Did college help get people ready for all media careers or was it “silo city?” Transitioning Careers From News to PR, Part II

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

In case you missed it, here’s part I.

When I went to school about 30 years ago (good God… My soul is starting to shrivel…), all of journalism was taught in a siloed approach: If you wanted to do newspapers, you took those classes and never saw anyone but newspaper people again, until you took the law or ethics capstone. If you did broadcast, the same thing was true, although we had a little more overlap with each other than with the kids in the strat com courses.

The PR and Ad kids seemed to be swept away right after the intro class and moved into some parallel universe where we never got to see them again. They showed up at graduation like they had been with us the whole time and we all were like, “Who the hell is that?”

My first couple teaching gigs, things were not only siloed in terms of news vs. integrated marketing communicators, but in some cases openly hostile. I remember hearing “F—ing PR kid” so often, I started wondering if the field had a branch in adult entertainment.

Professors of these varied disciplines often didn’t talk unless forced onto a committee. In student-reporter newsrooms, the students and the faculty members had an almost pathological disdain for anything involving PR. The old news theory of the “separation of church and state” when it came to ad folks and editorial folks reinforced the siloed approach we took in teaching them.

As digital publishing and social media started becoming more important than dead trees, airwaves and fax machines, it became vital for us as professors to bridge the gaps and find common ground for our students. Given the way in which academia moves at a snail’s pace and professors tend to think a great deal of their own sense of self, it’s probably a safe bet that silos remained the norm.

The folks who were nice enough to talk about life in news and PR told me that their experiences in this regard depended on a couple things: where they went to school, when they were there and how interested they were in getting a well-rounded education in the field.

For example, a VP in content strategy who attended a major journalism program said the school operated in silos, but made a few efforts to round out her experience:

“There was an attempt to ensure we got a well-rounded education in all areas of comms. So I took courses on photography for non-majors, design, branding, strategic communications, advertising, etc. although I don’t remember anything really deep into PR while in school.

“It did feel a bit siloed, and some of the courses I was required to take felt like I was checking the box because I wasn’t interested in them. Looking back, I wish I had been more invested in strategic communications, marketing (I have no memory of marketing classes being offered, but it was a while ago!), branding, etc. since that’s more of the stuff I do now.

“Also, although we were required to take statistics, the course wasn’t really applicable to marketing/comms work. Nowadays, I use consumer data all the time, so learning more about how to read that info and apply it to building marketing personas would have been super valuable.”

A practitioner who works in the field of thought leadership for professional organizations said his experience was not only more siloed, but also more hostile when it came to the news/PR divide:

“Other than being in courses with PR majors, it was silo city. The journalism professors were respectful toward PR in the classroom, but the newsroom was another matter.

“The editors/professors there had a clear disdain for the PR folks they dealt with. I think they had a right to feel that way – many of the PR folks in the city and at the university weren’t worth much.”

For a marketing manager who attended a smaller school around the same time as the VP, the siloing was a bit stronger and shaped her ideologies about the disciplines a bit more:

“It was fairly siloed. There were a few Ad/PR people in my freshman/sophomore year journalism classes, but by the time I got to the junior/senior level it was pretty much all news/editorial folks in my journalism classes. To be fair, I also did not really take any classes with an advertising or PR focus at that time.

“I don’t recall professors trashing the other side. But PR was definitely discussed through the lens of how a reporter might deal with them (ex: you can’t rely on a PR person for 100% accurate information. Get several perspectives for your story.) I remember having the perception that advertising/PR/marketing was “the dark side” and they were all sell-outs, but I think that came more from my peers.

“As far as how it aligns with my life experiences today, I guess I did sell out and join the dark side. Journalists have a much more negative view of marketers, while marketers have a pretty positive view of journalists (at least those who eventually join the dark side).”

A marketing professional in the manufacturing field who attended the same medium-sized university about 20 years earlier found stronger demarcations in how she was taught. Those silos made the transition more difficult:

“The subject was taught in a very siloed approach. You could major in Journalism, but with a News emphasis or PR/Advertising emphasis. Marketing was thrown into the PR/Advertising genre, but wasn’t its own entity.

In fact, I took a few PR/Advertising classes and the closest I saw to marketing was when we created an advertisement. We were to create an ad that could be pitched for print, radio and television. This was my first taste of marketing, though it wasn’t called that.

“As teams of 3-4 students, we created story boards (with actual drawings and cutting and pasting with scissors and glue) for a product and had to pitch it to made-up executives who were students in the same class. That experience alone was enough for me to say that I’d rather not be in advertising. It didn’t seem right for me since I was intent on writing. I followed my passion.

“The rest of my Journalism degree was focused on news writing for newspapers. It was very straightforward in its message: Write a story, include all sides, but give it an angle, create a strong lead, build the story through others and put the fluff at the end in case there are space issues on the page. I had a knack for that.

“While I’m very thankful for my training in college, it doesn’t mirror what I do today, except for the fact that newswriting and marketing are both storytelling, just in different forms.”

A few other folks mentioned that even when journalism departments tried to get them to see the field in broader terms, it had little impact. A former news reporter who now does marketing for a well-known private university said he had a focus on news and nothing else really mattered:

“I was 100% focused on news/ed and newspapers. I was guilted into taking one online-focused class and dropped my only magazine class after like two weeks. I remember nothing about PR from J-School but I would have completely ignored any discussion of it.”

The one thing that gave me hope that maybe things are changing came from the most recent grad (within the past six years) who went through a program that is actively trying to change the silos. She works as a content marketing manager for a business-to-business organization, and noted that her experiences in school spanned the field:

“It was definitely not siloed. I was a journalism major with a writing and editing emphasis. Within the journalism department, we had some core classes that included students with other areas of emphasis in the program (such as PR or visual/photojournalism) as well as journalism minors. This was great because it built my skills in a variety of different areas and introduced me to people with similar interests who would go on to be great connections throughout the “media” industry at large.

“It was definitely the start of my professional network. It was also encouraged to pursue a minor and participate in extracurriculars, such as student media, to help you broaden your skills even further. I knew quite a few people with art/graphic design minors who were interested in a more visual-focused kind of career, people with English minors for a different perspective on writing and editing, radio-tv-film for a broadcast focus, and so on.

“Within those classes and extracurriculars, professors and advisers pretty clearly shared how the skills you were learning about applied across the board. In almost every class we talked about the importance of good writing, editing, and storytelling. Those skills apply whether you’re a PR pro writing press releases, a reporter covering breaking news, or a marketing guru writing website copy and blog posts.”

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