Tuesday, April 05, 2005 | Recent fretful articles in national and local media have taken “themselves” on, for bias, carelessness, media “payola” and other seeming violations of journalistic ethics – but has this led to an exodus from journalism careers?

A few answers and issues were addressed in the San Diego Press Club’s recent News Forum, which hosted panelists who went forth or back – (and a few went back AND forth) – between journalism and public relations jobs, the yin and the yang of media.

The crowd that gathered at KGTV/l0 studios on a Saturday morning possibly fantasized switching themselves – and they got the primer on the subject from panelists Karen Dalton, former TV reporter, now in-house with the City of San Diego Paramedics; Luis Monteagudo, Jr., former San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, today in-house public information officer with the County of San Diego; and Kevin Storr, former broadcast journalist, and current director of I-SAFE America, Inc. Gayle Falkenthal, quite a back-and-forth switcher herself, moderated.

The county chose Monteagudo from 70 applicants – with several from the Union-Tribune – but among other attributes, Monteagudo had an edge: as a journalist, he’d covered the county for years. “The downside might’ve been that I knew the county problems – or ‘where the bodies were buried.’” A possible problem offset, he said, by any need for a learning curve.

Media people who switch to public relations bring valuable skills to their positions – although, Karen Dalton said, “BIG expectations rest on our shoulders!”

“We’re ‘translators’ for our organizations – and for the media,” she says. “I can’t guarantee the city a ‘good’ story from a bad experience, but I can guide them toward the best possible outcome, in the way they handle media.”

The key issue, she says, particularly as the public currently views the media with some skepticism: “no spin; no lies.”

The three panelists agreed that their inside media experience saves their organizations plenty of weak, inappropriate or irrelevant pitches to the media. “That’s NOT news!” is a common internal response to their colleagues’ ideas.

Dalton worried, “Maybe I’m not a good PIO (public information officer). I shoot down a ton of internal stories.” “But,” she mused, “maybe that makes me a GOOD PIO!”

Does being in the media give them special access? “Well,” says Kevin Storr, “my wife works for KFMB/Channel 8, and I haven’t yet been on the station!”

Switching to public relations means acquiring new skills, all panelists agreed. Because only a small percentage of their jobs are devoted to media relations, they are all charged with producing internal publications, videos, Web sites and other outreach materials. That sent them all scurrying to learn a variety of computer programs. Also, sighed Storr, “budget issues. I never saw that coming!”

Monteagudo, Jr. was unimpressed by the notion that in the dance between publicists and journalists, the power lies with the latter. “PR people have the info that the media wants,” he said, “and journalists don’t always know what they want. Also, PR people definitely have the ‘power’ on a slow news day!”

And Kevin Storr knows PR has plenty to offer journalists. For instance, he said, he’s learned “if you’re holding an event for the media, bring food!”

More seriously, Falkenthal – who has been laid off from radio jobs twice – agreed with the panelists that PR offers greater job security, and new challenges and opportunities for seasoned journalists who may be bored or frustrated with their work. The moment she switched to PR, she said, she was deluged by colleagues: “How did you do it? Can I send you my resume?”

For the Press Club’s News Forum audience, the bottom line was provided by Kevin Storr: “If you don’t understand media, stay out of PR.”

Laura Walcher is Principal Public Relations consultant to JWalcher Communications & the National Conflict Resolution Center. She is first vice-president of the San Diego Press Club.

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