Do journalists make good PR people?

Written by Jim Walsh - April 2017

Do journalists make good PR people? I posed that question recently during a presentation to a National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Freelance Forum in Dublin.

The topic was ‘Public Relations Opportunities for Freelancers.’

My answer to my own rhetorical question was yes/maybe.

Yes because I can think of a number of Irish journalists who became very successful PR professionals.  I am sure some people reading this will already be considering their own list.

Irish journalists who come top of mind having made the successful transition to the global PR world include John Saunders, a former broadcast journalist with RTE who is now president and CEO of FleishmanHillard; Declan Kelly, a former print journalist with the Irish Examiner who is now chairman and CEO of the global advisory firm, Teneo; and Fintan Drury, another broadcast journalist with RTE who founded Drury, now Drury Porter Novelli, and then went on to set up Platinum One Sports Management.

Others who were successful here in Ireland include Joe Murray and Jim Milton who came from business journalism to establish one of the earliest and most enduring PR brands in Ireland, Murray Consultants; the late Michael Keane, former editor of the Sunday Press who was a co-founder of Insight Consulting and Ella Shanahan, who also sadly passed away a few years ago, was someone I had the pleasure of working with here at Walsh:PR for a number of years following her early retirement from the Irish Times.

But while those and others were successful in PR, there are an equal number for whom the world of PR didn’t match their expectations or personalities.

Despite what many journalists think, PR and journalism are not interchangeable.

Some journalists consider PR as a black art, not to be considered as a suitable career, while others are attracted by the headline salaries, as consolidation and multi-tasking heaps pressure on mainstream media resources.

Some journalists see PR people as obstructive and preventing them from getting face-to-face with the decision makers. Others see the benefit in dealing with PR people who understand the media and how it works.

Seamus Dooley, acting general secretary of the NUJ in the UK and Ireland, who delivered the opening address at the Freelance Forum, said that characterising all PR with clichés such as ‘spin doctors’ was lazy journalism.

It is equally wrong for PR people or their clients to characterise all journalists as having a set agenda when it come to asking the hard questions.

In preparation for the Freelance Forum I undertook an informal survey among my colleagues in Walsh:PR to ascertain how they saw the division of their time in an average week, if there is such a thing in PR.

Some of the journalists in the audience were a little taken aback to hear that the executives I canvassed only spent between 15% and 40% of their time on media related activities – dealing directly with journalists, preparing content and organising media events. While between 35% and 70% of their time was spent on client-related matters – dealing directly with clients, preparing proposals, consultation etc. The balance of an average working week went on reading and research.

There was no time left for socialising and partying, the activities often listed as a characteristic of working in PR and cemented in lore by the BBC television sitcom and movie, Absolutely Fabulous.

It is the dealing with clients combined with the timeframes in which PR people work, which many journalists who consider PR as an alternative career have difficulty with.  It is one thing as a news journalist to take an instruction from an editor, get an interview and write up the story in a matter of hours.  It is quite another to find yourself over a period of days or weeks trying to convince a client team who may have fixed ideas on how and where they wish their company communications to be directed.

The key for journalists is not to consider PR as an homogeneous occupation. My advice at the freelance forum was to seek out the most appropriate PR company that fits your skills and personality or if in-house PR attracts, then the organisations that can benefit from your journalism speciality are the ones to target.

There is obviously no right or wrong answer to the question “Do journalists make good PR people’. The answer lies with the journalists themselves and whether or not they can match their skills, personalities and attitudes to specific consultancy or in-house opportunities.

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