A Journalist’s perspective on PR: The line separating the two is increasingly blurred

by | May 16, 2016 | Public Relations

I’ll never forget when my professor said, “Don’t cross that line”—and he meant it both literally and figuratively. What I’m referring to is my time as a journalism student at Boston University and how the faculty made it clear that the “other end of the hallway” (where the PR majors had classes) was enemy territory and that, as budding journalists, we should never cross that line into public relations. When I got my master’s at Columbia University it was less of an in-your-face issue, mainly because it was a graduate school of journalism and not a school of communication with different divisions. There, faculty already assumed you knew the difference between reporting a story and creating one.

When I began working professionally as a journalist, I caught a glimpse of what the other side was like. A good chunk of my background is in sports and entertainment news, so I deal (yes, present tense because I’m still a working reporter) with PR pros representing athletes and/or celebrities. Intriguing to say the least. Then, after more than seven years of being immersed on one side of the media industry, I decided to leap head first into the other side and test the PR waters. It was then I realized this “line” separating the two industries is actually quite blurred.

To some, PR and journalism are on opposite ends of the spectrum (which in most cases they are), but as I’ve learned over the past few years, there are a number of comparable qualities it takes to succeed in both sectors. Below are three standout similarities and one not-so-on-the-surface difference I’ve experienced between journalism and PR.

1. Aggressiveness: You have to want it—whatever it may be—and go after it with undying persistence.

  • In PR: Whether your goal is coverage for a client in The New York Times or winning new business, you won’t get there with pure luck; you have to be willing to put in the time and effort—day in and day out—to chase down that dream and make it a reality.
  • In Journalism: With all of the new technology and ever-expanding social media landscape, the news industry has shifted priority to being the first to break the story. The intense pressure, which I witnessed firsthand as an associate producer at TMZ, is nerve-wracking, but at the same time it evokes a determination and competitiveness in you to want to win. You won’t last more than an hour on a job in breaking news if you don’t have the tenacious mentality to track down answers (in a very timely fashion, may I add).

2. Creativity: You have to have the ability to think outside the box in any given situation, in any given timeframe.

  • In PR: Sometimes, you’ll get a client with a product or a story that just isn’t newsworthy at first glance, so you have to be innovative and create campaigns that will catch people’s attention—whether consumers or journalists. The people I work with at Hollywood PR are some of the most creative individuals on the PR front and I continue to learn from them each day on how to come up with new ideas.
  • In Journalism: Journalism may be about reporting the facts to tell a story, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get there. When I worked at tween entertainment magazines Tiger Beat and BOP, I not only had to interview teen heartthrobs (think Jonas Brothers) who aren’t always willing to share information, but I had to write for 11-year-old readers (think lots of ‘LOLs’ and ‘Oh Em Gee he’s super cute’ type write-ups). My dilemma often was how to get the celebs to spill their deepest, darkest secret (likely about their hair gel) while keeping an 11-year-old girl’s attention when writing? Get creative. If Nick Jonas was quiet in an interview, I made him laugh. With Joe, I talked about sports. They, in turn, got comfortable with me and shared everything and more. And, before the interviews and certainly before writing, I talked with my kid cousins to find out what they wanted to hear from their favorite celebs and picked up on their tween lingo. No matter the situation, I had to produce results, so I had to think outside the box on how to get there.

3. Thick Skin: It’s not personal, it’s business.

  • In PR: You know those moments when the reporter you pitched and followed up with three times doesn’t get back to you—or worse, completely shuts down your idea? Shake it off. Move on. Keep pitching. You can’t take it personally if there’s radio silence or if you get 20 rejection emails—you have to keep going. Maybe change it up, but don’t give up.
  • In Journalism: There have been many times, especially when I worked on-air as a reporter at a small TV station, where sources flat out refused to talk to me. I had to do a lot of man-on-the-street reporting where you do just that — stand on a street and try and get strangers to talk to you on camera about a certain topic. Ninety percent of the time people would run in the other direction from me when they saw the tripod and microphone. Hard to shake that off when you have to shoot, write and edit a package for the 5 p.m. newscast. Sure, it hurt to be publicly rejected (at the same time it was pretty comical), but if one street didn’t work, I hopped in that news van and drove down every alley until I got my sound bites.

4. Culture: The one major difference between PR and journalism I will point out is the culture established within the workplace (i.e., an agency or newsroom).

  • In PR: In PR, your team works together to achieve a common goal, which is to help your client. If you’re lucky, you’ll work with an incredible group of individuals whom you not only work well with professionally, but you enjoy each other’s company, too. I have a sneaking suspicion that the tight-knit culture that flows through the hallways at Hollywood PR is not an industry-wide standard, but something unique to our agency—and this starts at the top with our principal. HPR was my first gig in PR and I can honestly say I’ve never worked in an environment where every single person genuinely likes one another and wants to help out when needed.
  • In Journalism: It’s cutthroat. Not that PR isn’t, I know it can be. But as I said, I’ve been lucky enough to work at an agency where people work hard and work together. In previous newsrooms, sure, there were a few people who were team players and good mentors, but the overwhelming majority of journalism colleagues were in competition with each other to break a story, nail an exclusive interview or look better on camera. This mentality creates a toxic environment. Do I believe it’s a coincidence that there’s a sudden migration of journalists getting into public relations? I think not.

I’ve been fortunate to continue working in both fields. It’s a great balance. And whether in 10 years I am doing the same or I end up picking one over the other, I will always carry with me the skills I have learned in both industries. But, if you take one thing away from reading this, I hope it’s that the next time you pitch a reporter, just remember: they’re human and, most likely, a lot like you.

Guest contributor Melissa Parrelli is a Senior Account Executive at Hollywood Public Relations (and also a practicing journalist). Read the original article as it appears on BulldogReporter.com.

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Melissa Parrelli