The other side of the scrum
When journalists venture into public relations
January 18, 2016, 2:40 am ASTLast Updated: January 5, 2018, 11:52 pm
On any given day, Beverley Ware might stand in front of a couple of reporters. Looking them in the eye, she’ll calmly answer questions about Nova Scotia Power: Why are power bills so high? When will there be better line maintenance? As the spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, the province’s electricity utility, Ware will skillfully steer the answers to get her company’s message out to the public.
But just over a year ago, Ware stood on the other side of the mic.
Ware worked as a journalist for over 26 years. She had started fresh after university – she’d received a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College in Halifax – working with the Toronto Star, then the Daily News in Halifax, before she moved on to freelancing for a number of years. In 2004, she started her job with the Herald.
Ware’s position at the Chronicle Herald as the South Shore bureau chief lasted until November 2014, when she and 19 of her colleagues were laid off because of budget cuts.
“I was sort of frantically applying everywhere. There were no magazine jobs advertised at the time, but what I did was contact some magazines … and say I’m interested in doing freelance writing for you,” says Ware.
She learned it would take a few years to get established as a freelance writer, and that was a big financial risk.
“So in the meantime,” she says, “I was also applying for communications positions, because that’s what was available, and I wanted to make a transition out of journalism. And Nova Scotia Power was the company I heard back from.”
Journalism’s loss is PR’s gain
As journalism jobs disappear, the number of public relations jobs grows. A study done in 2014 by the Pew Research Centre, a research organization based in Washington, DC, found that in 2004, 52,550 reporters were employed in the United States, while in 2013 there were 43,630. For the sake of comparison, in 2004 there were 166,210 PR specialists, and in 2013 there were 202,530.
And guess who’s taking those PR jobs? A study done in 2011 by the Poytner Institute, a Florida-based education institute, showed that the fastest growing group of professionals moving into the PR industry was journalists.
Hugo Rodrigues is the past president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and the managing editor of the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, an online and print newspaper in Cornwall, Ont. He says journalism jobs are decreasing at a rapid rate because the advertising-supported print business model has collapsed and digital revenues are not making up for the shortfall.
There’s plenty of evidence to support that claim. “The Search for a New Business Model,” a study done in 2012 by the Pew Research Centre, compared the revenue from advertisements in print news media in the U.S. to revenue from digital news media. The study showed that for every dollar gained in digital media, seven dollars were lost in print revenue.
“So that’s resulted in every news organization in Canada becoming far leaner – and no one has been spared,” says Rodrigues.
Even big newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, says Rodrigues, have looked at the balance sheets and made the choice more than once over the past 10 to 15 years about “the ways they were going to either lose less money, or boost their profits.”
This, he says, has unfortunately meant they’ve had to, “cut full-paid, full-time positions in their newsrooms.”
Serving different masters
There is a notoriously tense relationship between journalists and people in the public relations industry. Journalists learn from day one that their job is to serve the public’s best interest by divulging the truth, holding the powerful to account for their actions and giving “a voice the to voiceless.”
Public Relations specialists, on the other hand, serve a different kind of master.
PR specialists (an umbrella term for a number of roles that can include communications, marketing, promotions, information officers, etc.) work in their clients’ best interests by managing their public image – whether their clients are organizations, individuals or corporations.
Ware, whose employer is a corporation that holds a monopoly on the province’s electricity utility, says, “We work in an industry where there’s a lot of confidentiality because of the nature of the business and commodities.” She adds that she tries to be as forthright as possible with reporters who call, “to give as much information as we’re allowed within the frame of the industry.”
Crossing over to a world of strategic thinking is difficult. It’s this culture of controlling information that made the move hard for USC Shoah Foundation publicist Rob Kuznia – once a reporter for the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles, Calif. – to adapt to.
“You’re no longer trying to find stuff out, and report interesting news, you’re trying to put your best foot forward… So that can be kind of hard for somebody who’s been working in an environment where the ultimate goal is trying to appeal to the gentle reader.”
Ware says for her, the difficulties of making the shift stemmed from, “learning the business side of things,” something that may be less familiar to journalists.
“It was just a tremendous amount of learning. As a journalist, you ask the questions and you get informed, but you don’t have to dig down to the degree you have to as a communications officer. We really have to know every aspect of an issue in order to fully understand it, and be prepared to answer questions and not be caught off guard,” says Ware.
Martin Waxman, president and owner of Martin Waxman Communications in Toronto, has had a career in PR that spans over 20 years. He co-founded three PR firms and has handled big clients such as Yuk Yuk’s and the Humber College School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Waxman agrees with Ware: he says to be a successful PR agent you need to understand your organization’s goals. “So if you create a piece of content, the content is designed to get customers to go to the website, sign up for a newsletter – is it doing that?” says Waxman. “If it’s not doing that, even if it’s an amazing piece of content, you need to trigger what to do so it can reach your goal.”
But even though the bosses are different, many of the qualifications remain the same. After magazine writing, communications was the first job prospect for Ware because of her particular skills.
Shawn Hirtle is a former journalist who, after being laid off in 2004, also made the move to PR.
Hirtle worked at CBC Radio in Halifax for 10 years before taking a job with Nova Scotia Business Inc. as its managing director of marketing and communications. The Halifax-based agency informs Nova Scotians about how and where to spend their money. He says the shift is easier “if you believe in the purpose or the goal.”
He says most of the skills transfer quite nicely, which makes the transition smoother. “As a writer you’re really good at listening, really good at distilling and asking questions, and that’s not always the case coming out of PR school.”
He adds that “having worked in a newsroom, you understand the pressures, the limitations, the need, what an actual headline or story hook would sound like – that’s useful.”
Debra Caruso is another journalist who long ago made the move to communications. She’s the president of DJC Communications, a top media relations firm in New York City. Her firm handles media coverage for important events in the city; she organized a speech by Hillary Clinton in September 2015, and is handling some presidential primary debates. Caruso agrees with Hirtle that it’s probably good for the profession to have more journalists on the PR side.
“Our job is to publicize our clients, and interact with the media on their behalf,” says Caruso from her office in midtown Manhattan. “We do a lot of writing as well – and we write in the way journalists write.”
After 30 years in public relations, her journalism background still influences the people she hires. She says that, while she wouldn’t recoil from hiring someone with a PR degree, she “would prefer a seasoned journalist.”
Caruso says journalists have certain skills that make them good PR reps: shaping and being able to get the message across in a few words, and knowing what comprises a good news story, “as opposed to a blah news story.”
Perks of PR
Former Daily Breeze reporter Rob Kuznia won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for his local reporting. The story, written in collaboration with two other reporters, exposed corruption in a local school district in Los Angeles.
A few months before the winners were announced, Kuznia had decided to switch jobs to the USC Shoah Foundation as a publicist doing external relations.
He moved because his salary had actually been decreasing instead of increasing, and it was becoming impossible to pay his rent. “(The move) sort of bumped me to the middle class. I wasn’t in the middle class before, but now I am,” says Kuznia.
But Kuznia was only one of many journalists struggling to make ends meet. A 2014 study done by the Pew Research Centre showed that in 2004, for every dollar a PR specialist made, a reporter made 71 cents. Compare that to 2013, when for every dollar a PR specialist made, a reporter made 65 cents – a six-cent loss.
Kuznia says a decision move back to journalism full-time would depend on the employer.
“If a major outlet like the New York Times offers me a job, I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity. But if the Daily Breeze offers me a job I think, yeah, I’d be foolish to take it,” says Kuznia, adding that it’s becoming harder to make journalism a career.
“There’s kind of a trade-off,” he says. “Glory and poverty versus stability and more anonymity.”
And it’s not just about the money.
Ware says doing something different is another perk. “I’m learning a new skill set now that is relating to, and building upon, my journalism skill set. So even though they are connected, I’m getting a feeling of reward.”
During her time with the Herald, Ware wrote a few stories about her current employer. Now, as a spokesperson for the utility, she has a different perspective. For example, in November 2013, Ware wrote a story for the Herald about a power rate hike in Lunenburg, N.S. Today, she says, she would take a different approach – including digging deeper to get more accurate cost estimates and adding more information.
Up to the employee
Waxman says the decision to make the move from journalism to PR is one only an individual can decide for him- or herself.
“It depends on the individual,” says Waxman. “What you want, and where your comfort level is. Are you comfortable with the culture of the organization?”
For Ware, it was the right time in her life to make the change.
“The only time I ever thought ‘this is a bit odd’ was election night (in October 2015). Because that was the first election in 26 years that I hadn’t worked. And I found it strange not to be part of that. I think for the first 45 minutes or so I was a little bit mournful, but then not at all – I’m happy with my decision. I could sit down and watch the results and maybe flip over to the baseball game at the same time – there wasn’t the sense of loss I thought it would be.”
Main photo: “As a journalist, you want an issue to be clear and accurate,” says Bev Ware, Nova Scotia Power spokesperson and former Chronicle Herald reporter, “and as a communications officer you want the customers to understand what is happening.” Photo by Sindi Skenderi