Batman and the Joker; Superman and Lex Luthor; Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine — on the one side are the forces of light, truth and justice. On the other are villains and rogues. Many reporters and editors view the worlds of journalism and public relations through a similar lens. Journalists are the heroes trying to expose the truth while PR pros are the villains trying to shield or promote their clients. The two sides couldn’t possibly be more different.
I know this because I’m a former reporter and editor who moved from journalism to PR just over six years ago. When I began my journalism career in the late 1990s I viewed PR people as obstacles who were trying to prevent me from getting the “real” story. As time passed, I realized PR professionals could help by putting me in touch with knowledgeable sources in time to meet deadlines.
Eventually I decided it was time for a new challenge in my career and made the switch to PR. I knew other journalists who had gone into the PR field, and I thought I knew what to expect, but the transition wasn’t seamless. I found it awkward having to pitch ex-colleagues. I also found it hard to write quotes for client releases. As a journalist, I was used to looking for hard-hitting or controversial quotes – something that obviously doesn’t work well in PR.
I’ve enjoyed my six years at StrategicAmpersand. There’s never a dull moment because as an agency, we’re dealing with multiple clients, multiple projects and multiple contacts. And it’s nice to work with colleagues who are also passionate about PR and marketing. If I have a problem, or just need to bend someone’s ear, there’s a built-in support system.
Overall I think the biggest surprise in my career switch was that PR pros aren’t much different from journalists. The truth is that many of the skills that make a good journalist translate well to PR and many editors and reporters wind up working as PR professionals (including five members of the StrategicAmpersand staff). Following are some of the reasons why journalists transition well to PR.
1. Writing skills are critical for a PR professional.
PR pros rely on a range of skill sets, but one of the most important is writing. Between press releases, bylined articles, publication pitches, speeches for clients, presentations and client blog content, PR involves a lot of writing. And much of that writing needs to be turned around quickly. I’m writing almost as much now as I was as an editor and journalist, which isn’t a bad thing.
And, as more PR pros become involved in managing clients’ social media and help to develop content, having a former journalist on staff makes a lot of sense.
2. Closely following breaking news and trends makes for more effective media pitching.
Most journalists love to consume media, which is why they became journalists in the first place. When I moved to PR I thought I’d have less time to keep up with daily news and breaking stories, but if anything I actually spend more time consuming media. PR professionals need to be up to date with the latest news and industry trends to be able to create effective and relevant pitches, including news hooks that would make the story interesting.
3. Knowing how editors work makes it easier to get their attention.
Editors have very busy schedules and get a lot of e-mail and pitches – I know I was often overwhelmed by the amount of e-mail I received as an editor. A PR consultant can craft a beautifully written pitch crammed with facts, graphics and examples, but it won’t matter if they don’t grab the editor’s attention in the subject line or the first two sentences of the pitch. Typically, the shorter a pitch is, the better.
Former editors and writers know how busy journalists are (they have first-hand knowledge of what’s involved in a production cycle) and understand what they need to pull together a good story. As well, in the case of our PR team, four of the five former journalists and editors come from IT trade publications, which means they came into the job with a great understanding of those publications’ readerships (as well as an understanding of clients’ technologies, the industry and the key players in it). Crafting a pitch with the readers in mind is second nature to them.
4. The ability to multi-task is key in both journalism and PR.
PR professionals, especially those at agencies with multiple clients, have to be able to work at several tasks at once. Preparing a strategic communications plan, providing counsel regarding a media opportunity, compiling a relevant media list for a targeted outreach, preparing for a product launch, using social media to engage and listen, editing a customer case study and monitoring for media coverage — there’s a lot to pack into a day.
Journalists are used to multi-tasking. In an average day they could be writing multiple stories, conducting interviews with sources, updating content on a web site or running in to an editorial meeting.
Of course not all PR professionals should be former journalists. It takes a wide range of skills to build a successful PR practice and not all of those are found in ex-reporters and editors. But it doesn’t hurt to have some former journalists on staff — especially when it comes to developing content and working with the media.