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Journalism vs PR: A Tense Relationship

So close, yet so far apart.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Journalism vs PR — how does it work?

Journalism and PR are close, yet so far apart.

But how?

Here we go:

Journalism vs PR: The Difference

Journalism and Public Relations

PR professionals and journalists share many practical skill sets. Still, public relations and journalism are fundamentally different:

Journalism is the effort to objectively report the news on behalf of the public interest.

A fundamental critique against journalism is that objectivity is unrealistic and the public interest heterogeneous.

Public Relations is the effort to subjectively advocate positions on behalf of special interests.

A fundamental critique against public relations is that advocacy of special interests is dishonest manipulation.

But even if both journalism and PR fail to live up to their ideal states at all times, both practices play vital roles in upholding a balanced and stable democracy.

Read also: Journalism vs PR

Why Journalists Sometimes Dislike PR

Journalists have plenty of reasons to dislike PR professionals:

  • PR professionals have the terrible habit of spamming journalists with irrelevant press releases. (This is sometimes referred to as “spray and pray.”)
  • PR professionals sometimes contact journalists with weak and irrelevant story ideas. Not all PR professionals do this, but enough to give stressed journalists that impression.
  • PR professionals outnumber journalists. While journalists produce news all day, PR professionals don’t usually contact journalists all day, but enough contacts are being made to give stressed journalists that impression.
  • PR professionals typically pitch stories with a positive spin for the organisation they represent, but journalists are hardwired to seek stories based on conflict.
  • PR professionals might try to be as lovely and accommodating as possible, but with enough repetition for the journalists, it can result in an air of telemarketing or spam.
  • PR professionals don’t always like pitching journalists, either. An outcome of this is that media relations are often delegated to less senior professionals. And journalists are trained to detect inexperience.
  • And most importantly: Journalists are supposed to be sceptical. They’re supposed to be critical and weary.

Why Journalists Seek PR Careers

Journalism is a harsh industry. The digital-first paradigm shift has hit the news media hard. In many markets, schools output a surplus of journalism students, but there are few good jobs around, so the competition is often fierce.

The pay isn’t great, the work is stressful, there are often lots of internal politics to navigate, and the hours typically aren’t great. Many journalists must hop between temporary assignments for years before landing a reasonably safe position.

Despite journalists teasing each other about converting to the “dark side,” many journalists switch. I’ve been told this often is a permanent choice since news organisations rarely hire PR professionals as journalists.

Journalists often ask me for advice: Should they switch to PR?

I often say no.
Here’s why:

When Journalists Make the Switch to PR

Many journalists have misleading preconceptions of what the PR industry is about. While this is perfectly understandable, it doesn’t change the fact that journalists often find PR work to be deeply disappointing.

To understand what a PR professional might be tasked with, I like to point to the stakeholder model:

Stakeholders in Public Relations

In PR, we often discuss stakeholders. And most PR specialisations are grouped based on which stakeholders they’re responsible for managing. 1The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella … Continue reading

A few examples:

  • External and internal publics, business journalists, regulatory institutions, partners, suppliers, vendors etc. (Corporate Communications)
  • Shareholders, financial markets, market analysts, financial institutions, trade journalists etc. (Investor Relations)
  • Journalists, editors, influencers etc. (Media Relations)
  • Inbound web traffic, brand communities, subscribers, fans, followers, influencers, social networks etc. (Digital PR)
  • Voters, political journalists, political analysts, columnists, interest groups etc. (Public Affairs)
  • Politicians, legislators, government officials, committees influencers etc. (Lobbying)
  • Coworkers, potential recruits etc. (Internal Communications)
  • Crisis victims, worried publics, the general public, coworkers, journalists, influencers, customers, shareholders etc. (Crisis Communications)
  • Potential customers, existing customers, trade journalists, members, affiliates etc. (Marketing Communications)
  • Trade journalists, trade organisations, niche influencers etc. (Industry PR)

A common misconception is that the PR function only deals with journalists, editors, and influencers (Media Relations) within the scope of attracting new customers (Marketing PR). But such work represents only a small percentage of all the stakeholder relationships PR professionals must manage daily.

Read also: How To Classify Stakeholders in Public Relations

Journalists typically know little about corporate communication in various forms. And it’s a far cry from what they once signed up for when they pursued a career in journalism.

The outcome is, therefore, that ex-journalists are often tasked with full-time media relations alongside more junior PR professionals. But while their PR colleagues advance, they’re stuck with full-time media relations. Forever.

Journalists typically expect media relations, and if that were what all PR professionals did every day, maybe that would’ve been easier to stomach. Or maybe not.

Love or hate it; media relations isn’t about serving the public interest. The best media relations specialists are salespeople at heart. And spending your day selling PR stories to former industry colleagues can be rough for a trained journalist.

Same Same but Different

So, journalists and PR professionals share many skill sets. They’re both operating within the media industry. They’re both fascinated by the news. There are deadlines, stress, and lots of writing.

But make no mistake about it: The work is entirely different.

1 The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella category for the other disciplines.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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