I’ve seen the light: PR isn’t evil

I’ve seen the light: PR isn’t evil
Mike Turner
November 04, 2014

I still vividly remember walking one day (way too many years ago) into the office of Michigan State University’s esteemed Journalism School.

The staff secretary was conducting a survey: “Would you be interested in taking public relations classes if the College of Communications Arts and Sciences began offering them?”

As a young and idealistic journalism student who watched “All the President’s Men” perhaps one too many times, I practically automatically replied, “Absolutely not.” 

According to my thinking, I was on a virtuous path toward shedding light on the misdeeds of public officials and other authority figures. I couldn’t fathom even considering a career on the “dark side,” as true-blue journalists refer to the public relations profession.

But after a couple of decades spent working in newspaper newsrooms throughout the state, I gradually began to see things in shades of gray.

For one thing, although I dealt with my fair share of public relations practitioners who fit every bad “flack” stereotype, I worked with far more who did at least an adequate job of providing me with exactly what every reporter needs: accurate information delivered in a timely fashion.

Still, even as I gained perspective and began to grudgingly acknowledge that not everyone involved in PR was villainous slime, I still couldn’t imagine crossing over from journalism – largely because I was having too much fun.

The newsroom of the recent past was a wonderfully weird place, full of characters (some might label them “misfits”) who wouldn’t survive a day in a buttoned-down, politically correct corporate environment. Somehow, we still managed each day to produce a compelling, accurate product that at least in a small way made a difference in our little corner of the world. “The Daily Miracle” is what we called it.   

To be sure, sometimes we fell short of our goal (by printing glaring typos, factual errors and the like), but most days you could go home believing that you performed work that mattered.

But then the Internet went and ruined it all. 

We all know the story

The Internet opened up and sped up the flow of information, loosening the mainstream media’s grip on news delivery and (particularly in the case of newspapers) requiring a vast restructuring of fundamental models – accompanied by massive staff downsizing.

I hung on for as long as I could, and actually still had a job, but I saw the proverbial writing on the wall: It was time to switch careers.

Now – in what would most assuredly stun my 21-year-old self – I hold the title of public relations manager.

A full confession

If the newspaper business still operated as it did in the not-too-distant past, I more than likely would still be part of it. But I’m also happy to report that, yes, young Mike Turner, there is life after newspapers – and it isn’t necessarily all that far removed from journalism.

Consider that:

  • I’m still involved in shaping public discourse. Instead of merely reporting on news made by others, I now play a role in creating that news, by writing press releases, organizing news conferences and pitching story ideas to media outlets. Just as it was always a rush to see your byline appear in a prominent spot in the newspaper, it’s also rewarding to help secure placement of a story on behalf of a client.
  • I still get to relate great stories. Although my years in journalism helped me hone a sense of what’s newsworthy, not every story pitch to media outlets is successful. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a story worth telling, and with today’s social media and other digital technology, PR practitioners have a variety of means for getting compelling stories before audiences.
  • I get to learn new skills. As I just mentioned, distributing information to the news media is only one way of getting a message out. There are also platforms such as LinkedIn. And if I were not involved with PR, I seriously doubt I would have ever had reason to learn the finer details of LinkedIn InMail. But now that I have, I feel more tuned in to digital media than I’m sure I would otherwise. 
  • I still get to dive deep into topics and learn new things. The axiom holds true in PR as it does in journalism: You can’t write about what you don’t understand. Working in PR requires becoming an expert in your clients’ issues and causes, just as working a beat allows a reporter to build a deep understanding of various topics.  
  • I get to advocate for great causes. Solid journalists proudly and rightly tout their objectivity. But I’ve had the pleasure of one-sidedly advocating on behalf of clients whose missions I can eagerly and in good conscience embrace. For example, since joining the PR field, I’ve been able to help raise awareness of the importance of early intervention for at-risk youth, the benefits of getting an early start on saving for a child’s education and assistance available to homeowners facing foreclosure. 

If only that J-School secretary had asked me if I was interested in supporting causes such as those. Even that young, idealistic and naive version of myself would have immediately seen the light and acknowledged the power of public relations to, in its own, slightly different way, further the public good.