Analysis: Ex-journos face culture shock as in-house PROs

As one high-ranking journalist steps into the top corporate affairs role at Scottish Water, another quits the equivalent job at Harrods after just four months in post. Andy Allen reports on the pitfalls involved in such moves

So many journalists have made a successful move from newsroom poacher to PR industry gamekeeper that it is easy to forget that the switch doesn't always work out. With legions of ex-hacks now profitably occupying the boardrooms of the UK's largest agencies, it would take a brave critic to say that the contacts, communications skills and media savvy of a top-ranking journalist cannot be turned to a consultancy's advantage.

When it comes to journalists taking up top in-house positions, however, the switch can be far more problematic. Last week it emerged that former BBC anchor Christopher Morris had become the latest journalist-turned-PRO to make a swift exit when he left his job as head of public affairs at Harrods after just four months.

Last summer, former Mail on Sunday consumer affairs editor Christopher Leake rejoined the newspaper after a stint of just 18 months as UK communications director at Tesco.

The traffic is, as ever, moving in the other direction, too. Last week BBC Scotland executive editor Atholl Duncan joined Scottish Water as director of corporate affairs. And it has emerged this week that Independent city editor Nigel Cope will join retail group Kingfisher in a media relations capacity.

Those who have left PR after a brief stint tend to have picked up at least one habit from their stay - a reluctance to speak openly about their experiences. But views within the industry suggest that, unlike at agencies, where the experiences of senior colleagues helps overcome the new recruit's limitations, those that take on top in-house jobs face challenges for which their experience has not prepared them.

This is certainly the view of some of the industry's leading headhunters.

'Journalists going straight to a number one communications role in-house leave themselves slightly exposed,' says VMA Group managing director Vicky Mann. In her view, any journalist who has not managed a team, a budget or put together a comms strategy, would be better off taking a media relations role, at least initially. She does, however, believe business journalists are a possible exception, as they tend to have a more rounded experience and would be comfortable in the presence of, and advising, CEOs.

Taylor Bennett director Heather McGregor singles out not just business journalism experience, but specialist sector experience as crucial. Cope, for example, whose move was handled by the agency, wrote his MA thesis on out of town retailers, and has since written a book on the impact of technology on retailing.

For Steven Day, formerly deputy editor at the Sunday Express, and now corporate affairs director at Virgin Mobile, experience of business is important, although there are other factors that come into play. He says journalists, by and large, operate on their own, answering only to their editor. In PR, they are forced to take a range of interests into account and can find the bureaucracy and protocol stifling.

At the same time, they are forced to take a longer term view, whereas as a reporter they were probably always looking just one story ahead.

Equally, he says, at an agency posting 'there is more room to manoeuvre' and switch clients, whereas if you don't like your new in-house environment, you're stuck with it.

On the eve of taking up his new job at Scottish Water, Duncan is convinced a switch to a senior in-house post would not suit all journalists. He points out that his experience at the BBC included managing 270 people and a £25m budget, in an environment where decisions about business strategy were a matter of course.

Looking back on some of the journalists he managed - even the best of them - he is not sure the experience automatically lends itself to making a success of a top in-house job. The organisation and strategic thought that will be essential in their new job is simply not required by their earlier roles.

Leake, meanwhile, had operated as an individual reporter covering consumer affairs - the very speciality that attracted Tesco. He was unavailable for comment, and is believed to refuse to discuss his time at Tesco even with colleagues. One source close to him, however, says it was simply the general frustrations of a corporate environment that caused him to leave.

Despite this, there are a number of ex-journalists successfully filling top comms jobs at various companies. John Murray, the former executive editor of the Daily Express, served three years, until last August, as director of comms at Telewest Broadband. And former Sunday Times business editor Rory Godson is now settling in as director of UK communications at Goldman Sachs.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, while agency roles enable a journalist's strengths - media nous, writing skills, contacts - to be exploited, top in-house roles can prove as likely to showcase their weaknesses.

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