Ellee’s post – and her discussion in the comments with Edelman’s David Brain – provides a good reflection on the appointment of the “controlled and assertive” Andy Coulson, 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.