A journalist rang an RMIT public relations course lecturer recently seeking comment on a story about how Fairfax, News and other media retrenchments would make it harder for PR people to get jobs.

The thesis, apparently, was that all the journalists on the market would shrink opportunities for PR people who would be passed over for these experienced media types. The query may have been prompted by a PR person’s earlier clanger about the advantages to PR people of fewer journalists, but it may equally have been prompted by an assumption that PR companies mainly employ ex-journalists.

Being a good PR person, the RMIT staffer refrained from saying “well no” and even resisted an “up to a point, Lord Copper” which would have been tempting. But the question raised some interesting points about journalists’ knowledge of PR and where PR people (including all those who call themselves public affairs, corporate affairs, corporate communications, etc) actually come from.

When I started in consultancy in the 1960s, every consultant at the Eric White Associates Melbourne office was an ex-journalist and the one female consultant had been a staffer on a “women’s page” — that curious media ghetto thankfully abolished some decades ago. Many of them had also had other life experiences in the Second World War and one had been in the volunteers during the Kenyan Mau Mau years.

By the 1990s in my own Melbourne office, only three consultants were ex-journalists and the rest were a cross-section of PR course graduates, a biochemist, a lawyer, some ex-political staffers and an array of graduates in other disciplines. Incidentally, the gender situation had also been reversed with the males in the office being in a minority. Probably only the group’s Adelaide office had a majority of consultants who were ex-journalists and nearly all of them came from rural and/or agricultural media backgrounds.

There are, of course, some distinguished former journalists in PR consulting and corporate jobs. Many of them occupy media relations jobs although it is not unusual for large corporations to have media relations staff who have PR rather than media backgrounds. The best of the ex-journalist PR people often specialise in issues or crisis situations that get into the media, even though most PR people working on issues seek to identify and solve them before they end up in the media as media coverage of a problem tends to be a lagging, rather than leading, indicator of an issue’s life.

You can’t blame journalists for thinking PR is about media relations because they are besieged by PR people every day trying to get a run on something or other. But probably the PR people talking to media are a selection of those in most consultancies and a small minority in corporate PR teams. In the corporate situation, this is partly because most companies have tight guidelines about who speaks to the media and when, but mainly due to the fact that there are a lot of other people in the PR team doing other things such as internal communications, government relations, issues management and so on.

This is not to say retrenched journalists won’t get jobs in PR. The field is expanding enormously in a wide variety of fields. The US military, for instance, is the largest employer of PR people in the world and in Melbourne the number of PR people outweighs the number of journalists. But the transition to the dark side, as the media characterises the move of their own to PR, is not automatic.

Lots of journalists flounder in PR and ex-journalists working as political staffers are often the bane of public service PR people’s lives because they focus on communicating with the media rather than the public. It also often takes them a while to get the distinction between the media’s “right” to know, which actually isn’t a right at all, and the public’s right to know, which is.

All in all a situation a bit more complex than would fit into a standard news story template. I guess that’s why the story didn’t get a run.

Peter Fray

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