Do ex-journalists make good PRs?

 post – and her discussion in the comments with Edelman’s – provides a good reflection on the appointment of the “controlled and assertive, former editor of the News of the World, as director of communications and planning for the Conservative party.

Personally, I am disappointed to see how readily journalists are employed in such senior roles. I appreciate they have a handle on the news/media agenda and possibly (though not always) good contacts with fellow journalists. 

And, employing Coulson may have the advantage that other journalists believe he knows their job; although some may feel resentful of his new position (and salary), as with Alistair Campbell ultimately.

But, as David implies, there is a tendency for ex-journalists to take a press agentry perspective and chase headlines rather than understand the strategic approach which is required in counselling the leader of a major “brand”. 

When former journalists enter PR at a senior level their role is to provide high level counsel, but this is based largely on a competency in practical news generation.  They are in effect communications technicians but operating at a manager level (blurring the theoretical division familiar to any student of PR). 

Most journalists – and many bosses – seem to believe that poacher-turned-gamekeeper (ie journo reborn as PR) is a great idea, but is it really?  Yes, they will have good understanding of the media (although this can be from a particular perspective, in Coulson’s case, moving from a school-leaver’s reporting job at the Basildon Evening Echo to the Sun’s Bizarre show business desk and a career at News International) . 

But, I’ve come across many former-journalists who view PR solely in terms of media relations, spin and puff (ironically when they “cross over”).  They don’t recognise long-term perspectives, the importance of building key relationships, the dynamic online environment, the power of advocacy and activism, or the dangers of propaganda and rhetoric.

Yes, some ex-media make great PR practitioners but they are the ones who learn about management and the wider role of public relations.

Coulson may turn out to be one of those rare breed – after all, he was credited at the start of 2006 of emphasising campaigning news at the News of the World – and reducing the influence of Max Clifford. 

Of course, as Max is no friend of the Tories (claiming his proudest achievements was: helping to bring down a government I found despicable by attaching the word “sleaze” to the word “Conservative”), Coulson can reflect that “your enemy is my enemy”.

Working for the Conservative party though, he’ll need to be making more friends than creating enemies in his new job.  Something that those in public relations know very well.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

5 thoughts on “Do ex-journalists make good PRs?”

  1. You have to remember that David Cameron has a skilled PR background, so coupled with Coulson’s journalistic skills – which I think are essential in PR and it shows when it is lacking – maybe they will make a good team.
    David Brain is very pro-Labour, btw, so I expect to get a few ribbings from him on my political posts.

  2. I think that this questions is incredibly circumstantial and can only be examined on a case by case basis. Journalists who jump into the PR world do of course have an excellent understanding of media relations, and also can provide helpful strategies for public relations practitioners to implement in regards to effectively relating to media. However, coming from a strictly journalistic career, they cannot be expected to entirely understand the other functions of public relations. All of these are very broad and general points though. I believe that the success of the endeavor depends almost entirely on the individual journalist and his or her set of skills that correlate to practicing public relations successfully. Also, in regards to Coulson and others who jump into a high position in a PR role, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to assume that their journalism background gives them an upper hand. However, maybe Coulson will work well in this situation. I don’t think the general question can be readily addressed, but should only be assessed on a case by case basis.

  3. I think the question has to be answered on an individualistic basis. If someone has been a hard-core news reporter for many years I believe that would be very difficult to make the transition from always being objective to being an advocate.

    I think the basic skill set for PR and journalists are the same in terms of writing and understanding what the press needs and want. I think the biggest factor in terms of can a journalist make a good PR person is the amount of time spend being a journalist.

  4. Ellee – Cameron is quite interesting in terms of his PR credentials – since as far as I understand, he went straight to being head of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications from working in the Conservative research department and being a special adviser in the Treasury/Home Office. So he clearly knows about political affairs, whilst Coulson brings his exclusively media background. We shall see if these two specialist aspects of PR prove a winning combination.

    Katie – it is of course hard to generalise, but as journalists often question “celebrities” writing newspaper columns or becoming TV journalists, then it is fair for us why they should automatically assume they are qualified to work in PR. Yes, there will be individual journalists who make a success of the switchover, but every appointment reinforces the idea that it is easy to practice PR successfully, which most journalists seem to believe.

    Kendel – interesting to ponder if there is a particular type of journalist that transfers well to PR. I agree that some do find it difficult to adapt to advocacy. Part of my issue is that journalists may bring a good writing and media knowledge skill set into PR, but that isn’t enough to succeed as a gamekeeper.

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