Just yesterday I was thinking about my career trajectory, and how I started as a journalist. I was in J-school at the University of North Carolina when Sam Ervin was running the Watergate investigation, and one day I ran into him and his entourage when I was crossing campus to grab a bite to eat. He was on campus to speak for some event, long-since forgotten.
I whipped out my copy of the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel (for which I did some occasional writing), and he autographed it for me. For those too young to remember – or too long past their high school history class to recall – Sam Ervin was the folk hero of the day, speaking of himself deferentially as “just a simple country lawyer,” while deftly bringing President Nixon to his knees.
Like all other journalism majors in 1974, I had Woodward-and-Bernstein stars in my eyes. I was going to find my own Deep Throat and kick some political butt.
I spent six years working as a community journalist and reporter. I loved listening to the police scanner on deadline for breaking news, going on shot house raids with A.B.C. officers, covering school board and city council meetings (well, usually), and wading in flooded streets during nor’easters to report storm damage. As a journalist, I felt that I was in the middle of everything that mattered.
But then a divorce and single motherhood required me to have a saner work schedule than one afforded by an afternoon daily, so I “sold out,” as journalists like to accuse, and went to “the dark side” – PR. I made a tad more money, but my schedule was 8-5 rather than 6:45-3:30, plus meetings at night that could last until midnight.
Overnight I went from being one of the guys in “white hats” who sought out and exposed graft and corruption to being what I previously considered to be “a corporate shill” or a “flack.”
Only, it wasn’t true. At least not in my experience.
I am well aware that there are people in public relations who would sell their own mother, children or pets to get good press for their company or clients. There are those who would lie to reporters, consumers, employees or other stakeholders and encourage their bosses to do so.
On the other hand, there are journalists who would do, and have done the same. They “don’t allowed the facts to get in the way of a good story,” as one reporter I know used to joke, exaggerating situations or even fabricating sensational sources and quotes.
In either case, there’s a word for these people – unethical. Just as journalists have a code of ethics, so do PR people, and the practitioners I know and respect are serious about doing the right thing. I don’t have a lot of patience any more for people—especially journalists–who dismiss PR people in broad strokes with terms such as “flacks.”
But there are differences between the two professions. And over the past 30 years, I’ve come to see that we approach the playing field from different perspectives. As a journalist, you tend to view the world from a negative point-of-view. It’s the salacious, the conflict, the graft and corruption that make the headlines. If it bleeds, it leads.
If you’re a feature writer, you may get to write “good” news, but “hard news” is almost always “bad news.” The world is unfriendly and dangerous. There’s a crooked politician or a mad man (sometimes one and the same!) around every corner and it’s up to you to warn people into either action or resistance. Continue at your own peril.
Sometimes that is necessary. And I’m thankful there are dedicated journalists who sift through the hubris to deliver the information we need to make important decisions that affect our quality of lives. But a steady stream of what has become more like “news porn,” worthless trivia that junks our airways, newspapers and internet to give us some kind of psychological mini-jolt, is not.
On the other hand, PR people tend to be cup-half-full people. We see the bright spots in the chaos, without denying or making excuses for it. We know that the bad stuff is there, and we know we need to acknowledge and deal with it authentically, and the good PR pros do.
But we try to manage the chaos so that it doesn’t over-power. We not only tell the media what our bosses and clients have to say about a situation, we are in the situation room helping them decide what to do to fix it.
We see challenges rather than problems. Opportunities rather than threats. This is not just a semantic game or Pollyanna thinking. It matters to the outcome.
In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath tell the story of Jerry Sternin who was working for the international organization Save the Children in 1990. Sternin was sent to Vietnam to fight malnutrition and given six months to make a difference. The task was formidable – sanitation was poor, poverty was profound, clean water was rare and rural people were ignorant about nutrition. Sternin didn’t even speak the language.
But he had an idea. He went to rural villages, met with mothers and divided them into teams. He taught them to weigh and measure every child in their villages and to report results. When they came back, he asked them if they found any very poor children who were bigger and healthier than expected.
When some reported that they had, he asked them what the mothers of these children were doing differently and they reported that those mothers were dividing the same-sized typical daily rice diet into four feedings rather than two. They were also hand-feeding them rather than allowing them to eat from the communal bowl, and adding small amounts of tiny shrimp and craps from the rice paddies into the rice, along with sweet-potato greens, considered a low-class food.
Armed with this information, Sternin formed groups of mothers so that moms of the healthier children became teachers of the other rural women, showing them how to feed their own children to prevent starvation.
I don’t know what Sternin’s job title was, but it was not PR. Regardless, he used effective PR – organizing, listening and communicating – to solve an intractable problem. But the main point is this: focusing on the positive – what’s right rather than wrong, good rather than bad, ordered rather than chaotic, bright rather than hopeless, matters. Sternin didn’t deny the truth; he worked around it to create a new one by focusing on the bright spot.
That’s what we in PR do. We look for bright spots. We help our clients and bosses communicate their visions to employees, customers and the community for what can be. And when there are crises, as there always are in life, we know that information delivered clearly, compelling and quickly, can change behavior and mitigate fallout.
It’s an awesome responsibility, and can be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the next decade (or two) in this profession. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
(OK, I’m climbing down off my soapbox now.)