Lately, I’ve been thinking about the impact of the cataclysmic transformation of journalism on the corporate communications world.
The generationally-significant decline in traditional journalism is perhaps best described by Paul Wells in his recent brilliant Substack series (in which the medium is very much the message). While the erosion of journalism has received significant analysis and commentary, what’s missing from the discussion is the consequence of its decline on other sectors – and one most impacted is corporate communications.
Here’s an instructive example: this spring, the Pentincton, B.C. city council debated the value of investing in its corporate communications team. One councillor suggested hiring unemployed journalists to take those roles at lower salary rates, arguing that “with no disrespect to the [current department], I think they’ll do just a fine job”.
Conflating journalism with corporate communications is at best, unhelpful, and at worst is downright risky for all involved. While there are certainly common skill sets (such as writing, storytelling and analysis), the mindset and expertise required in each role are fundamentally different.
Just like being a chef is not the same as being a restaurant manager, it does a disservice to the enterprise and to the individuals in these roles to confound these roles.
Certainly, former journalists are entering corporate communications roles in record numbers. I observe this at every level – from directors of communications teams to recent graduates. As organizations, recruiters and the communications sector adjust to this major shift, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind.
- Strong onboarding is a key ingredient to ensuring that former journalists are set up to succeed effectively in corporate communications roles. Generally, I find onboarding efforts among organizations to be a real weak spot, a gap that has become acutely problematic with the rise of remote/hybrid work. Effective organizational, cultural and operational onboarding is critical. Many career journalists are brilliant and highly capable, especially under pressure. That said, I have seen several examples in which organizational culture and process become major stumbling blocks for journalists who are used to getting a lot done with minimal supervision/approvals/consultation.
- Professional development, particularly coaching and mentorship can be particularly important success factors to support journalism professionals in successfully shifting to corporate communications roles. There can be a tendency for professionals who have risen through the ranks of journalism to over-rotate to a media focus in corporate communications roles, often to the exclusion of key priority areas such as employee and stakeholder communication. This stance can make thriving in integrated, strategic communication difficult. My sense is that many journalists-turned-corporate-communicators tend to struggle with the notion of continuous learning. I wonder if this may be because J-school has historically been positioned as one of the most competitive, demanding and prestigious academic programs.
- Leadership and management development are also worthwhile elements to consider in supporting newcomers in senior corporate communications roles. The nature of collaboration and teamwork is profoundly different operationally and culturally in a corporate setting as opposed to a journalism business. This disconnect can be a source of a lot of disorientation and frustration (including for staff managed by a leader with strong subject matter knowledge and great media instinct but little experience in people management).
- A significant but challenging issue to consider is the question of alignment to a sense of purpose and fundamental motivation. This is a tough one. I have found that journalists have a real sense of mission, pride and identity wrapped up in their hard-earned stripes and chosen career path. I have often observed that transitioning to a corporate communications role is felt as a compromise or a step down in significance and impact. I’ve seen this both among recent journalism grads who may feel disillusioned, as well as senior practitioners who can have a self-limiting mindset that their new role in corporate communications amounts to “settling”. These attitudes can be dangerous as they can spiral into cynicism and negativity, which can infect a whole team.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with many highly talented former journalists who have become exceptional corporate communications leaders and contributors. The common denominator among them is a level of self-awareness and humility required to approach corporate communications with curiosity and a learning mindset. As the journalism sector continues to transform in fundamental ways, here’s hoping that there are concerted efforts to support journalism graduates in a range of fulfilling career options in which they can work at the highest and best use of their talent – including roles in corporate communications that require imagination, creativity and the magic of effective storytelling.