What if a degree in PR and journalism was actually good for journalism?

It emerged this week that the University of Salford was running a degree course which combines both PR and journalism, two professions/trades/jobs which are inextricably linked through the skills they are built upon, but poles apart from the view of the world they take.

For as long as I can remember, it’s been reasonably common for people to decide a leap to ‘the dark side’ into public relations is right for them. The reasons are entirely understandable: better hours, better pay, better perks are among the common explanations offered.

Generally, people don’t come back the other way. Why would they? Yet when I have encountered people who have come back the other way, back into newsrooms, they’ve been the people I’ve learnt most from.

I can also think of several occasions where people with journalism degrees chose to work in private companies in what we’d see as PR – be it as copy writers, social media managers or whatever – and they’ve shone when they do decide to land in a regular newsroom, because they bring something different to the newsroom when they arrive.

Salford is not the only university with such a course. Leeds Beckett, University of West of England, Lincoln and Bedfordshire all appear to have similar courses.

 Journalism reaction to the sudden discovery of Salford’s course has perhaps been predictable. There’s a church and state notion around PR and journalism. They rely on each other, but need to be seen to be very apart, seems to be the general view.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti sums up a widely-held view in the New Statesman, arguing that PR has already ‘won’ when it comes to newsrooms, and saying that a degree can’t cover journalism and PR, as they are two very different things.

They are. PR is about getting the message of the person paying you to the outside world, in a way that the person paying their wages, needs. Journalism should be about writing stories audiences want to read, and serving the reader. The two are, obviously worlds apart.

Never the twain should meet when it comes to confusing an act of journalism and an act of PR. Council newspapers are a great example of where PR masquerades as journalism in an attempt to confuse and mislead. Council newspapers aren’t journalism, they don’t exist to hold to account, they exist to tell you what the council wants you to know, and nothing else.

The fact the National Union of Journalists was a defender of council newspapers in Tower Hamlets shows how the waters can become muddied, and it still strikes me as bizarre that the NUJ can be a home for those working in PR at all. The union’s argument in the past has been that PRs a) deserve union representation (hard to disagree!) and b) they deploy the skills of journalists and share their experiences (true).

There’s also probably a c) in there about PR growing, and the NUJ needing as many members as possible as it contends with a problematic deficit as reported in the most recent edition of The Journalist.

But what if journalism could benefit from an injection of the skills which perhaps PR has nurtured more effectively than journalism has? 

Looking through the online prospectus for the Salford course, there are skills being taught in the PR parts which could provide crucial knowledge to journalists. What I’d have given as a trainee to understood where a PR – thankfully, far rarer when I started out, therefore making getting to the story that much easier, which I guess is the point of the industry’s expansion since – was coming from.

That’s a module in year one of the Salford course,  as is ‘creating content,’ a module which seems to be billed more for the PR side but which is every bit as relevant to digital newsrooms, if what is being delivered is up to date (a challenge for many courses these days).

In year two, PR strategies are examined in modules alongside many ‘traditional’ elements of a journalism degree. Reputation management is considered, for example, and that surely is a skill which any newsroom looking for a journalist would be interested in, given the 1:1 nature of social media relationships for both brands and reporters.

From the outside looking in, great PR depends on knowing how to get your message to the right people in a way they’ll respond to. If you substitute the word ‘message’ for journalism, I think you’re pretty much describing what it is to be a digital journalist.

It’s not enough to just write a story and throw it out there. For a story to be successful – be that in business terms or journalistic terms – it needs to reach people and drive a response. That view is often characterised as ‘chasing clicks’ by people who don’t like any numbers other than word count being attached to journalistic effort.

Newsrooms probably need to spend as much time as PR and marketing professionals do on the question: “How do we make people want this?” The most successful journalists digitally are increasingly those who can act as PR for their own work, or dabble in the mindset of a newspaper sales department when sharing work online. Where will this be wanted? How do I make this stand out? How do I make people want to come back for more? All daily questions familiar with newspaper sales departments.

In short, journalism degrees need to produce journalists who are safe – legally safe, but also know how to keep themselves safe in a digital world and all that entails – and also social. That’s real world social, as well as being able to deliver their work digitally to people who want it.

It’s also really important that journalists emerging from university understand the revenue which drives journalism, as it is so much more closely linked to the audience a journalist delivers than ever before. This is how I summed it up to the Association of Journalism Educators conference earlier this year:

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You can read more on my rambles there at this link

When you click the employability button on the Salford prospectus, it offers this:

  • Graduates from this course will be well prepared for a career in the media, communications, or information sectors
  • You’ll have the multimedia skills and flexibility to work across any of the traditional and new media – both in the journalism and the PR industries.

If the PR bit is done as well as they promise, I’d argue they could emerge as some of the strongest possible candidates in the race for newsroom positions.

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