In the 1970s and ’80s, Bob Felten was a widely admired Reno Evening Gazette reporter whose memorable lines from his stories were often quoted in journalism circles. When the newspaper unexpectedly cut him loose, he became a publicist for a state workers association and then joined an advertising agency. He has now gone from journalism and advertising to teaching journalism and advertising at the University of Nevada, Reno.
You started out doing God’s work and then went into public relations. What made you leave journalism?
[Laughs] They fired me.
That’ll do it.
It’s a very healthy thing to be fired when you’re young and you’re in the job you thought you were going to have your whole life.
Since you left public relations and started teaching public relations at UNR, I assume you also interact with some journalism students because public relations is housed in the J-school, right?
I actually teach news writing and reporting, and I teach public relations, and I teach advertising. So I teach across the curriculum pretty much. And so, yes, there’s a lot of commonality in the work that we do.
Do you tell journalism students the pitfalls, like regular firings and working for peanuts?
Sure. You know, I think it’s important to be honest with [student] journalists, and with people, about the experiences you bring, the experiences you’ve had and your understanding. You can’t very well teach people to be critical thinkers and to seek out information and understand problems if you’re not very straightforward and honest with them in everything you know, and certainly about your professional experiences.
There’s this ongoing debate about whether public relations should properly be in the journalism school or the business college, that the two lines of inquiry—journalism and public relations—are at war with each other. How do you feel?
I think that what we’re really talking about is ethical communications in an advocacy arena. And I think that ethical communications is something that we focus on at the Reynolds School of Journalism. And I think that’s appropriate to discuss in any environment. Certainly there are aspects of the business and marketing school that is important to understand as a public relations or advertising student. But we teach ethical communications.
So you don’t feel you’re teaching people to manipulate the press?
I’m teaching people to understand how the press works, give them what they need and be advocates for the companies or organizations they represent.
Can you do that and then go into journalism class and teach them the other side?
I don’t think that they’re exclusive. I think that’s a misunderstanding of both disciplines. I think that one of the things that [in] my experience benefits the students is that I understand what is common about the disciplines, the skills that come to both of those expressions of communication. And the better you understand as a news guy the way public relations people think, the better you understand as a PR person the way news people operate, the better you can communicate and fulfill your role.
Do you miss reporting?
Sure. Always. But one of the things that strikes me—and I’ve thought a lot about this—is, had I not left reporting and not left journalism, my experiences would have been less rich, less broad, would not have given me the diversity of perspective that I think has enriched my life and hopefully benefits my students.