Journalism and PR: The two faces of a freelancer

Freelance journalists are increasingly offering their specialist services to PR agencies. Steve Hemsley finds out how both sides can avoid a conflict of interest

In an economic downturn freelance journalists need to plug gaps in their earnings, and offering their services to PR agencies can be mutually beneficial.

Today more and more freelancers are not only playing to their strengths by providing writing support to agencies, but they are also becoming involved in media relations on behalf of third-party clients.

It is a trend that could accelerate next year as editors cut back on commissioning features in response to falling advertising revenues. For PR professionals looking to trim their budgets, the idea of working with journalists who have specialist knowledge of a particular subject and the ear of influential editors can certainly appeal.

But the CIPR’s deputy director general, Ann Mealor, warns clients that use freelance journalists for PR functions other than writing could be making a mistake. ‘PR experts know how to liaise with the media as part of a client’s overall reputation management strategy,’ she says. ‘This is about communicating with stakeholders and being able to evaluate the success of a PR campaign on the bottom line.’

Tim Gospill, an official on The National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council, says freelance journalists have always crossed into PR and insists its members are bound by the union’s code of conduct and a set of NUJ rules for PR work. This list of ten ethical guidelines includes a promise not to ‘engage in any practice likely to corrupt the integrity of the PR profession’.

‘There are some freelancers who don’t want to do PR because they regard it as obs-tructive to independent journalism,’ says Gospill. ‘But there will be no ethical conflict as long as they stick to the guidelines.’

However, Robyn Glynne-Percy, managing director of Edinburgh-based leisure and lifestyle PR agency Profile Plus, is frustrated by the actions of some freelance journalists. ‘On a number of occasions recently, the journalist we have approached with a story idea has also handled the PR for one of our client’s competitors,’ she says. ‘We have then found that they gave the rival a larger mention in any piece they wrote. There should be more transparency.’

Glynne-Percy is not alone in calling for some kind of mechanism to make it clear when a freelance journalist has a commercial relationship with a company they are quoting in a piece.

Martin Moore, director of non-profit organisation the Media Standards Trust, says: ‘If a writer has a contract to do PR work for, say, a pharmaceuticals company and writes an article about healthcare, they should declare an interest to editors.’

The freelance journalists that do offer  PR services insist they can straddle the ethical fence between the two disciplines.
Sally Whittle is a freelance HR and technology journalist who took on her first PR client, a preschool activity company, in 2008. ‘Initially it just wanted help writing press releases but I now spend up to four days a month on the account,’ she says. ‘I do not write about preschool activities.’

Some journalists who provide PR services choose to outsource feature ideas to other freelancers. Linda Jones has been a journalist for 18 years. She works as a freelancer and runs her own features agency as well as offering a media relations service for a number of clients.

‘It soon became apparent the PR work was throwing up opportunities to sell in stories and there was a conflict of interest,’ says Jones. ‘Everyone’s reputation is on the line so where there is a clash you either have to give up the idea or give it to another journalist who can be more objective.’

Commissioning editors say there is always a nagging doubt that a freelancer’s PR interests will seep into what should be
 objective coverage.

‘I understand the impetus for freelance journalists to take on PR work but it does not look good from the editorial side of the fence,’ warns Karen Robinson, supplements editor of The Sunday Times. ‘Whenever I see certain bylines in certain papers I don’t bother to read the stories because I know the writer has written for and not just about the industry featured. I wonder if the people buying the papers would still pay for them if they knew this.’

Case Study Lesley Keen

Lesley Keen worked as a reporter, sub-editor and deputy editor on local newspapers before going freelance in 1985.

She has combined a career as a journalist and PR consultant for 20 years. She says she is transparent and the editors she works with across the health and beauty press are aware of her PR clients.

‘They know I will not abuse my position by trying to work in mentions of my clients or, worse still, omitting competitors’ products,’ says Keen. ‘And my PR clients know I will not abuse an editor’s trust.’

She insists she would cease to work for a client if it expected her to promote a product in a feature.

Her longest-serving PR client is The Mentholatum Company, with which she has worked for 12 years alongside other agencies. She also works with M&A Pharmachem on its Flexitol skincare range.

But she says she never went looking for clients: ‘Companies appreciate that my writing gives me good contacts and they know I understand what editors want. Advising clients on what will interest a magazine means they do not waste money.’

Keen says the system works well as long as everyone understands the rules and plays by them. She admits PR is much more lucrative and that during any downturn it is important to have a range of skills on which to draw: ‘Both disciplines demand a thorough knowledge of the subject, good research and great contacts.’


Dos and Don’ts for freelancers

DO remain objective, honest and fair

DO be as transparent as possible with editors

DO use your journalistic skills to advise clients on what editors are looking for

DO consider giving story ideas to other freelancers if there is a possible conflict of interest

DO consider getting more specific training in different PR disciplines such as evaluation, strategy and planning

give your PR clients preferential treatment in articles. Only include them if they have a relevant comment

DON’T abuse the trusting relationship you have with editors

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