Issue November 28, 2006

On Media – The Dark SIde?

When a reporter chooses to leave an established media outlet, like a newspaper or television station, and becomes a public relations spokesperson for a corporation or government entity, insiders refer to it as moving over to the “dark side.”

It’s not an affectionate designation, but one that more and more reporters are willing to accept. Demand for skilled communicators, at a time when media requests continue to climb, is growing in every facet of society.
As we learned from a WLKY-TV Target 32 investigation that aired Nov. 13, there are plenty of bright spots in this so-called dark space. The station’s John Boel filed open records requests and discovered that local and state governments are spending an astonishing amount of cash on media professionals to shape and spin the news.

How much? At the top of the mayor’s PR operation is Chad Carlton, whose $90,207 annual salary rivals that of his boss. (Note: Carlton is a senior staffer and manages a staff of 12.)
For handling media requests and policy for the Jefferson County Public Schools, Lauren Roberts’ salary is an eye-popping $111,724.

Boel reported that the executive branch of state government pays $3.4 million in salaries to 64 staffers in “public information” positions, an average of about $51,000 each. This includes Transportation Cabinet spokesperson Doug Hogan at $94,000, and Vicki Glass, who reps the attorney general’s office, at $79,900.
That’s a lot of communicating. And that’s just in the government sector. What the WLKY report asked, essentially, is whether this is a good place for the government to spend its money. And if so, aren’t these folks overpaid? And what do these people do all day to justify their positions?

I asked Joe Lilly, a principal at the New West Agency, whether this kind of criticism is justified.
Lilly said that if the world would give communications workers respect for their skills, like it does for doctors and lawyers, no one would question their salaries. But, he said, the reason people criticize the profession is that everybody thinks they can do it.

Who can’t string a few sentences together or answer questions on camera?
In Boel’s piece, Jim St. Clair, head of the journalism department at Indiana University Southeast, said students are leaning more toward careers in PR because they perceive it as more glamorous and higher-paying, and they think it’s “not as much work as being a news reporter.”

There’s a lot of truth there, whether the PR folks admit it or not. In an e-mail response to Boel, Carlton warned that if word of the salaries in local government PR got out at Boel’s station, “We will just get more resumes and we will end up hiring more of your best and brightest.”

Do you wonder why there are so few TV reporters with gray hair? It might be because a lot of them get their fill of showing up at crime scenes and standing out in the weather at all hours, and jump to PR as soon as they get a chance. You can find former TV reporters working today at places like Churchill Downs, Humana, Hillerich & Bradsby, Norton Healthcare, University Hospital and at least a dozen others.

I made such a “dark side” move several years ago. I got significantly more pay, much more reasonable hours and a comfortable working environment. But the work wasn’t nearly as much fun, my presence was rarely required outside the office and I missed that adrenaline rush from hitting a non-negotiable deadline.

I went from interviewing executives responsible for multi-million dollar construction projects to trying to get my company’s name mentioned in Construction Digest. Getting a trade reporter to read one of my press releases was considered a highly productive effort.

Lilly, who spent many years on the news side in television, said PR has its own pressures and that he’s spent some long hours working for various clients. He agreed that the PR side is different, but not necessarily an easier way to make a living.

The bottom line is that in the marketplace for communications professionals, reporting has become a training ground, not the ultimate destination. Almost every significant PR position requires reporting experience, and most reporters are eager to trade their daily deadlines for higher pay and more regular hours.

By learning the trade in the trenches, individuals become more skilled at manipulating coverage of stories, and therefore more valuable to corporate employers. For those folks, it hardly feels like they’re on the dark side at all.

Contact the writer at rick.redding@insightbb.com. His blog, the ’Ville Voice (www.thevillevoice.wordpress.com), covers local media and politics, among other things.