Journalism vs. Public Relations


Welcome to week 3 of my blogging journey. This week has been sort of a game changer for me. I dove into my research this week firmly grounded in my opinion on this topic, but as the week has progressed, I have found myself gradually shifting my thoughts. Also, in this week’s excursion, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for both roles.

I tend to categorize myself more as a Public Relations professional than a journalist. Both are required to be expert communicators. You could say that both are demanding roles that require constant attention. One might argue they don’t differ much, but I disagree. In many ways, they are nearly opposites. George Orwell once stated that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

When I ventured further into studying this concept, I have to admit, I was a little close- minded. A local event prompted my digging. A school newspaper had exposed a story via Social Media that could have strong negative implications on public perception of the school. My first (PR) reaction was one of complete confusion. How could the newspaper staff think it was a good idea to share this, knowing the effects could be damaging? Do they not all want the best for the school? Do they not all want people to be proud of the institution they represent? Aren’t they all on the same team?

I’ve come across several similar instances of this toggle back and forth of journalism reporting and censorship from authority. I’ve found stories of principals banning students from reporting on controversial subjects in their school newspapers (Bailingit) and students fighting the administration’s censorship (Cheun).

After researching a little, I’ve changed my tune. The unfortunate reality of journalism (and the world we live in) is that it’s not all fuzzy puppies, rainbows and unicorns. “Bad” things do happen, all the time, and journalists have a responsibility to relay that to the public in an unbiased way. Had this particular story been tabled, the real news would not have been known. Journalists recount occurrences accurately to share information, remove doubt and preempt incorrect perceptions of what took place. In some respects, journalists serve to clarify or confirm the truth. It’s a big job and words are extremely powerful. To keep our industry credible, we have to remain neutral. We have to report the facts. We are entrusted with getting it right and in an honest way. We are all familiar with one who stretched the truth a little.


Brian Williams most likely will not be remembered for his broadcasting career that span across three decades. People will not remember that he won the Peabody award for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina or his decade of service as an MSNBC nightly anchor. He’ll be remembered for lying, or “misrepresenting events” which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. Once again, journalists have a big job.

I’m not sure which is more difficult, reporting unbiased, honest events or being on the flip side of that coin. Public Relations professionals in a way, are on the receiving end of that news and when it involves their client, they must step up to the plate.

PR pros almost live in a tainted reality. It’s not all their fault, it’s their job. They exist to present their client worthy – with a halo even. They shine the light on all the positive attributes of an organization.

If public relations only entailed promoting a client, I’d say that would be a fairly easy, carefree job. Sure, promotion certainly comes with its own challenges (budget, talent, reaching an audience, etc) but doable none the less. The real challenge in this world is not just promoting a client, but maintaining that positive image with consumers. This is where crisis management comes into play. PR professionals usually have no control over what is reported about their clients, but they have to be ready in an instant to respond.

This past week the PR staff of a couple local elected officials have been hard at work trying to manage negativity in light of their representatives’ public comments. Governor Bentley has been heavily criticized after stating that “Our education system in this state sucks,” in response to the release of Alabama’s poorly ranking test scores. Educators and administrators across the state have expressed their distaste in his comments, his support as governor, as well as his character. Whether he meant to or not, he has stirred major controversy.

Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal was also under fire recently for using the term, “colored people” referring to African Americans. In a speech where he rallied people to vote for the Amendment 1 bill that would allow the state of Georgia to takeover failing schools, Deal said, “The irony of some of the groups who are opposing doing something to help these minority children is beyond my logic. If you want to advance the state of ‘colored people,’ start with their children.” He later said that he was referring to the NAACP, who have been opposing the bill.

The challenge for the PR pro representing these officials is to try to manage the situation as best as possible. Unfortunately for the PR pro, these comments “catch fire” in a sense and seem to not go away for a while. They seem to stick with their initiators and even mark them at times. Usually a quick response from the speaker is required, providing an explanation or apology for the comments, but in many cases the damage is done.

The next several weeks and months are critical to this persons public perception. The PR staff must do everything in their power to convince the public the slip was an isolated incident and doesn’t reflect the true character. That’s a big job as well.

Social media is one platform that can play a role in the clean up process, but in challenging times, it can provide even more of a platform for people to express their frustrations. Where people would previously write letters or emails to convey their dislike about a specific instance, now they can post it to a public digital wall for the world to see.

So this week has been an eye-opener for me. I’ve discovered the world of difference between journalists and public relations professionals and the major challenges they each face in those roles.


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