A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who had left journalism for public relations scolded me when I said I wouldn’t apply for a PR job she knew about.
“Journalism isn’t a holy calling, Jenni.”
“Sure, sure,” I responded, but I was thinking, “You just didn’t get the call.”
So when I read the recent blog post by Dave Parro, director of communications for Aurora University, in Aurora, Illinois, suggesting that journalists should get over their aversion to public relations and join his happy crew, well, I had to respond.
Sure, the skills are almost the same. But I would argue that public relations might not be a journalist’s best choice.
Let me start with the standard disclaimer: I have some dear friends in public relations. I love them and respect them. But, I’m sorry, what they do is not what I do, although they have at times made my job much easier. When I work with them, I forget all the PR people who obstruct, disassemble and, well, drink whatever Kool-Aid their employer is serving. (Forgive the cliché. It seemed fitting here.)
Further disclosure: since becoming a freelancer, I’ve done some writing for public relations shops because, let’s be honest, the pay is way better. Way way better. And I’m trying to keep a roof over my head. But is it journalism? Is it what I love to do? Is it something I’m comfortable with? Will you be comfortable with it?
I think my answer to Parro’s blog will answer those questions:
Parro wrote: “As someone who came over to the dark side, I’d like to give my noble-minded friends eight reasons why they should consider selling out.
“You still get to tell great stories. Sure, you have to abandon objectivity, but that doesn’t mean clients don’t have compelling stories. Discovering and articulating a brand’s story can be every bit as challenging and rewarding as penning that 100-inch masterpiece.”
Laidman answers: Make sure you only have clients you respect, or face spinning stories in ways stories should not be spun. Hope you are comfortable with leaving out the unflattering bits. Feeling good about that will be “every bit as challenging” as reporting and writing. In fact, it will be more challenging. And how about making up quotes? Will you be comfortable with that?
Parro: “You get to shape the story. It’s like a game of chess trying to anticipate what reporters need and which direction a story will head next. And seeing your pitch turn into a placement is every bit as satisfying as seeing your byline in print.”
Laidman: Please compare the above to, “You’ll get to tell people what really happened, and if you work hard at it, you’ll tell it in a nuanced fashion that helps people live better lives and make wiser choices.”
Parro: “You get to be an advocate. Though you might occasionally have to smile and make the BPs of the world seem like good corporate citizens, quite often you’re helping advance the agendas of reputable companies and organizations with missions you can embrace.”
Laidman: Does this really need a response? I guess if you can smile and make a careless company seem like a good corporate citizen, then, well, ick. Let’s return to my first point: Make sure you work for someone you can respect. Otherwise, money better be very very important to you, which suggests you probably made a wrong turn in life when you landed in a newsroom.
Parro: “You still get to regularly learn something new. I might not get to dig for mastodon bones as I did when I was a reporter, but public relations does require becoming an expert in clients’ industries and products.”
Laidman: I’ll grant this is often true, and the very smart PR people I’ve met prove it. I even know a few who have done the equivalent of digging up mastodon bones. They usually cover research for universities.
Parro: “You don’t have the emotional baggage. When I left journalism, one of the things I soon realized was how jaded I had become. There were days when I came home emotionally exhausted, perhaps after visiting a mother who just lost her teenage son to a gang war. Like cops, reporters often make light of tragedy as a coping mechanism. The unfortunate result can be a loss of compassion.”
Laidman: If you’ve lost compassion, it is definitely time to go. Somewhere. Into counseling would be best. If you are no longer emotionally accessible, your writing reflects it. Without empathy, you can’t tell anyone’s story well. So, yes, if that’s you, it’s time to move on. PR may be be too demanding for you.
Parro: “You get to be optimistic. This one goes hand in hand with No. 5. Instead of being an eternal pessimist, PR pros get to focus on the positive. Journalists will call that spin, but it’s an overall healthier worldview.”
Laidman: Eternal pessimists, like eternal optimists, make lousy reporters. The job requires skepticism, not cynicism.
Parro: “You still have constant deadlines. Let’s face it: Journalists thrive on them. Don’t worry; PR people still have them. We just don’t have a hole to fill in tomorrow’s paper.”
Laidman: Whatever. I’m not sure how this is an argument for anything. Most jobs have deadlines.
Parro: “You understand what makes a great story. Developing solid news judgment comes from experience. So you can help us prevent those awful PR pitches that result in newsroom laughter once you hang up the phone.”
Laidman: I guess if you feel called to save the profession of public relations from itself, have at it. But I bet you will still make a few pitches you think are stupid if your boss wants you to. Everyone works for someone, and perfect agreement isn’t possible.
So, PR is not evil. Its practitioners are not wicked. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not journalism, and it may not be the best choice for a second career if you’re at all in love with reporting.