It’s not uncommon to see a journalist become a PR professional.
A member of the news media can offer valuable insights when helping train and promote clients.
However, when a journalist is concurrently a PR pro, the dual roles can lead to a nasty conflict of interest.
Last week, The Toronto Star reported that Leslie Roberts, a Canadian journalist and Global Television news anchor, was suspended indefinitely following an investigation revealing that the very individuals appearing on Roberts’ show were also clients of his PR firm.
Roberts is not only the anchor for Global’s “News Hour” and “The Morning Show,” he’s also Global News’ executive editor. Between segments, Roberts would go to BuzzPR and help with “creative work,” such as pitches and media training.
Online and on-air boosterism
Along with interviewing his clients on air, Roberts tweeted about them to more than 20,000 Twitter followers. According to The Toronto Star, that wasn’t all:
In one instance, during a morning show on which supermarket shopping was being discussed, he blurted out the name of one of his firm’s clients and suggested viewers “check it out.” At no time did he disclose to viewers his connection to the companies or his public relations firm: BuzzPR.
Though Roberts told The Toronto Star details of the investigation didn’t “look very good,” he said he never directly accepted a client’s payment to be on his show and “nothing comes between [him] and a story.”
“At no point have I ever, ever crossed the line,” Roberts said.
Brad Phillips, founder of Phillips Media Relations, says Roberts’ story makes him question whether working reporters can ethically engage in PR work.
The answer is not black and white, say several PR professionals.
Balancing journalism and media training
Matthew Whittle, a communications specialist for a political advocacy organization, said journalists could—at least in theory—balance reporting while “moonlighting as a media advisor.” However, insider information obtained while acting as a PR pro can’t be used to report a story, and no promises should be made to promote a client’s product or service when acting as a journalist.
“Nobody is better qualified to explain how to work with the media than somebody with experience,” Whittle says. “It should be made clear, however, that the two positions are separate.”
Brian Metcalf, CEO of GreenRoom Social, agrees that journalists could also be effective media trainers but said they “must remain transparent.”
“Authenticity and trust, pillars of the public relations profession, can only be achieved through disclosure of paid affiliations and endorsements,” Metcalf says.
However, not all communication professionals think journalists can properly do both jobs concurrently.
Tressa Robbins, vice president of implementation for BurrellesLuce and a conference chair for the PRSA Midwest District, says mixing media training with journalism seems to violate the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
She further explains: “The ethics code says to avoid surreptitious methods of gathering information (but then states that such methods should be explained as part of the story, if used). It also states they should remain free of associations and activities that may compromise or damage credibility as well as shunning secondary employment if it will compromise journalistic integrity.”
Becky Gaylord, a former journalist and owner of PR firm Gaylord Consulting, agrees with Robbins. “You’re either a journalist or not,” she says.
Gaylord points to media companies’ conflict-of-interest policies that prohibit journalists from holding political positions, campaigning for candidates or displaying partisan messages. She says even reporters who don’t cover those they work for cross a line when they make a living “navigating the often-delicate dance of interviewing off-the-record” and also engage in media training.
“To me, the line between the roles is sacrosanct,” Gaylord says. “You lose credibility if you straddle them.”
Journalists who also are active PR pros could find themselves in an ethical dilemma if they learn something negative about a client and report it to their station or newsroom, says Tripp Frohlichstein, president of MediaMasters Training.
A similar quandary arises when a PR pro learns something positive about a client and then must weigh taking the PR money if he or she covers it as a reporter, Frohlichstein says. He points out that confidentiality agreements—common with media training clients—aren’t fair to journalists’ primary employers.
Avoiding conflicts of interest
Whittle says journalists shouldn’t give media advice to those they cover frequently. Anything they do report that is connected to a client should include disclaimers.
“If you would call yourself for a quote for a story about your client, it’s a conflict of interest,” Whittle says.
Robbins says journalists and PR pros alike must disclose partnerships when they are reporting: “There is no gray area here as far as I’m concerned—both the SPJ Code of Ethics and [Public Relations Society of America] Code of Ethics stress this. To not disclose is not an ‘error of omission’—it’s lying.”
Along with transparency, Frohlichstein says, training sessions should be “on the record” and the reporter involved with a client’s media training should not decide whether a client’s story should be broadcast or published.
News organizations can also avoid conflicts of interest by disclosing to viewers or readers that a member of the team was involved with an organization’s media training whenever that organization is featured, Frohlichstein added.
“People might suggest that those [guidelines] are too stringent,” he says, “but only with the right safeguards can the trust of the public be gained.”
As more PR professionals take on roles as brand journalists, these are all warnings to keep in mind.