Has the PR/journalism crossover created a new breed of 'Hackenflack'?

Journalists have been crossing the divide to try their hand at PR for years, but changes in the media landscape have altered the skills needed for both careers.

PR pioneer Harold Burson covered the Nuremberg Trials before building his PR empire
PR pioneer Harold Burson covered the Nuremberg Trials before building his PR empire

Eighteen-year-old Mollie Drew wants to write for a living. Not only is she a trainee journalist at the Press Association with a stint at PRWeek under her belt, she blogs and helps manage the Twitter and Facebook accounts for a boutique in her home town of Bury St Edmunds where she had a Saturday job.

Despite the fact they are supposed to be very different car­eers, Mollie sees no conflict between her proto-journalism and her proto-PR activity.

One is an extension of the other. Enterprising Drew may just be a new hybrid, a blend of the two roles that represents not only the future of journalism but also the future of PR. You might call her a ‘hackenflack’.

"Of course I know they have different social functions and some different skills," she says. "I like to entertain, so on balance I prefer blogging because you have a more personal relationship with your audience.

But I am training as a journalist because it’s the best way to learn the craft skills of writing, which will make me a better blogger."

Journalism has played poacher to PR’s gamekeeper ever since journalists invented PR in the 19th century. The links between the two run deep and long. Just look at the roll of journalists who have moved successfully into PR: Simon Kelner, Stuart Higgins, Andy Coulson, Neil Bennett, John Waples and Harold Burson to name but a few.

Yet still the impression remains in some quarters that journalists are such individualists, so un-house trained and incapable of reining in their opinions that they cannot do PR.

In a recent survey of PR practitioners by the PRCA, just over a third of respondents answered "no" to the question: "In your opinion, do journalists generally make good PR practitioners most of the time?"

Unsurprisingly, the skills they most lack are people management (64 per cent), planning (69 per cent) and financial management.

Skills can be acquired, but perhaps personality is the real issue here, says industrial psychologist Mike Bagshaw of Warwick Business School.

"People often choose careers to suit their temperaments. I suspect that journalists are what US psychologist David Keirsey labels ‘artisans’ who value their independence. PR people are more likely to be ‘guardians’ characterised by a need to belong."

That may be, but whether a journalist can make the move to PR dep­ends on their individual make-up, argues Richard Sambrook, a professor at Cardiff School of Journalism, who worked in BBC news for 20 years and had a brief spell as head of content at Edelman.

"Journos like to talk up their independence. But in the end it’s about how comfortable you are with being a hired gun."

In the past there may have been notional differences between what made a journalist and what made a PR person. One stood outside events carping and criticising, the other stood inside leading the cheering.

But changes in the mediascape have not only altered the nature of journalism; they have altered the nature of PR and hence the personality types and skill sets they need.

"The emphasis of PR has changed from process orientation to the provision of content," says Patrick Barrett, MD of Simpatico, a b2b PR agency whose proposition is that it employs journalists.

With every company now expected to be a publisher and have a media presence –from global brands and their 24-hour newsrooms to the tiniest boutique in Bury St Edmunds with its blog – PR is increasingly usurping many of the functions of journalism. "Earned, owned and paid-for media are increasingly similar and need high quality content," says Barrett.

The other major factor behind the emergence of the ‘flackenhack’ is the decline in print journalism. The national Labour Force Survey shows a fall of five per cent in the number of full-time journalists in the past two years alone.

Journalists who want to continue their craft but fancy a new job or more money have little choice but to go into writing paid-for content, blogging and contract publishing – or PR, as these activities are sometimes known.

Drew does not anticipate a steady career as a hack. "With the way publishing is going I expect a career sometimes doing journalism, sometimes blogging (for clients). I imagine I’ll be crossing over from one to the other and back," she says.

"Mind you," she adds, " I know who has the status these day. Bloggers are the new rock stars." And journalists? "Well, not so much."

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