Marci Manley was holed up at home taking Tamiflu, determined to shake her symptoms before the first day of her new job, new career, new life.
After nearly a decade in TV news, including three years as a top investigative reporter at KARK/Fox 16 in Little Rock, Manley left her first love, journalism, for a state PR job that better suits her marriage and family plans.
She started Jan. 4 as deputy chief of communications at the Department of Human Services, where she’ll work for Amy Webb, the agency’s chief of communications and community engagement, and another reformed reporter.
“A lot of the decision stemmed from personal timing and family obligations,” said Manley, 30, who made her bones with deeply reported investigations like her collaboration with the Huffington Post on the resurgence of gang violence in Little Rock.
“Journalism is a noble profession, despite all you hear, but it takes a lot of time, especially to do the kinds of stories I was doing. People expect you to be available pretty much 24/7, and in the context of starting a family, that was less attractive. I want to give everybody in my life a fair shake.”
That would include her fiance and his 5-year-old daughter. Better pay was another factor; DHS offered Manley a $69,776 salary.
“That’s way more than she was likely making in TV news,” said Amy Barnes, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock public relations professor who was a top local anchorwoman, producer and assistant news director before making a decision much like Manley’s. She left KARK in 1990 to oversee communications for Dr. Joycelyn Elders at the Arkansas Department of Health. She later worked at AETN, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and UALR’s communications office.
Barnes enjoys teaching and has published a new book, with Baylor University Professor Marlene S. Neill, “Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job.”
“The reason I made the job shift was that TV journalism will chew you up and spit you out,” Barnes told Arkansas Business a week ago. “I didn’t have a life otherwise, and I was fast approaching 40. The hours are long and demands are great, and of course you don’t get rich. So journalists have left for PR jobs for years and years.”
With many news organizations laying off reporters and many PR firms hiring, anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend is accelerating. The latest numbers Barnes has seen show that PR is one of the 10 fastest-growing professions in the country, and the pay gap between reporters and PR pros continues to widen. In 2004, a reporter made 71 cents for every dollar earned by a PR specialist, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A decade later, that figure was 65 cents to the dollar, with an average reporting salary of $35,600 compared with PR salaries averaging $54,940.
“I’ve talked to other journalists who have gone to PR, and the first reaction is to fight wanting to run home and take a bath every five minutes,” Barnes said with a laugh, quickly adding that the revulsion stems from a basic misunderstanding of PR’s highest goals. “They come in thinking the job is making somebody look good no matter what. But that’s not what we’re here for. Our book shows that top PR professionals use influence strategies to coax senior people into making the right decisions.”
The change won’t be the first PR foray for Manley, whose Arkansas roots were a selling point in KARK promotional ads. (She was a teenage columnist at the Brinkley Argus, a top graduate at Lee High School in Marianna and later a Chancellor’s Scholar at the University of Arkansas. She now attends the Bowen School of Law at night.)
After years of general-assignment reporting in Little Rock and earlier at KNWA in Rogers, Manley spent eight months as a nonprofit communications specialist for the American Red Cross. KARK soon lured her back with a made-to-fit investigative position, but after three more years in the spotlight, Manley is clearly ready to ply her storytelling skills for DHS, the state’s largest agency with 7,500 employees serving 1.2 million Arkansans a year.
Manley hopes to help modernize the department’s messaging, producing explanatory content, including video and digital media that isn’t “bogged down in alphabet soup or departmental lingo.” She’s wants stories that are “sharable, informative and geared to telling people that there’s a wide range of services available to make their lives better.”