No matter how hard managers stir, “communications” still isn’t a bucket

A recent column and blog post have created a dust-up over whether journalists should be hired to do public relations. It all started with a column by Jill Geisler at Poynter.org listing the 10 reasons why journalists could help public relations operations. That led to a post by Kathryn Hubbell at the Public Relations Society of America’s blog citing frustration in some parts of the PR profession with journalists invading the PR territory.

The comments at the PRSA blog turned nasty rather quickly, suggesting that Hubbell’s piece was inappropriate, short-sighted and, for some, insulting. I was bothered by the post, too, because it seemed to attack the path I had taken in my career. I was a newspaper journalist — first a reporter, then an editor — before jumping over to the public relations side of the business. I’ve always valued my media background, and so have my employers and clients. Journalists are trained to recognize a good story, write it well and explain it in easy-to-understand terms. Still, there’s more to public relations than that. There’s research, strategy and myriad other components involved in being a good PR counselor.

At first I was going to respond to the PRSA post talking about how off-base Ms. Hubbell was, but then the slew of comments that ensued took care of that for me. And as I watched those comments unfold, my opinion that some PR people are just snooty about their profession and want to defend it from outsiders changed. I came to realize that we’re all a bit like that, whether we specialize in journalism, public relations, marketing, advertising or any other form of communications. We hold our specific training and talents sacred — and rightly so.

The problem now seems to be that economic conditions have led to management teams losing sight of the fact that “communications” is not a bucket into which you can just stir in bits and pieces of professions and watch great products emerge. Journalists and their counterparts in the other various communications fields each have something to bring to the table. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an era where management is looking solely at the bottom line, hoping that by combining public relations, marketing and advertising into one discipline, with half the positions previously considered necessary, they have a winning managerial decision on their hands.

But the reality is all they’ve created is an inefficient and ineffective mess. Here’s a newsflash for those number-crunching CEOs: the people trained in those disciplines get upset when they’re told anyone can do their job, and so they should. Too many CEOs and vice presidents seem to believe that if you’re a journalist, of course you can do public relations. If you can do public relations, of course you can do marketing. And how hard can advertising really be, so why can’t the PR people or marketing staff take care of it? Oh, and internal communications — well, anyone can drop some cute stories into a company newsletter, right?

I’m a former journalist who now does public relations. The leap can be made. There are plenty of people who can be trained to cover more than one discipline. But it takes years of training, experience or both to make that transition and reach a point where you are comfortable saying, “Yeah, I can do more than one job for you.” But even then, it doesn’t mean you want to or that you should have to.

The company managers trying to figure out how to handle media relations, public relations, marketing, advertising and internal communications need to get a grip on reality. They should stop trying to save money by forcing people to work outside their disciplines, and then holding them accountable when they don’t get the biggest bang for the buck.

As I was thinking about this over the past few days while contemplating this blog post, I remembered a great lesson on figuring out the difference between several of the communication arts disciplines. It goes like this:

If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed and it makes the nightly news, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it in the news story, THAT’s public relations.”

Maybe those of us involved in communications should begin communicating more with our managers, starting with delivering a copy of that story.

(Image courtesy of Jake Khrone’s Flickr feed.)

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2 comments on “No matter how hard managers stir, “communications” still isn’t a bucket

  1. This is getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said. Mr. Adler, if you’ll permit me, a couple of corrections to your blog, to wit:
    1. Jill Geisler’s column in no way led to my post. My post, as clearly stated, was in response to a friend – a public relations colleague who teaches at the university level. It was in response to a private e-mail, and with her permission, I made my response public.
    2. There is no way that I feel journalists have “invaded” public relations; I don’t know where you got that. What I said was that companies need to provide former journalists more training if they are going to hire them for public relations jobs – in no small part because public relations does not consist solely of media relations.
    3. I made a point of saying that I teach former journalists in my public relations classes. They themselves recognize they need new and different training. What upset both me and my colleague was something you said fairly well in your blog – managers tend to think it’s “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to professional communications. Good journalists are great at a lot of things; none of us is great at everything.

    I remain a little astonished at the harsh feelings this created. I made a point of saying that we all need continued training in this day and age, no matter our original discipline. If I were to stop practicing public relations and go back into journalism, I would fully expect to get more and updated training – possibly very different training, since 30 years have passed. I have no feeling of injured pride about that in the slightest; I would just want to be good at what I do. And if that took different training for a different discipline, I would go and get that training. That’s all I’m saying about journalists. If they are being hired by companies who expect them to do a full public relations job without more training than that required by the media relations end of the discipline, then it’s those companies which are in error – not the journalists.

    There’s nothing wrong with needing more training when moving to a new and different discipline, no matter how strong one’s current skills are; there IS something wrong with managers thinking one good journalist can be bent and molded to fit all other aspects of public relations without some help. Nor would I expect an experience marketer to suddenly cross over from product promotion to managing reputation or handling crisis without more training. I’m just not sure why that’s a cause for injured pride, or why anyone should take this so personally. It was never meant that way, but certainly a lot of people feel this is a touchy subject. I still say we all need all the training we can get in this day and age, and it’s no black mark on any of us. In fact, it only generates admiration and respect from me when I find I have a former or unemployed journalist in one of my classes; that person is committed to growth in the face of enormous change, and that person has guts.

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    • Ms. Hubbell,

      I think we’re saying the same things but saying them a little differently.

      The bottom line to me is that all of us in the various communications professions are under siege because too many people outside of our disciplines think all the disciplines overlap and, therefore, any professional from any one discipline can do the job of another without additional training or experience.

      I started my post talking about the column and your post being connected because of your first line: “An educator colleague and friend recently wrote me to express her frustration with organizations that are hiring former journalists as public relations professionals.” I’m sorry if I misunderstood the connection to your post, but that’s where I got it from.

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