Introduction by Fabiola Carletti

I’m going to break from the usual format to introduce this next blog post. So far, we’ve been talking about good journalism, and some of our noblest principles.

Public relations or communications personnel have a different set of priorities. Their job is to protect the public image of the person or organization that employs them. They are trained to stay on message, and often to communicate strategically with the public through the filter of a journalist.

As you can imagine, the relationship between the two camps is complex.  Journalists often use pejorative idioms like “going to the dark side” and “crossing the floor” when a reporter decides to become a “flack” or a “spin doctor.” But there is an entire spectrum between the most virtuous journalist and the most manipulative propagandist. (I highly recommend Ira Basen’s six-part podcast “Spin Cycles” for a fair and principled assessment of the landscape.)

As an aspiring journalist, someone has probably told you to get into PR if you want something more stable. To help you think through the differences, we’re going to hear from a bright and talented young woman who launched her career in communications after having been trained as a journalist.

Karen Ho graduated from journalism school. She did three internships in three mediums. She attended workshops and conferences and networked with fellow reporters … but, after a dry spell, she got a communications job.

Before her first day, Karen blogged about securing work with the Communications and Public Affairs department at U of T Scarborough. She admitted:

“… part of me is a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I did it. I found a job that lets me write for a living, pays a decent wage, has reasonable hours, fantastic benefits and is close to home in a time when many people are still struggling to find jobs.

But I’m not a reporter, editor or photographer. I don’t work in a newsroom. And no one would classify the work I’m about to do as journalism.”

I caught up with Karen now that she’s been in her position for several months. She has agreed to share some of her experiences on the other side.

Advice from Karen Ho

My job is fast-paced and frenetic, as it is in a newsroom. I’m also lucky have an editor with 10 years of journalism experience who looks over all my pieces and corrects them for style and pacing.

The public relations part of my job involves finding interesting stories on campus and sending them to the people I think would be interested. Instead of articles, I write press releases. I still pitch to journalists, editors and producers, but I don’t get a byline when that story is picked up. My success is measured differently that way.

I still use lots of journalism techniques like adhering to Canadian Press style and the Headline-Information-Background-Outlook format. Sometimes I also write stories for the university’s website and e-Newsletter. These are my favourite things to do, as I get to interview and write like a reporter.

My job does entail promoting the university, so there are things I’m limited from writing about or commenting on. To me, working for a university is different than government or corporate work because I’m promoting a place of higher learning and research. I think if I was in a PR job focused on getting the word out about a product like credit cards or soft drinks, it would feel a lot more like “going to the dark side”.

The most striking difference between journalism and communications work is that I have to show a lot of my articles and press releases to my subjects before they’re sent out or posted online, mostly to ensure I’ve accurately written about the scientific research.

We’re not taught in journalism school how to write press releases or deal with media scrutiny after a negative event. We’re taught how to scrutinize PR spin and be the media scrutiny instead.

Journalists I’ve spoken to, who switched to public relations later in their careers, did it because their newsrooms were shrinking and they got tired of the instability of life in journalism.

I think it’s also about figuring out what you really want in life right now.

For me, the idea of a 9-5 job with benefits, vacation time and an educational subsidy was really appealing compared to a lot of the job prospects at the time I graduated, despite having few commitments. Other journalists might have just started families and the idea of not knowing when they could be home for their small children is no longer something they can do guilt-free.

I do plan to get back into journalism in the future, be it through freelancing for various publications or doing communications work for a journalism organization or switching back full-time. I think it’ll get more difficult the longer I stay in communications work, but for now I have a pretty good long-term strategy and it seems to be working.

I stay involved in the journalism community by going to events, conferences and chatting with journalists on a regular basis, taking classes to develop journalism-related skills and keeping up to date with industry news. (Twitter has been instrumental in staying connected to the journalism industry while working in PR. It’s a big part of how I’ve built my network and stayed in touch with peers, mentors and potential employers.)

I can’t really say how much the cultures differ, except that I’ve found communications work to be very focused on a specific message coming across to the public and journalism work more focused on providing information and context on a specific event, trend or issue. Ultimately, both are designed to provide information to the public.

Great journalism is just more likely to reveal the stuff people are uncomfortable with.

About Karen

    Karen Ho

  • Name: Karen Ho
  • J-school: University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College ’10
  • Current/Past Employers: Bank of Montreal, Xtra!, University of Toronto Scarborough
  • Publications: The Varsity, Xtra!, Snowboard Canada Magazine, The Agenda with Steve Paikin
  • Platforms: print, online
  • Twitter: @karenkho
  • Web:  karenho.ca