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Taking Flack for the Hack

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Having long been irritated by the trend of journalists being hired straight into senior PR jobs, news that the PRCA, the PR industry's trade body, had done exactly that managed to get right under my skin. Matt Cartmell, news editor at PRWeek, will take the role of director of communications for the PRCA.

One of the main bodies that purports to represent PR - the industry and the people working within it - has decided that there isn't one of them up to the job of performing the function for which it is the industry body. Would the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales hire the news reporter at Accountancy Age to do its accounts? I think not.

Quite why there's a general belief that a journalist will be able to jump seamlessly into a PR role is beyond me. The crucial 'publish and be damned' culture of journalism is the very antithesis of the carefully controlled messaging of the PR world. Underlying the majority of good journalists is an anti-authoritarian streak, an independent mind and a readiness to express an opinion with little regard for the consequences. The Leveson Inquiry, I rest my case.

No one would point to journalism as an exemplar of people management yet, especially within PR agencies, people management - of both employees and clients - is an absolutely crucial skill for senior staff. Most journalists (in the UK at least) pride themselves on not being a corporate drone, often offending sensitive American CEOs who expect dutiful attention and a suit; not jeans, T-shirt and 15 minutes late.

And most journalists are also quite attached to the rhythm of their job - extremely busy periods of time and immovable deadlines, interspersed with fallow hours filled with drinking and moaning. Now perhaps the journos I choose to hang out with says more about me than it does about them, but the fact is PR is a far longer hours and a harder-working industry (outside of consumer PR, at least). These are all generalisations, of course. People are individuals, and there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. But stereotypes don't invent themselves.

Neither do I understand why some journalists make the switch. Despite popular opinion, the salaries are not dissimilar. While the kudos of having written/presented for a relevant publication/programme helps to get hired - and agencies in particular bask in the reflected glory - it's not long before that experience is dated, the contacts patchy and the reality of having to run, and be responsible for, a business dawns.

The journo-trophy-hire ends up gibbering in the corner about the old days, writing things, doing a bit of media training and getting rolled out to clients that don't get the basics of why content is important. "It's different if they hear it from a journalist," is the rationale but in practice a dumb client is a dumb client. There's no Damascus moment because they get told the same thing again by someone who wrote for a trade mag three years ago.

While there are some notably successful ex-journos in PR, in my experience there are far more unsuccessful ones. Agencies continually trumpet the arrival of big name journalists - throwing around expressions such as "content-driven, understands what makes a story, important to us and our clients, forefront of news, changing media landscape," only to have them slide quietly out the door eighteen months later, generally in-house or to academia.

One of the best recent examples of 'trophy hires' was Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of global news and a member of the BBC's management board for ten years, who joined Edelman, the world's largest independent PR company, as global vice chairman and chief content officer in May of 2010. By March 2012 he had left the glare of the commercial world role to go back to the public sector as the director of the Centre for Journalism at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Don't get me started on such courses. And then there's the likes of Andy Coulson...

So the only journo-side reason for the increased flow of traffic from hack to flack that stands-up to examination is that journalism is declining, and PR looks a good nearby stable salary. Of course there will always be media, and social media will never have the credibility or impact of The Economist, Financial Times or BBC. But the unstoppable flow of online advertising (think Google and Facebook, not banner advert on FT.com) is hugely impacting editorial budgets. Print is dying everywhere while the cheaper cost of online advertising discounts more than just print-run savings.

As if further proof were needed, there's also a notable trend that PR companies are generating an ever smaller percentage of their revenues from media relations. Digital and social media allows most companies to reach their target audiences directly. For that you need good content, of course, which is why many PR companies are so obsessed with hiring journalists. But while 'real content' as opposed to 'marketing waffle' is all-important, the diplomacy required to strike the balance between the two is not natural territory for the average journalist.

Likewise PR - even the modern sort that involves that social media thing - encompasses more than writing a decent article, blog or Tweet. For example, a director of comms - even one that hadn't formally started in their new role - might have spotted the obvious bear trap that awaits a journo being appointed to a PR position at the trade association that represents PR people. It's not a great message for the trade industry to send out, other than "this industry has more jobs than journalism."

Someone certainly spotted it, because the news release announcing the appointment made reference to not only the cosy relationship that Cartmell had enjoyed with the PRCA in his years at PRWeek, but also Cartmell's experience gained prior to six years in journalism at "a number of PR consultancies." On the day of the announcement Cartmell's LinkedIn profile, interestingly, listed only two jobs. Five years at PRWeek preceded by nine months at The Bexley Times. No mention of a number of PR consultancies. And indeed, it isn't immediately obvious why a PR person with experience gained across a number of PR consultancies would join The Bexley Times. Nor why a trade body should hire a `director of communications' that can't even manage his own LinkedIn profile.

It's the type of 'credibility gap' that a director of comms would consider, if only because a pesky journo would doubtless spot the mismatch of facts. Oddly PRWeek, true to form, didn't spot that mismatch when writing the story, where Cartmell, at time of publication, was the news editor. Journalists rarely have a decent LinkedIn profile, something that PR agencies quickly rectify when they are selling the journo's experience to clients, so doubtless it's just one of those natural oversights that one makes. To not update their LinkedIn profile while job hunting.

Perhaps journos finding a writing career outside of print journalism are best off following the example of PRWeek's previous leaver back in July. Sara Luker became content editor at eBay. Not PR, but a role with skills aligned to journalism.

If it's genuinely the case that the PR industry body believes that someone who hasn't been actively involved in doing PR for the last six years is the best candidate for heading up its own communications then it's a damning indictment of the industry it represents and insulting to the professionals within it (particularly any who have paid for PRCA professional development courses).

For the sake of clarity, these views are my own, not those of my employer, a PR agency and PRCA member.