The dilemma of the poacher turned gamekeeper

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By Anne Nicholls 

The public relations profession is a natural habitat for ex-journalists. The corridors of Whitehall and Westminster have drawn former political correspondents, news editors and broadcasters from the cut and thrust of the newsroom for equally challenging roles. Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson are just two examples. Others, like ex-FT journalist Roland Rudd, have set up their own agencies. But there are thousands more that have made the transition to public relations, landing roles ranging from press officer to PR manager, head of communications and director of external affairs.

The reasons are obvious. Fluency in writing, a well-honed news sense, the ability to tell a story and strong interpersonal skills – all essential in journalism – are needed by PROs as well. But there are other reasons. As the news media suffer from shrinking budgets and job insecurities, many see public relations as offering better career prospects, even if their colleagues view it as moving to “the dark side”.

Whilst the transition from poacher (journalist) to gamekeeper (PRO) may appear to be frictionless, many journalists have experienced an abrupt culture shock when entering the world of public relations. The instinct of a journalist is to winkle out a story and be bold in its execution. But many find out only too soon that the job of a PR sometimes means keeping stories out of the public domain, or at least presenting them in a more nuanced way. And public relations isn’t just about media coverage. There are a whole panoply of other skills that have to be grasped, covering corporate strategy, stakeholder engagement, event management and lots more. One of the key lessons is being able to understand the politics of an organisation, communicate the right messages (not necessarily the ones that make the best story) and know what can and cannot be disclosed.

For people who split their working week between journalism and PR – and there are a fair number - it can be hard to switch from one mindset to another. A decade or so ago I was working for an education organisation as their part-time press officer, spending the remainder of the week editing an education magazine and freelancing as a journalist. Just after midday on Wednesday, whilst making the journey from Islington to Bloomsbury, I would consciously recalibrate my brain, so I was in journalist editorial mode when I arrived at my desk. That worked well until I was asked to run a story from a competitor to the organisation where I was employed as a press officer in the magazine.  I had to concoct a suitably credible reason explaining why I couldn’t oblige.

Another ethical dilemma occurred some years later. Whilst working as a communications manager for another organisation I pitched a research-based story to one of my contacts in the education media. Knowing my work as a journalist he asked me to write the story. This presented a dilemma. Was I poacher or gamekeeper? The CEO couldn’t decide whose     by-line should be used. For the next three weeks the article went back and forth between the editor (who wanted a punchy story), the CEO  (who wanted it sanitized) and myself as piggy in the middle. The ensuing article, with my by-line, was so bland that I was ashamed to put my name to it, but too punchy for the CEO who thought it trivialised the research.

That experience taught me a hard lesson. You need to decide whether you are poacher or gamekeeper and stick to it. This means accepting that the role of the PRO (a generic term covering a host of communications roles) should be behind the scenes, basically pulling the strings but remaining invisible most of the time. There are exceptions of course. Former BBC journalist Michael Cole, in his sole of director of public affairs, become the spokesperson for Mohamed Al-Fayed. But in the main, what the media invariably want is the figure head – the organ grinder not the monkey. That means writing articles under their name and leaving your ego behind.

Since that experience I have written numerous comment pieces for a range of media, but always as a ghost writer for someone else. It is common knowledge that most of the articles written by politicians in the national press – Boris Johnson excepted – are at the very least drafted by their special adviser, press officer or a government department official. And that’s what editors say they want. At an event recently where an editor of the ‘comment’ section in the Guardian was speaking, I posed the question “Would you take an opinion piece about an issue by-lined by a press officer or communications manager?” Her reply was an emphatic “No”. What she wanted was an academic, teacher, parent, student or CEO as the named author, even if it was written by someone else.

These experiences have made me think about the ethical issues encountered by people who make the transition from poacher to gamekeeper, or combined both roles. Here are my top tips.

  • Keep the boundaries very clear. If you are pitching a story then decide whether you are a journalist wanting to write the piece (and get paid for it) or a PRO working for an organisation or client (for which you will not expect a fee).
  • Bury your ego. Accept that your job is to write the article under another name, or the speech that someone else will deliver. Live with it.
  • Appreciate that as a PRO any article or press release you put together may have to go through a lengthy approval process, during which there will be caveats and nuances that make the story turn to blancmange. This irritates former journalist who are used to churching out a story in a few hours.
  • But be prepared to stand your ground and argue that being controversial, or even just putting forward a strong opinion, is what editors want and anything too bland just won’t get published. Don’t just accept what the CEO wants. Remember that you are the communications expert.
  • Keep your focus on the bigger picture. Your task is not just to get stories into the media. You should also be guardian of the reputation of the organisation, whatever role you are in. That means appreciating what they want to achieve, the messages they want to communicate and choosing the right channels to achieve their mission.
  • Get used to teamwork. Most journalists work very largely on their own. PROs need to learn quickly that the work culture in most organisations is more collaborative.
  • And finally … always keep professional ethics at the forefront of your mind. That means being transparent about who you are working for, not doing anything that will damage the reputation of the organisation you work for and being truthful at all times.

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