Power, Pay, Prestige – in Israel, It Belongs to PR People, Not the Press

As traditional media have cut jobs and salaries, the next generation of communications students sees their future in public relations.

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An Israel Radio studio.
An Israel Radio studio.Credit: Oriya Tadmor

Hundreds of journalists in recent years have been forced to look for work as the country’s major newspapers, news websites and television stations have cut back payrolls. In many cases, however, they haven’t had to look far for a job: They just hop over to the other side the media business and join the burgeoning public relations industry.

It’s not just former journalists either. Colleges and universities are graduating hundreds of communications students every year, few of whom choose traditional journalism, instead opting for a career in PR.

The job market is a reflection of the shifting balance of power in the media in Israel and the world. Traditional media, even in its more modern manifestation online, has to seek its power over public opinion decline. Meanwhile, the country’s leading public relations professionals have gained a receptive ear from corporate executives, big investors, politicians and other decision makers. PR is a young person’s business.

“There are still students who desire journalism and see having careers in it, but they are very few – just 5%,” says Noam Lemelstrich-Latar, the dean of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s communications school. “They are high-quality people for whom the journalistic vision burns in the bones. A society without a free press won’t survive. The subject is critical from the standpoint of the good of society. We put an emphasis on journalism classes.”

Money is certainly one major reason students prefer public relations over journalism. In the United States, it pays better and the gap between the two professions is growing. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that in 2004 the average annual salary in public relations was $43,800, compared with $31,300 for journalists. Ten years later, PR salaries averaged $55,000 while journalists’ pay increased to just $35,600.

The salary disparity between the two fields has also meant that it is easier for the public relations sector to attract quality employees, which has made the constellation of relationships between PR people and news people all the more complex.

In Israel, there are no comparable figures for journalists’ and PR salaries, but Codex Marketing, a placement firm in the marketing sector, did carry out a survey based on information from job-seekers. It found that a new employee without any experience at a public relations firm can expect to earn a gross salary of about 6,000 to 7,000 shekels (roughly $1,500 to $1,800) a month. After a year of experience, they reach 8,500 shekels and after three to five years, a person can be pulling up to 12,000 to 15,000 shekels a month. There are no comparable figures for journalists, but the conventional wisdom is that journalists earn 30% less on average than their public relations counterparts. The differences are also reflected in demand for employees.

There are far fewer jobs available in journalism. The AllJobs employment website reported last week that employers in Israel had openings for 203 positions for work as spokespeople, in media consulting and other public relations activities. That compared with just 27 positions as reporters, editors and other media jobs. In other words, demand for public relations staff is seven-and-a-half times that for journalists.

Naturally most job-seekers are young, but in the PR field this is particularly striking. The vast majority of job-seekers are 35 and under, Codex reports, with fully 40% of them between the ages of 25 and 30. Fully 94% of the jobs are in the center of the country and 96% of those pursuing work in the field have an academic degree.

In the making of news, the journalists are supposed to be the lead players since they are the ones who gather the news and decide what is important and not, thereby setting the agenda for politicians, businesses and the public. But when it comes to the balance of forces between journalists and PR people there is an anomaly, in that based on their incomes and employment security, journalists have a considerably lower standing than PR people.

“Candidates coming to placement firms in the public relations field now represent a new generation that views the profession differently and their expectations may also be different from their predecessors,” says Liat Ben-Zvi Shevach, Codex’s CEO. She says the PR industry has become more professionalized, with more people joining the business after completing at least a bachelors degree and view a career as a strategic choice.

“Professionalization, experience and education have created better trained communications people, so on the one hand they demand higher salaries and on the other they see it a long-term career in the field and have expectations of advancing,” Ben-Zvi Shevach says.

Nurit Dabush, a lecturer in strategic communications at the Ono Academic College and a former chairperson of the Second Television and Radio Authority, goes a step further and says for the up-and-coming generation of media professionals the distinction between PR and journalism is growing blurred.

“A young PR person sees himself to a great extent as a journalist. His writing is journalistic writing, not like in the past when everything was expressed in superlatives, but gets to the point,” she says. “They see media consulting as a tool for change They have values and want to actualize them. I have a small number of students who would be happy to be journalists but because of their worries about money they go the other direction. They understand that financial security in the communications industries lies more on the side of communications consulting.”

The poor state of the mainstream media sector has made communications less popular with students. Communications programs are relatively new in Israel: The first ones began in 1995 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa, with a combined enrolment of 440 students. More programs were added over the years and the number of students increased nationwide to 5,532 in the 2011-2012 academic year. But since then enrollment has dropped to 4,629 in 2014-2015, according to the Council of Higher Education.

Living in an aquarium

The biggest casualty has been journalism programs. For example, the Koteret school of journalism at Tel Aviv University is now part of the regular communications program at the university.

In recent years, a battle has been underway between the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the College of Management Academic Studies for the title of the largest program. In the past, the College of Management led with more than 1,000 students in a typical academic year, but since the 2011-2012 school year its numbers have declined, to about 600 students last year. IDC, which only established its communications program about a decade ago, has 814 students in its program this year, making it the largest in the country. Among the country’s universities, the Hebrew University’s program is the largest, with 368 students.

The various academic tracks within the communications programs at Israel’s colleges and universities can generally be categorized as interactive and digital communications, visual communications or persuasive communication, the last of which has its primary focus on public relations and is the fastest growing of the tracks. At IDC, for example, about half of the communications students choose the field. Interestingly, as at many other institutions, there is no journalism program at IDC.

“Journalism and public relations are in fact two separate subjects,” IDC’s Lemelstrich-Latar acknowledges. “A public relations person’s interest is in emphasizing the information that will help him and on the other hand, the journalist wants to lift the veil over everything. The rules of the game are different, but I think both positions are important. We place great emphasis all the time on the subject of ethics. In persuasive communication, the students also do a whole year of work on a public relations and advertising project for social service organizations.”

Dabush of the Kiryat Ono College has a broad perspective on the changes at major organizations that are in turn spurring demand in the PR field.

“There is no longer a spokesperson who has all the information at hand and has control of all of the information that goes out,” she says. “We live in a technological era in which everyone is living in an aquarium and everyone sees everything, therefore the communications component has to be injected into the decision-making process inside every organization. In the context of corporate governance, you need to survey the risks and for this survey to also include communication risks.”

Dabush cites the risk of online shaming over social media in the case of bad service or a faulty product as an example of something a company has to cope with. “Shaming costs money,” she says, citing the case of Tnuva’s rasing the price of cottage cheese as stoking the 2011 social justice protests.

“Two months before the cottage cheese protest, Tnuva held internal discussions. The McKinsey consulting firm told Tnuva that it could raise the price of cottage cheese because it had a captive audience. But then came Itzik Alrov (who started the cottage cheese protest) and said: ‘No, you cannot raise the price.’ The people at Tnuva hadn’t included the media controversy among its set of risks,” she explains. “That was their mistake and the result of the protest was that Tnuva was forced to lower the price, causing it a budget hole.”

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