NEWS ANALYSIS: Why hacks move to the 'dark side'

There has been a recent spate of senior journalists who have decided to pursue a career in public relations. Hannah Marriot looks at why they took the risk and the skills they need to succeed in their new career.

Cracknell: PR is more liberating work
Cracknell: PR is more liberating work

The path from journalism to PR may be well-trodden, but it is currently resembling a minor stampede.

BBC political correspondent Guto Harri, Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell and Kamal Ahmed, Observer executive editor news, have all made the switch in the past few months.

This trend looks likely to continue. Harri - who joins Fleishman-Hillard in April - says that some of his journalistic contacts ‘have asked me for the name of my headhunter'.

Guto HarriThat headhunter - Odgers Ray & Berndtson partner Victoria Provis, who leads the firm's Corporate Communications and Board Practice - confirms that she has been receiving more calls from journalists of late.

In part, she puts the interest down to changes to the media industry. ‘Some journalists say they no longer have time to get under the skin of a story, and for some it is losing its appeal as a long-term career,' she explains.

Harri agrees these changes can be an issue: ‘A lot of traditional avenues people would have pursued in the media are closing down. News is becoming one big, rolling beast.'

Cash incentive
The financial rewards of PR are also tempting. Journalists have always tended to be paid significantly less than PR professionals, but the recent salary increases in PR would suggest that the gap is bigger than ever.

PRWeek's Salary Survey this week shows that a dir­ector in a PR agency earns an average of £75,800 - substantially more than a section editor on a magazine or a journalist on a newspaper could expect.

JFL Search and Selection MD Ros Kindersley says journalists tend to make the switch ‘when they have reached a good level but do not want to become editors', adding: ‘Often journalists
want to stop analysing and dissecting things and start building something.'

As Harri says: ‘I'm 41, I have at least 20 to 30 years of career left in me and I have already moved around a lot with the BBC. In PR you go the extra step and come up with a solution, rather than just reporting on something.'

Former Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell - the chairman of FD-LLM for the past month - says he was ins­pired to make the move bec­ause of the ‘unique' offer he was given by FD-LLM. He sees his role as ‘seeing around corners for clients and gauging threats and
opportunities amid political audiences'.

He adds that it is ‘far more liberating to work in this world, where I can pick a client and run with what int­erests me'.

But are grizzled hacks really suited to life in PR?

Former BBC journalist Peter Morgan - now BT's group director of communications - warns making the move can be extremely risky: ‘Those that are not s­uccessful will find it difficult to go back across the bridge. Some move from agency to agency, or go back to journalism in a more junior role,' he says.

Peter MorganMorgan describes his own move to PR - three years spent at Weber Shandwick - as a ‘baptism of fire'.

‘I quickly learned there were some things I was trained to do, and some that I wasn't, such as having to fire people. I also had to build a team. Journalism is essentially solitary but communications is collaborative.'

Morgan also found focusing on long-term issues to be a challenge: ‘As a journalist you write a story, then it's over. In PR it's never really over.'

Provis finds former journalists tend to be more successful in consultancies, where they can play an ‘advisor' role.

Different ball game
Poachers-turned-gamekeepers oft­en report that the change in status can be difficult to adjust to. ‘As a journalist you can be pretty uncompromising,' says Gidon Freeman - former editor of PRWeek, now a director at Lexington Communications. ‘If someone is stopping you meeting your deadline you can be rude and find someone else. Learning to be nice to people you don't want to be nice to is an essential part of every walk of life - apart from journalism.'

Journalists have many strengths, of course - the ability to get to the heart of the matter quickly, an extremely ‘low tolerance for bullshit', according to Morgan, as well as strong writing skills and contacts (see box).

However, says Morgan: ‘When journalist friends ask me if they should move into PR, I invariably say no. Personally I'm having a terrific time, but on balance the risks are too big.'

But for those that make it, the pay-off can be great. As former Observer industrial editor and Luther Pendragon founder George Pitcher says: ‘I soon realised I'm actually much closer to big breaking stories doing what I'm doing now. That's more than compensation for the transitory thrills of journalism.'
Salary Survey, p24

Fleishman-Hillard director and head of public affairs Nick Williams explains why the agency hired BBC political corres-pondent Guto Harri

‘Guto Harri knows exactly what makes a good news story. He has first-hand experience of what drives the news agenda, and of the 24/7 news cycle.

Nick WilliamsBut Harri's experience is wider than media alone. For years he has covered global business as well as politics for the BBC, so he really understands the issues.

He is at the top of his game, and is more than able to respond to any situation extremely quickly. His contacts will also be beneficial - he has come straight out of a role where he spent all his time interviewing senior figures.

From the outset, Harri will give strategic advice to clients, working at a very senior level, and will help us to win new business. In due course he will lead his own teams and campaigns.

There are some things Harri has not experienced before - leading teams and managing profit and loss, for example - but we will ensure he receives training.

We have no doubt that Harri has the experience and knowledge to make a good transition into PR.'

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