The PR BlogPR TrendsThe News BusinessJournalism vs PR: A Tense Relationship

Journalism vs PR: A Tense Relationship

So close, yet so far apart.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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

Spinning Top on Table
To spin or not to spin.

Journalism vs Public Relations

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

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

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

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

A fun­da­ment­al cri­tique against pub­lic rela­tions is that advocacy of spe­cial interests is manip­u­la­tion by the affluent.

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.

Learn more: 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:

The Stakeholder Model - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
The stake­hold­er mod­el in pub­lic relations.

Stakeholders in Public Relations

In PR, we often dis­cuss stake­hold­ers. And our PR spe­cial­isa­tions are named based on which stake­hold­ers we’re respons­ible for managing. 

In a cor­por­a­tion, a stake­hold­er is a mem­ber of ‘groups without whose sup­port the organ­isa­tion would cease to exist’, as defined in the first usage of the word in a 1963 intern­al memor­andum at the Stanford Research Institute. The the­ory was later developed and cham­pioned by R. Edward Freeman in the 1980s. Since then it has gained wide accept­ance in busi­ness prac­tice and in the­or­ising relat­ing to stra­tegic man­age­ment, cor­por­ate gov­ernance, busi­ness pur­pose and cor­por­ate social respons­ib­il­ity (CSR).”

This is the stake­hold­er mod­el in PR:

  • Corporate Communications = External and intern­al pub­lics, busi­ness journ­al­ists, reg­u­lat­ory insti­tu­tions, part­ners, sup­pli­ers, vendors etc.
  • Investor Relations (IR) = Shareholders, fin­an­cial mar­kets, mar­ket ana­lysts, fin­an­cial insti­tu­tions, trade journ­al­ists etc.
  • Media Relations = Journalists, edit­ors, influ­en­cers etc.
  • Digital PR = Inbound web traffic, brand com­munit­ies, sub­scribers, fans, fol­low­ers, influ­en­cers, social net­works etc.
  • Public Affairs (PA) = Voters, polit­ic­al journ­al­ists, polit­ic­al ana­lysts, colum­nists, interest groups etc.
  • Lobbying = Politicians, legis­lat­ors, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, com­mit­tees influ­en­cers etc.
  • Internal Communications = Coworkers, poten­tial recruits etc.
  • Crisis Communications = Crisis vic­tims, wor­ried pub­lics, the gen­er­al pub­lic, cowork­ers, journ­al­ists, influ­en­cers, cus­tom­ers, share­hold­ers etc.
  • Marketing PR = Potential cus­tom­ers, exist­ing cus­tom­ers, trade journ­al­ists, mem­bers, affil­i­ates etc.
  • Industry PR (B2B) = B2B cli­ents, B2B pro­spects, trade journ­al­ists, trade organ­isa­tions, niche influ­en­cers etc.

Developing and main­tain­ing rela­tion­ships with vari­ous stake­hold­ers is a sig­ni­fic­ant chal­lenge for PR pro­fes­sion­als since their inform­a­tion needs are typ­ic­ally very dif­fer­ent. 1A wide­spread 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 … Continue read­ing

Stakeholders in Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Different stake­hold­er needs in pub­lic relations.

Learn more: 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 A wide­spread 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 tiny per­cent­age of all the stake­hold­er rela­tion­ships PR pro­fes­sion­als must man­age daily.
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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