City & Corporate: City hacks who cross the line

What makes a City journalist switch to what some still term 'the dark side' of financial PR, and what type of personality crosses the divide successfully, asks Richard Carpenter.

Some journalists call it going over to 'the dark side' - crossing that all-important line between journalism and public relations. In terms of business journalists crossing into financial PR, this has become a well-worn path. High-profile examples in recent years include Neil Bennett, formerly City editor of The Sunday Telegraph, now wooing clients on behalf of The Maitland Consultancy.

But for all those who make a success of it, just as many find the schmoozy world of PR is not quite what they were expecting and take the first exit back into financial journalism. BBC business editor Jeff Randall is probably the most well-known example in recent years. He spent five years as City editor on The Sunday Times, then a year as deputy chairman of Financial Dynamics in the mid-1990s before becoming assistant editor on The Sunday Times in 1996 and editor of Sunday Business from 1998 to 2001.

So what type of business journalist makes good financial PRO? And is there a growing trend of financial PR firms tapping newspapers for star performers with which to impress clients? FD group chief executive Charles Watson beleives there has always been a constant flow between the two professions. 'It's the easiest and most obvious source of recruitment outside the industry for financial PR firms,' he says, adding that the flow increases when there are boom times in the City and there is a resultant skills shortage in the PR industry. 'That's what happened in the late 1990s, but the recruitment drive was not just aimed at journalists - financial PR was after skilled people from all walks of life.'

For Watson, the key to becoming a good financial PRO is being a good problem-solver and applying that to the needs of the client. Understanding the ways of the media, having good contacts, and knowing what makes a good story, are all crucial. But all senior journalists have these attributes and they do not always lead to a long and rewarding career in financial PR.

The difference, he suggests, lies in understanding the client's needs and counselling them accordingly. There are also good problem-solving journalists who will never make good financial PROs because, in their heart of hearts, they don't want to be on the client side.

'When they are actually a vocational journalist, it will be really hard to make the switch,' says Watson. 'They don't want to be helping out behind the scenes, listening to client problems. They want to be in the byline exposing those problems.'

Money is undoubtedly a big issue for many journalists moving across the divide. As one leading financial PRO puts it: 'The pay and rations in financial PR tend to be substantially better than in the newspaper world, particularly in a leading agency.'

Rory Godson, a former business editor at The Sunday Times, now runs his own agency, Powerscourt, and acknowledges the pay differential. But, displaying his undoubted PR credentials, says it was the allure of 'working for the leading investment bank in the world' that made him cross the line.

Godson was offered an in-house role at Goldman Sachs but has since left, taking the investment bank with him as a client of his new agency.

'The most important transferable skill is editorial judgement,' he says.

'It's an understanding of what is interesting as well as more basic information, such as understanding the rhythm of a major daily or weekly paper - how it is put together. I think any agency needs people who have worked at a senior level as a journalist.'

For Godson, the real difference between business journalism and financial PR is how deeply involved you are in any given story: 'In journalism, you will probably be working on several stories each week and, aside from background, you've forgotten about them once you have filed your copy.

Godson concludes: 'In financial PR, you may well be involved in one project for many months building up to the point when you start talking directly to the media.

In that sense, you might say that journalism is about a mile wide and a couple of feet deep, whereas financial PR is a few hundred feet wide but very deep on most projects.'

THOSE WHO WERE HOOKED...

ROBERT BAILHACHE, FINANCIAL DYNAMICS

Robert Bailhache is a former City editor of The Business and says the main reason he moved across to financial PR was to 'get behind the issues'.

'I'd reached a stage where if I wanted to broaden my knowledge and experience I felt that I needed to move into consultancy.' He notes that the ability to take information from a range of sources, sift out what's important and then allocate it to appropriate audiences are skills needed in both journalism and PR. Where the two differ is in the ability to advise rather than just gather information. 'All journalists have the ability to listen,' he says. 'But you need something else to be a successful adviser.'

Bailhache notes he is lucky not to be in the sort of PR where he is marketing clients to a largely disinterested media. That could be difficult when, as a journalist, you are the centre of everyone's attention and then, the next minute, you are after everyone's attention but no one wants to know. 'I think it's a very individual decision if you are going to move across from journalism and there will be all sorts of factors that people should consider. I'm sure that in some instances money is a key motivation.'

STEPHEN BENZIKIE, EDELMAN FINANCIAL

Stephen Benzikie is among that rare breed of financial PROs who has been both a financial journalist and an analyst.

Before joining Edelman Financial in 2001, he spent three years at Grandfield PR in the wake of a seven-year spell on the Daily Mail's City desk. Prior to that he worked as an equity analyst during the 1980s and 1990s: 'Having been an analyst I didn't necessarily see myself as a dyed-in-the-wool journalist, and moving into financial PR was a logical means of using my experience.' He says top-level financial journalism means you gain incredible access to senior board directors and a good understanding of the nuances of various management styles. 'What you don't necessarily have is the client background - the need occasionally to swallow hard and note that the client is always right.' Benzikie points out that any journalist making the switch should expect a lot of ribbing from former colleagues, seeing if they can catch you out. 'They used to phone me up in the first few weeks with the most ridiculous requests. It soon dies off though,' he chuckles.

... AND THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

PATRICK LAY, THISISMONEY

A former City editor of the Daily Express and Sunday Express, Patrick Lay moved into PR in the 1990s, setting up his own media consultancy.

However, he readily admits he was never really happy advising clients: 'I've been in and out of both camps several times.' These days Lay writes a column on small cap investing for Associated Newspaper's thisismoney website: 'I'm a better journalist than I was a PR person. But I don't believe the two are really fully compatible.

'In PR, I found the biggest problem was clients who don't really want to listen. As a journalist you know the basics, the editorial timetables, the contacts and so on. But then you'll find a client who is intent on putting out a particular story on a Thursday afternoon despite it going against your advice - but they're the ones paying the money.' Lay says that one of the biggest frustrations was working with clients who thought they had the biggest story in the world, yet he knew no journalist worth their salt would give it the light of day. 'You got clients with a market capitalisation of £1m-£2m who expect to get on the front page of the FT.'

CLIFF FELTHAM, CITYWIRE

Cliff Feltham has switched between PR and journalism a couple of times in his career. He had a spell in local government PR in the 1980s but more recently dipped his toe into financial PR after a 15-year spell on the City desk at the Daily Mail, latterly as assistant City editor.

He left the paper in 2003, toyed with various consultancy roles once again and is now back in journalism with financial information website Citywire. 'The recruiting ground for financial PR always used to be from national newspapers,' says Feltham. 'Now it's from a much wider variety of backgrounds but, obviously, there's still room for financial journalists.

'I think that a lot depends on how long you've been in journalism. The longer you've been a financial journalist the more difficult it becomes to switch. There's a mindset there - you're more comfortable as a journalist than as a PR man.' Feltham notes that, as a journalist, you are paid to take a view and can resist being compromised whereas, as a financial PRO, you may well be paid to hide your views and spin a different story. 'Your client is paying your wages so you cannot tell them to go and take a jump. It's a fairly major issue.'

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