Bright path to the dark side: A journalist's journey in public relations
Tuesday 30 May 2017
In my late 30s, after more than 10 years with UPI and Reuters in world trouble spots and other cool, exciting and out of the way places, I began plotting my exit from journalism.
Why? Two reasons - being a news editor had spoiled the discovery thrills I earlier had as a reporter. I was ready for what a lovely UPI editor called “a grown-up job”. And we had no home, having moved every two years. When I left Reuters in 1989, after a year of plotting, our daughter was 13, had lived in seven countries, and gone to school in four languages.
At first, I had no idea what I would do with the rest of my working life in a grown-up job. As a former school teacher, 25 years of herding Swiss secondary school kids was a real option - but a pretty bleak one.
I took stock and began to formulate a plan. With a knack for structures and concepts, for both organising and managing; with some skills in storytelling, and an idea about the role of business in society, what about PR?
In Latin America, I had seen foreign companies treat employees, communities and suppliers the way they did at home, instead of sinking to lower local standards - thus basically exporting decency along with their goods and services. My starting point was idealistic: business can be a force for good.
How about a senior PR job at the HQ of a large multinational in my wife’s country, Switzerland? How about using corporate governance, as we now call it, and see what I could do through stewardship of values, creation of policies and processes? All with the aim to codify and foster good behaviour?
How about setting out to change the world - one large company at the time?
My journalist friends thought I was nuts, and heading naïvely for the Dark Side.
And, to be fair, what did I really bring with me, apart from some general ideas (“Try the truth” was one), a large portion of chutzpah and a pretty good understanding of how the world works and how power is wielded in and between organisations?
So I looked again at what had attracted me to journalism in the first place.
At 19, when I began dreaming of being a reporter, I was convinced that all I needed was burning curiosity, a knack for writing and a strong sense of right and wrong. It was perhaps too convenient, because it sort of described who I was at 19.
But also not too dumb, in hindsight.
So what did I learn in the news agencies, and how did that qualify me for a PR career?
The first lesson was that storytelling matters greatly in human affairs. And that true leaders lead through storytelling, using stories to create both meaning and community.
History, it is said, is written by the victors. Journalism will seem like the first draft of history, whether you’re reporting or being reported on. If you’re in PR, make sure you get to be part of how that draft is being crafted - truthfully, transparently, with both humility and pride.
What was more central to my future was the rounded news agency reporter-bureau chief-news editor experience: working in teams and alone; being a boss; working in unfamiliar countries and cultures; planning and making sure things worked in often dicey circumstances; being willing and able to speak up and sort things out. Getting up and trying again and again when you failed.
Journalism, in short, gave me a backbone I might otherwise not have found.
The news agency experience with my global exposure to both the shapers and the victims of history was of great value for my later work as a PR head in large global corporations, with their politics, big egos, and external and internal expectations and pressures.
Journalism, to be precise, provided me with valuable insights into how the world turns, how power works and how the powerful tick, how disputes arise and play out.
And journalism, most importantly, gave me an ethical, personal and professional compass, and a whole range of tools.
Journalists and photographers have a light-hearted but fiercely intense attitude to work, and a sound distance to the people they cover. They have a clear-eyed understanding of how power works, and of the mess that power can leave behind when it moves carelessly through society
So in short, around 1988 or so, to me PR began to seem a pretty good next step. I was the Reuters chief correspondent, Germany, based in Bonn after four good years in Latin America.
I had other ambitions and motivations. Most fervently I wanted to get into meeting rooms where decisions were being made, and not wait outside and report on them after they were made. I had seen powerful institutions, countries, ruling parties, companies, behave with appalling stupidity and tone-deafness when under pressure. 'Course I could help.
We went back to Switzerland, which had some pretty big companies, some of them seemingly decent. I was perhaps naïve, but I never saw PR as a whole as “the dark side”.
I was especially looking forward to a chance to help others navigate uncertainty. And I was ready to apply the process of writing as a way of thinking through corporate problems and shaping appealing stories.
I was chief communications officer (CCO) in three global companies between 1992 and 2010, and worked for 11 CEOs, in Sandoz through the merger with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, at ABB and at Royal Dutch Shell.
Trusting that storytelling would make a visible difference, the first thing I did in the three companies was to hire journalists. We also established editorial codes as part of wider communications policies, to ensure professional integrity in case we encountered pressure from above.
It was totally clear to me that if companies didn’t have the wherewithal to tell their own story, it would be told by others. And if they didn’t treat information professionally, PR would just backfire. Having your story told by others is like handing over a large part of your balance sheet to someone else.
I would use newsworthiness and the criteria for distinguishing between news and all other forms of communications as a way to preserve the integrity of the communications department.
So what is this thing we call PR? It is all about relationships with stakeholders, and about understanding the world from their perspective and making sure the company is attuned to the communities it works in. It is about having engagement systems focused on building and preserving the company’s licence to operate.
In practical terms, to be the head of PR in a large company is very much like news editing: understand the context, apply common sense, and stay ahead of the curve if possible.
The typical CEOs will seek from the head of PR what one of my bosses stated simply and clearly as “judgment and creativity”.
What my job WASN’T is perhaps also important to point out, to any journalist thinking about a switch to the Dark Side.
Like many CCOs, I did not work in media relations, except in a huge crisis. If the roof was about to fall in, I would take over all dealings with the media. Why? It was to protect my media relations staff, who might have been mired in political quicksand.
An unexpected and large part of the work was about coaching on personal leadership, thus working with the CEO and other corporate leaders as a mentor, giving feedback and gently steer on how to behave in the spotlight - and when no one is looking.
I was glad I had read my classics, and could quote Socrates (“Be as you wish to be seen”) and Lao Tze (“Leading an organisation is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking.”)
The desk-side manners of an experienced reporter also proved useful in dealing with executives - I often thought about my interviews with statesmen and other powerful people when I dealt with difficult CEOs.
Funnily enough, the only thing I truly missed after leaving journalism for the Dark Side of corporate life was the banter.
Journalists and photographers have a light-hearted but fiercely intense attitude to work, and a sound distance to the people they cover. They have a clear-eyed understanding of how power works, and of the mess that power can leave behind when it moves carelessly through society.
Both journalists and PR people share the love of words, but other business people mostly don’t know how to tell a story, even their own.
Many people in business talks of narratives today. Actually, most of them don’t mean inspiring stories following the classical lines of a quest, or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, or rags to riches or simply the journey out into the unknown and back.
Their mental model is the PowerPoint presentation, a clumsy and often intellectually lazy hop, skip and jump through factoids and opinions, which, if they were written out in full would expose logical lapses and frankly often lay bare both plain stupidity and groupthink.
One smart CEO I worked for disliked the show and tell culture that PowerPoint embodies and wanted to exchange ideas as much as I. He said, “Really, where’s the power and what’s the point?”
But there is hope. Even though few business executives truly recognise quality writing, corporate communications chiefs know the difference. They should hire speech writers and other “content providers” and create a treasure trove of stories.
Today perhaps more than ever, whoever helps the company tells its story will help its leaders connect with the world around them.
So, if you’re a journalist and you’ve been thinking about a move into PR - Welcome to the Dark Side! There is a bright path to it, and through it.
After six years with UPI, Björn Edlund worked at Reuters from 1983 until 1989, as Mexico chief correspondent, news editor for Latin America & Caribbean and chief correspondent, Germany. In PR, he was head of communications at Sandoz/Novartis, ABB and Shell. At 60, in 2010, he retired. He now has his own advisory firm and serves part-time as vice president, EMEA, Arthur W. Page Society, a professional organisation devoted to developing the leadership role of the head of PR, as a trustee of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and Visiting Fellow at Henley Business School. ■