A New York Times story about Mary Ellin Arch, a former newspaperwoman who's now a toll road spokeswoman, is timely reading for switching from journalism to public relations. "Working in the newsroom does not prepare you for a job in public relations," says Mary Ellin, who represents the Pocahontas 895 toll road in Richmond, Va., and simultaneously enrolled in a master's program in strategic public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University when she finally landed that job.
We can recall when The Times, or any other newspaper, wouldn't be covering public relations as a profession in itself, but here we have it noting: "Some journalists bring to the table specialized knowledge gained from covering a beat, but with colleges and universities graduating record numbers of students with public relations degrees (more than 20,000 are in the pipeline), those without one may be at a disadvantage."
It took Mary Ellin four months to find her toll road position, and she emphasized "her familiarity with the community after covering it as a reporter, her online editing and management experience, and her efforts to rebrand and market the (Richmond) Times-Dispatch Web site."
"With a 99-year management lease from the state, " The Times notes, "Transurban (the toll road company) needs to be a good citizen. Ms. Arch has become its public face in Virginia, serving on chambers of commerce and attending community meetings to explain highway news, such as toll increases or milestones in the construction of an airport connector road. She coordinates public events, appears on television, writes media releases and maintains a Web site."
Thus does PR require former journalists to understand and practice a broader set of skills than before. Mary Elin's year of courses at Virginia Commonwealth University (two evenings a week and Saturdays) included PR research, leadership and law, marketing, strategic media relations, crisis communications, and reputation management. A two-week study abroad program in China focused on global public relations. Her employer gave her time off and reimbursed half the $28,000 tuition."
The essence of public relations as it has emerged as a profession in its own right "is the ability 'to 'think holistically,'" says Gary D. McCormick, chairman and chief executive office of the Public relations Society of America. A lot of streams feed into the context of a responsible PR job, like representing a busy toll road.
The Times discreetly refers to journalism as "a profession in retreat." But wearing a roadside hard hat has professional challenges of its own—more than many newspeople may appreciate. Mary Ellin Arch was smart to go after her PR degree as soon as she landed her new job, despite the hefty tuition.