Briefing: Public relations for journalists

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Welcome to the dark side

You’ve heard the phrase. We’ve heard the phrase. Let’s pause a moment to unpick it.

Public relations is often presented as the dark side in contrast to journalism. Journalists strive to tell the truth; by contrast, public relations people – while they should always be accurate and avoid telling lies – cannot tell the whole truth because they are spokespeople for one group or perspective.

In this Manichean view, journalism is a force for enlightenment and public relations is propaganda. The two must inevitably be locked in struggle.

If this were the final word on this question, why would anyone leave the one for the other? Or, why wouldn’t there be a reverse flow of people leaving public relations to work in journalism?

Either public relations is not so dark, or journalism not so perfect a world in which to work. Only that could explain the largely one-way traffic from people leaving journalism to work in public relations, public affairs or communication roles.

There is a dark side to public relations, and we will strive to present it here. But it’s a different dark side than the one you expect. And it is true that we need to address the question of propaganda and public relations. The answer we propose may surprise you.

But before going there, let’s try a much more stinging critique of public relations.

You’ve received those effusive phone calls and mock-friendly email pitches from a public relations person. You’ve received the bizarrely misdirected missive bigging up some ‘revolutionary’ product that’s of no interest to you or to your readers, viewers of listeners. What’s so dark about that? If it’s an attempt at propaganda, it’s largely ineffective because you’re quick to ignore it.

So the much more perceptive critique of public relations is less that it’s dark than that it’s too light. It’s fluffy. That rather than peering into the dark, public relations outputs focus remorselessly on the positive, the light side. In the words of one academic, public relations is ‘hemispheric communication’ because the sun only shines on one side of the globe at any one time.

Surely a propagandist, schooled in the art of post-truth communication, would home in on our fears and would seek to spread discord. You as a journalist know that as a species we’re most responsive to bad news: that’s because we’ve evolved by being alert to the things that threaten our survival. Terrorism, war, floods, famine and disease dominate the news headlines. You’ll struggle to find mention of them in most public relations outputs other than from activists.

You thought the dark side was commercial public relations. In truth, it’s the light side of the industry.

Money talks

Or is it dark because there’s always a paymaster in public relations and so ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune’?

If this is your concern, it’s a legitimate one. We should certainly talk about money.

But before returning to public relations, let’s ask if journalism is so very different? Setting aside the funding model of the BBC (now under threat) and perhaps the enlightened oversight of The Guardian newspaper (by the Scott Trust), there’s usually a media business or a wealthy individual behind the media outlet. They will often make decisions about the title (to merge or close, or rationalise) that have all to do with business and little to do with editorial quality. Editorial independence is a valuable principle in a democratic society, but how many journalists would run stories against the interests of their proprietor? How many would report negatively about their largest advertisers or sponsors? You see, money talks.

This isn’t even the main money problem in journalism and the media. The challenge is to find a sustainable funding model. The BBC’s licence fee funding is under threat. Many print titles and commercial television stations are suffering from the shift in advertising spend to online platforms and a decline in subscriptions. (Meanwhile, how many journalists are employed by Facebook, Google and Amazon?)

By contrast, the funding model of public relations presented earlier as a weakness now appears a strength. There are an unlimited number of organisations and individuals who are willing to pay for public relations representation. From startup businesses seeking publicity, to well-established brands managing their reputations; from public sector bodies defending their legitimacy and demonstrating their responsiveness to the public, to small and large charities fighting for funds and attention.

It’s not easy money, but there are plenty of people willing to pay for public relations. That’s why the number of people working in public relations continues to rise (it’s now around 90,000 in the UK – enough to fill Wembley Stadium) even while the numbers working in journalism are in decline.

If public relations were solely about media relations, then logically its numbers should be in decline too. We need to explain why this isn’t the case.

Journalism may see itself in opposition to public relations, but it’s no longer reciprocated. The world has moved on. Here’s why.

Now we’re all the media

The balance of power between journalists and public relations people has shifted in the digital age. In the twentieth century, the mass media century, journalists and editors were gatekeepers of public information. Public relations people were supplicants at the gate, more often turned away than allowed to pass through. When they had a monoploly on the dissemination of news, journalists held real power.

Now there are more channels for getting information into the public domain. There are websites and social media channels, none of which needs the permission of a journalist or editor. And there are still advertising channels largely operating outside editorial control (it’s a commercial transaction, governed by different rules).

Journalists are courted because they are seen as influencers who have the power to inform and persuade large numbers of people (or who are highly trusted by niche, valuable groups). Now, when we talk of influencers, who do we think of? More likely some minor celebrity on Instagram with a large following and a willingness to cash in on their fame and followers.

Ultimately, the big media gatekeeper now is Google and its army of bots and its clever algorithms. Appearing on the front page of a newspaper or in the broadcast news bulletin is for many less important than appearing on the first page of a Google search result. In this analysis, media coverage is less about the publicity than about the link and the signal this sends to Google. There’s a fear that very soon this whole process from end to end might be automated with scarcely any need for human intervention. From writing a news release, to the resulting news report and links and social media ‘conversations’, to the scraping of the news into aggregators like Google news.

Introducing ‘content marketing’ and ‘brand journalism’

The message is that it’s pointless to continue to fight the battles of the twentieth century now that we’re in the third decade of the twenty-first. Journalism and public relations are not opposites; they are both part of a fast-evolving media ecosystem.

By viewing them as opposites, you risk missing the most important developments of the past twenty years. The fast-growing digital marketing industry recognises the primacy of Google search rankings. In this world, the goal is to send ranking signals to search engines through quality links, for example. Media websites are important sources of links, and media outreach is more about link building rather than PR’s focus on helping journalists to do their jobs.

The distinctions between digital marketing and public relations have blurred and so PR practitioners are having to learn the language of data and metrics alongside their traditional strengths in storytelling and relationship building. Meanwhile, digital marketers are learning from the PR toolkit in order increase their ability to earn coverage and links.

Content marketing is the widely-used phrase, but many of us would see it as a public relations approach. Trevor Young defines it as ‘Strategically creating, publishing and amplifying original content that’s of interest, relevance and value to a specific audience, with the ultimate goal of influencing a desired outcome.’

Cut through this language, and you’ll realise you’ve been doing this as a journalist. Your reports and stories have focused on clarifying and dramatising complex news in order to inform the public. It goes on to highlight the need to amplify content: there’s already too much content, and the hard skill is not to create more, but rather to enable content to be discovered through social sharing. The point about the desired outcome is that since someone is paying for you to run the campaign and create the content, they will ask for evidence of its success. For journalists, the work ends with the story or the package, but if you work in marketing or PR then the effects of the content will have to be measured.

Brand journalism is a form of content marketing that takes the approach to its logical conclusion. It puts quality of content at the centre, and hides any obvious promotional intent. Red Bull is a good example of this approach: its website has channels devoted to adventure and extreme sports – content designed to attract its young, adventure-seeking customers. The site is all about the brand rather than being about the product or the company. It sounds obvious: give people more of what they’re interested in and back off the self-serving promotion. Yet if it were so obvious, where are the scores of comparable examples? In reality, it’s hard to persuade businesses to spend millions creating content that avoids direct self-promotion.

Let’s talk some more about money

That public relations has many paymasters is not a weakness, it’s a strength. If you object to working for a tobacco company, say, you don’t have to. It would be easy to find a client or employer whose interests align with yours. There’s a well-established path from local newspaper to local government or NHS Trust. All serve the local community; all need improved internal and external communication and stronger relationships with key partners.

We have some data on the economic size of the public relations sector. We also have annual surveys that indicate average salaries depending on experience, location and sector. Looked at from the perspective of fully professional areas such as medicine and the law, these salaries may appear modest. Looked at from the perspective of most working journalists, they appear generous. And salaries only tell part of the picture. While 70% of those in the CIPR State of the Profession 2019 study worked in-house for a salary, 30% worked in an agency or as independents. Many of these are business owners, some of whom will gain the rewards of turning startups into multi-million pound turnover businesses.

Source: CIPR State of the Profession 2019

These figures present a simple narrative, and suggest reassuring prospects for rewards to follow seniority. I suspect the picture is much more complex. It doesn’t at first glance make sense that those over retirement age should be earning double the annual income of those at the peak of their careers when in their early thirties. I suspect it’s because those who have retired would have no motivation to fill out an annual professional body survey. So the only people aged over 64 who do so are the survivors who still love the work they do. By definition, these would be the most senior managers and business owners.

Where the figures are likely to be accurate is that salaries and incomes follow demand and reward capability in a free market. Anyone can set themselves up as a public relations practitioner. That’s no challenge. The challenge in year one is to find and win business in a competitive market and deliver the work to a satisfactory level – and get paid for it.

According to the same State of the Profession survey, independent (ie self-employed) practitioners earned £54,774 – rather more than the average salary of all employees as stated above.

That means earning £350 a day for three days work a week for every week of the year. This calculation is based on three productive days a week because if self-employed you are not paid to promote yourself, to meet and win new clients, to go on training courses, or to be sick or take holiday.

From press office to content marketing

The world of public relations shifted around the time of the millennium. Somewhere between the birth of Google in 1998 and the launch of the iPhone in 2007 our working lives began to change. Here’s a narrative to explain this change.

Before Google, we lived in a world in which press officers wrote press releases and organised press conferences. That’s the world you know as a journalist. There’s still work in this world of ‘traditional PR’, but it’s not future-proof and nor will it offer the best pay and prospects.

After Google, the basic press office role has morphed into a digital PR role that’s as much about links and Google search results as it is about coverage. Traditional PR became digital PR. A world that was once all about words is increasingly about numbers and data. The reasons are easy to understand.

If you’re paid money to run a public relations campaign, at some point you will be asked to justify this spend in terms of results achieved. Counting coverage is no longer acceptable as a result. Counting coverage, calculating the advertising equivalent cost of this coverage and then adding in a multiplier because editorial is more valuable than advertising – well, that’s now outlawed as flawed and unprofessional. Some clients may demand it because they don’t know any better; some PR teams may still offer it on the grounds that they always have and that clients expect it, but they’re on the wrong side of history.

The problem is that press coverage is not the end result of a public relations campaign. It is, in the jargon, an output rather than an outcome.

Think about it. If the objective of your campaign is to encourage people to quit smoking, it’s bizarre to measure your success by media coverage. You can surely only measure the success of the campaign by its effects. How many did quit smoking, or seek support to do so, or switch from smoking to safer means of satisfying their nicotine addiction? And can you link your campaign to these results?

If the campaign was designed to boost the reputation of the organisation, media coverage may play a part but the only proof would be attitudinal research among the key target groups, or behavioural signals such as the share price and market capitalisation.

This type of market research was once very expensive was always backward looking.

Now, in the online digital age, we have a mass of free, real-time data on behaviour. A news announcement or a simple message on Twitter can be tracked to show their ripple effect across social media. We can show if the announcement led to clicks on the website and we can track those website visits and measure them against sales or sign-ups. If what we do can be shown to be effective, then we can justify the budget to do more of it.

You may feel this isn’t your understanding of public relations. You may feel it’s more like marketing. And you’d be right. After Google it’s become much harder to make a clear distinction between public relations and marketing. The good news is this convergence unlocks even larger budgets; the less welcome news is that you’re open to much more competition than ever before, and you need to learn new skills.

And we’ve only covered the junior to mid-ranking skills.

From communication to reputation

Your potential to rise to senior positions in a public relations department is much less dependent on your ability to craft a news story and to pitch it to journalists than it is to convince a senior manager to do something that goes against their instincts.

Let’s say you’ve been promoted because of your strong communication skills and your ability to persuade others. Your boss, the chief executive of the organisation, calls you into a meeting. An irregularity has been found in the accounts and the finance director has been suspended. You’re asked to use your skills to cover it up.

You know as a former journalist that bad news is big news. You also know that the longer it takes to come out, the worse it will be for the organisation and its senior managers. You instinctively reject the role of a propagandist. So you decide to advise the chief executive to go public immediately.

Yet how to handle this? If you tell the media first, then you risk disappointing fellow employees who may hear it first as headline news in the local media. And what about major shareholders, or directors, or trustees? What about the employment status of the finance director? What about the status of the auditors and any legal implications in going public?

Quite apart from all these questions and complexities, there’s a very close personal relationship at stake. Your chief executive is relying on your advice, and very fearful that if this goes wrong they will be held to account. Your advice matters, and your job depends on it too.

A journalism background is useful in the early years of a public relations career, when the work revolves around media (press office work or content marketing), but it’s little preparation for understanding organisational communication and power dynamics within the organisation.

 

Nor is it likely to have prepared you for pitching for business if you work in an agency or as an independent. In those roles, you’ll have to price your services and to address questions about the scope of the services you offer: are you aiming to win big budget business against advertising agencies and digital agencies, or are you offering something narrower? How will you measure your results and justify your fees?

Propaganda and persuasion

We started with the taunt about public relations being the dark side. It’s widely seen as a manipulative practice indistinguishable from propaganda.

There have been elaborate academic attempts to distance public relations from propaganda, but they face a challenge over persuasion. If propaganda is wrong, then can persuasion be right?

The counter argument is that if public relations is to be unpersuasive, then what’s its point? Or more compellingly, who would ever pay for unpersuasive public relations.

So to shortcut what is a long debate in the academic literature, many conclude that public relations and propaganda are the same thing. And just as propaganda can be used for good causes (stop smoking, don’t drink and drive) or for bad causes (race hate, say), so can public relations.

This moral relativity may be an uncomfortable position for many, but it does mean that the individual practitioner has agency. Her choices count: of who to work for, and who to represent.

Or to borrow another concept from academics, the choice is not only over the good that public relations can do for organisations, but over the way public relations can help organisations to be good citizens, and to make a positive contribution to society and to mitigating their effects on the environment. Seen this way, public relations is no longer a communications discipline, but an advisory function that seeks the long-term benefit of organisations and of society.

In government circles, there’s a distinction between the (relatively junior) role of a communicator, and the more senior role of a policy maker. The former manages the technicalities of press and public relations; the latter helps formulate strategy and policy, and may have little to do with external communication.

A similar distinction can be made within organisational communication: between the communicators and the trusted advisers who have the ear of the senior management team.

Your experience and training as a journalist may prepare you with the technical skill to be a communicator, but they are little preparation for the advisory role. Those who make the transition from journalist to communicator to strategist are so exceptional that it’s easy to name names. Alastair Campbell’s rise from political editor of the Daily Mirror to 10 Downing Street director of strategy and communications under Tony Blair is the exception.

It was during his time in 10 Downing Street that government began to use new channels to reach over and around the restrictions of the lobby system in a classic example of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper.’

Further information and resources

Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR)

Content Marketing Institute (CMI)

NUJ PR members

Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA)

Further reading

Nick Davies (2008) Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media

Gay Flashman (2020) Powerful B2B content: Using brand journalism to create compelling and authentic storytelling, KoganPage

Ian Hargreaves (2003) Journalism: Truth or Dare?, Oxford University Press

John Lloyd and Laura Toogood (2015) Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / IB Tauris

Jim Macnamara (2014) Journalism and PR: Unpacking ‘Spin’, Stereotypes and Media Myths, Peter Lang

Mike Sergeant (2019) PR for Humans: How business leaders tell powerful stories, Practical Inspiration Publishing

Iliyana Stareva (2018) Inbound PR: The PR Agency’s Manual to Transforming Your Business with Inbound, Wiley

Trevor Young (2019) Content Marketing for PR: How to Build Brand Visibility, Influence and Trust in Today’s Social Age, Digital Citizen