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About the project «Success Builder»

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Last year, HSE launched its new joint course with Mail.ru called Communications in IT, where the head of RBC Group’s press centre, Egor Timofeev, was an invited speaker. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Egor talks about how the roles of a journalist and a PR specialist differ, why media is hard work, how to fight fake news, and how to be part of a brand on social media.

Why did you decide to study journalism in the political science faculty?

In 2003, I got into an HSE faculty that had been updated and was different from all other journalism faculties in existence at the time. Unlike classic faculties, this one was modern and relied on applied disciplines that would help focus on journalism not as an art, but as a craft that can be applied in the most serious sphere – business media. We studied using the module system – tests, exams every two weeks, and rankings. This was important because in terms of intensity and difficulty, journalism at HSE could never be equal to the Faculty of World Economy and other core faculties. But if you are serious about learning the craft, discipline has an extremely positive effect. There wasn’t a lot of hard political science in the programme, but it was enough to develop an interest in it and learn something through electives.

How were you planning on starting your career in journalism at the time?

I intentionally enrolled in the journalism faculty and wanted to work in the field. My classmates and I started looking at the media companies that were near us, and the selection was about the same as it is now. Media has not changed nearly at all in Russia over the last several years because it’s a rather conservative field and it doesn’t react to challenges easily. We got internships, worked, got experience, and then some went into related industries, while some stayed. But a lot of the people currently working as editors and who are famous journalists and division chiefs in media, advertising, and marketing are my classmates.

Is it necessary to study journalism specifically to find a job in a specific field? For example, in order to create materials relating to history or politics?

It’s not at all a requirement that a journalist study journalism. HSE gave me not so much a profession as a certain freedom of thought. University life is a marvelous thing. If it’s there, then it drives you and you want to learn and spend time at the university.

HSE was always different from other universities in its atmosphere of mutual understanding and mutual respect. You knew you could say what you think and there wouldn’t be any consequences – not even in an administrative sense, but in a human sense

This fostered a certain relationship towards life and work. That’s what I consider to be the main asset I acquired during my studies.

It’s not a diploma that makes a journalist a professional, but experience and thought. The problem is that nowhere teaches you the latter, which once again speaks to the crisis afoot in the traditional education system, a system torn from reality in the very disciplines that require a certain conjunction of knowledge and ability. Our education system is academic, but not practical.

HSE nonetheless does a lot to focus on practice, such as inviting teachers in from the professional community.

It should be made so that a practitioner in a certain field is able to not only talk about their experience, but also develop in students qualities to help them achieve results. Not just inspire, but give them a set of tools. In September, HSE launched its new joint course with Mail.ru called ‘Communications in IT,’ where I served as a course manager for part of the class. We tried to get an industry professional to come in and talk about what they were working on, as well as why and how they do something a particular way. But this is continuing education and the students are people with work experience. It’s rare to find this. It would be better if students were taught right away how to apply their knowledge on the job, why this is done, and what will come of it.

Does success in this field depend on your personal cultural background? For example, is it worth getting an education in the West in order to think globally and have a relationship with international culture?

Your personal background doesn’t depend so much on your environment. You don’t have to go study and build a career in the West to be successful. There are loads more career opportunities in a number of fields here than in the West specifically because of the specifics of how the market is developing. We have an unregulated environment; there are no quality standards, no professional requirements, no set institutions, but it is in this atmosphere in particular that there are a lot more opportunities for development, particularly as concerns nonlinear development. To go abroad or not to go abroad is your own choice, but it’s good to have that choice.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

PR and journalism – how are these two fields connected now?

All of us in the two fields work in communications. Journalists and PR specialists can compete just as easily as they can work together to share experiences. But the work and success of a PR specialist is mostly decided by a manager who has their own understanding of the standards of the profession. In this sense, there are more generally accepted standards in quality journalism, and they are more transparent. PR is now digital content, events, and government relations. It’s sometimes easier to list the things PR is not. Any definition will seem correct, which is the main thing. In my view, a professional PR specialist is someone with the knowledge and competencies that work at a specific company for a specific period of time in order to achieve specific goals. It’s very much applied work.

What vectors are now used in PR considering all of the interesting things that exist in contemporary journalism?

A good PR specialist has to understand how media are structured and how they talk to an audience, because media is now not only mass media, but also any digital space where a brand lives and develops. Someone in PR sometimes doesn’t need mass media as a channel for communication if their goal is to talk to an audience successfully and in a trusting manner. Trustworthy communication is now incredibly valuable. If you cannot be honest when communicating, then you don’t need to be communicating.

The word ‘honest’ sounds strange here because everything is marketing, and marketing can’t be honest simply because it’s aimed at monetisation at all costs.

Marketing not only satisfies commercial interests. Above all, it develops and advances a brand’s values and establishes a relationship with an audience. A quality long-term relationship with an audience has to be honest.

One of the challenges now facing the media is fake news – that is, a colossal amount of unverified content that directly impacts a brand’s reputation and, as a result, the product’s demand among consumers. The quality of media is now determined by the level of responsibility journalists are prepared to take for content.

In this regard, the RBC editorial staff takes full responsibility for the material posted to our site from start to finish, including any legal issues. It is from this that our professional requirements for the quality of the text, as well as content and data verification, stem. This all has to form the foundation for communication between brand and user, and subsequently between the PR specialists and his or her audience. It’s clear that there is an extremely fine line between the truth and falsehoods, but a long and successful relationship with an audience cannot be built through lies and manipulation.

The industry is structured so that it balances itself out through its most valuable product – trust. We can’t say this is an ideal balance, but no other exists yet

You're in charge of RBC's public image. How does your experience with brand positioning affect your own behavior on social media or your opinions on various issues?

This concerns everyone who works in PR: as soon as you start to represent a brand, any of your outside communications, whether it’s social media, events, or even a private party for progressive media managers – it all automatically becomes part of the brand. The opposite is true as well. This is why it’s completely natural to compare your statements and behaviour with their consequences. Can’t stand skinny or fat people, or maybe feminists or sexists, and really want to tell the world about it? Just endure it. Want woman to wear high heels at all time? You shouldn’t write about it. And so on.

So, you should be tolerant of everything in the world?

Tolerance is subjective. One should have an opinion, but it’s wiser to keep it to yourself or if you do express it, not to do so for the sake of likes. It often seems your opinion on certain things really means something to the people around you, but it doesn’t. I have a simple approach – if you can’t keep quiet on a hot issue, be prepared for the consequences. I myself sometimes can’t help but write about something.

Does RBC have rules or regulations on one’s personal relationship towards corporate culture so as not to be fired? And can someone be fired for generally going against a brand’s image?

Any manager at any company hires the type of people that correspond to his or her values and views on life. But business is changing and new tasks arise. People also change – one person is disappointed in their job, another is tired of it, and then someone else is outgrowing their current position and can’t find the stimulus to work further. Media is a difficult job. People go through a lot, and people burn out. That’s how the industry is.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

Is there a psychologist at your job?

No, because here we’d need a whole department of psychologists. But I’ve taken note of the idea.

Can you talk about the skills you’ve gained and are ready to transfer to students in the Communications in IT course? What skills do you think are most important now in the journalism-IT realm?

When my colleagues and I developed the course outline, I was pursuing several goals. The first was to show how multifaceted PR work could be overall and bring in different examples, situations, and approaches to demonstrate the full spectrum of what you can do.

The second goal was to help structure the work and set its boundaries. The programme has lectures on internal and external communication, on the product and its formation, and on interactions between various departments. In this way we are able to show what role the PR specialist plays in the company’s structure and which problems and challenges he or she will encounter along the way.

The third goal was to really try to pass onto the students the professional values we find important. We talk about where a brand ends and the PR specialist’s private life begin, as well as about soft skills. After all, PR is generally all about soft skills.

We tasked ourselves with these objectives when we were developing the programme. I hope we’ll be able to communicate well in this case; we want to establish a relationship with students so they understand and take in what we are saying. What we definitely don’t want is to impose some sort of dogma, because there are no dogmas.

What competencies do you expect new employees to have – for example, graduates of the Communications in IT programme?

I’d like for each graduate of the programme to want and be able to master something new, because now all of the practices we’ve been able to implement instantly become obsolete. I’d also like to teach everyone to be open to different forms of communication and to be open to failure, i.e., when communication becomes aggressive or ineffective. If you don’t really like people and think everyone’s an idiot – PR isn’t the place for you. But this competency is achieved only through experience, and if you want recognition and praise, PR is not the field to turn to.

The search is constantly underway for compromise here. It’s endless uncertainty, nothing is stable, and there are a lot of conflicts. It’s like that phrase – it’s the internet so they can send you a message or they can send you packing

What kind of job can a graduate of the programme get?

Actually, the role of a PR specialist is universal for any sphere. We put an emphasis on IT because this field is in desperate need of specialists able to establish communication around a product and infrastructure, especially in a digital economy. And of course, they can translate technologies into a business language accessible to everyone.

From a corporate perspective, what is more important now in a media product – clickbait or quality?

It’s important for the industry to try growing more quickly than the falling market and to combat limited advertising budgets. And when you’re operating in a crisis-ridden market, you sometimes arrive at effective, rather effectual, methods for monetization. This is where the question of values and professionalism arises. Yellow journalism can also be high quality, but such journalism doesn’t exist in Russia currently in my opinion. Conversely, business media can be of a poor quality as wells.

It’s important to understand that it’s a fairly sick industry, where vulgar trolling remains one of the few sources of entertainment accessible to everyone. There are things RBC is unlikely to let itself do – joining in on the hype, for example. RBC won’t show material if it hasn’t gone through our verification process. This is again a question of the audience’s trust towards the brand, and this is a one of RBC’s values.

And where does the crisis in today’s media lie really?

It’s a crisis with the classic advertising business model. Most media entities make money through advertisers, not their audience, and there are practically no successful examples of media sources capable of giving up the advertising business model or at least switching to a combined model that allows them to effectively fight for advertising budgets on the market and sell content to the final consumer. The market is small, and the battle for funds is become fiercer and fiercer. And it won’t get any easier.