I recently participated in a short discussion about whether a person can do PR work while also working as a journalist at the same time.
My response to the question, which was posed by someone hoping to make a living by doing a little of both, was “Sorry, but probably not.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with working in public relations or working in journalism. Talented, hard-working people work in both industries. They both employ some of the same skills, including but not limited to tenacity and good writing skills. But they’re usually on opposite sides of each other. The PR person is trying to draw attention–positive attention–to the product, company, person or whatever, while the journalist is (usually) trying to write as objectively as possible about said product, company or person. There’s just a natural, built-in conflict of interest.
But wait, you say. What if the person is doing some PR work in a totally unrelated field that the area in which they are writing journalistic pieces? What if the person is doing some public relations work for a company that needs someone to write about their new line of air fresheners, but she’s also writing news articles about, say, local schools for a local weekly newspaper? Those two areas have nothing in common, so it shouldn’t matter, right? She’s never going to have to deal with air freshener issues when writing a story about a middle school graduation ceremony, so what’s the big deal?
Some people will agree with you. They’ll say, well, there seems to be absolutely no overlap whatsoever. Tell your editor and let him or her decide if they’re okay with you doing some PR work on the side. If they’re okay with it, then you’re okay. But others will advise you to avoid it anyway, just to be safe, especially if your name is going to be publicly associated with any of the PR work you’re doing. They’ll tell you that it’s crucial to avoid the any conflict of interest to maintain your credibility as a journalist. And even if no conflict of interest exists, you want to maintain the appearance of avoiding it.
Some journalists will even tell you that you can never ever do PR work if you want to maintain your place in mainstream journalism. I think that’s taking things too far. And kind of irrelevant for most people, actually. Most people who’ve done both PR and journalism go from journalism into PR, not the other way around. In fact, many of the best PR folks I’ve ever worked with are former journalists. Former journalists know exactly where journalists are coming from: they know how your deadlines work, what your editors are likely to accept and what they’re likely to axe, the best way to reach you (email), and what types of information you’re going to need and what kind of stuff is totally extraneous so don’t even bother. They just get it because they’ve been there.
So back to the original question. Can you do both at the same time? What do you think?