stem the tide and keep their people (and can they afford it)? Is this migration diminishing the quality of journalism in the province? Is the supply of young people coming into journalism enough to meet the demand? If you’ve recently made the jump, do you have any regrets? Or are you feeling good about the move? What do journalism students think about this issue?

To help stimulate the conversation, here are some observations from the perspective of someone in the public relations business who isn't a former reporter or a graduate of a public relations program.

1.  Why did the reporter cross the road?  Because he/she can.

Over the past four or five years, the number of reporters crossing to public relations in this province has been astonishing.  It's not unusual to see people walking straight out of a newsroom and straight into a mid-level position that was advertised as requiring a minimum - a minimum  -of five years experience in public relations including experience providing issues management advice to senior decision makers.

If there is no perceived difference in being a reporter and being a public relations practitioner, some people will switch careers just because they can.

There is no set path into the persuasion business. The track Jamie Baker is taking makes perfect sense.  he's going from writing copy for a newspaper to producing an in-house magazine for a local union.  There are plenty of communications jobs working for a university or a business that are essentially the same as working for a news outlet.

Public relations does require a massive shift in thinking, though, and in many cases requires a skill set for planning and management a reporter working in a newsroom wouldn't have.

PR isn't rocket science, but that doesn't mean it's easy either.  It comes with its own problems and pressures, just the same as any other job.

Many organizations make the mistake of assuming that PR is about media and therefore the best person to handle the job of fending off reporters' calls is another reporter.  Managing media relations is only one part of a broader set of public relations responsibilities. 

Fundamentally, though, the shift is from being an observer to being an advocate. Ideally, journalists gather information and present an account of what they found usually in a specific medium.

Public relations is about persuasion.  It's about having a point of view and presenting it fairly and with integrity.   Picking the medium is just a small aspect of the overall job. 

2.  The flow is one way.  At the same time, and at least in the local marketplace, while reporters cross effortlessly to communications jobs, the same isn't true the other way. That's not something confined to Newfoundland and Labrador; it's common across Canada.  A former communications director for the American president can wind up with a Sunday morning news show, but try to find a single example of the same thing happening in Canada.

Columnist maybe.

But PR professional to reporter?  How about to an editor's job?

Keep thinking.  You might recall one.

Now think of the number of reports who've moved from the newsroom to a PR management job.

3.  The money is better. Townie Bastard Craig Welsh offered some observations on the cross-over phenomenon in January. The post was prompted by a former colleague of his who was quitting the reporting game to take a job in a hardware store.  The back story - which he didn't share in detail - is appalling but undoubtedly money and time is a factor.

As Craig notes, in his own case the switch was driven by a family move to a new locale.  There are many reasons for switching jobs.

4.  The stress is lower.  Okay.  That one is just funny.

5.  The switch from "hack" to "flack" isn't a local phenom either.

Here are some relevant links:

From journalism to PR to teacher.

-  The National Press Club (Washington, DC) had a professional development session on the topic.

-  A profile of three cross-overs, courtesy of Kings J school alumni magazine.

-  A profile of Susan Murray, in which Susan uses the "s" word approvingly.

-  Another profile of reporters who made the switch, again from Kings.