Do ex-journalists make the best PR professionals?

Thanks to the difficulties of working in the press and media (in other words, how hard it is to make a living) there is no shortage of journalists wanting to move into PR. But should PR welcome journos, or avoid employing them? David Wilson, group managing director at PR firm Bell Pottinger, says that on balance, a journalistic background helps: “Experience in writing and shaping a report must help a communications professional understand how to position their story, making it relevant for the time, and determine which media it should interest. During an issue or crisis situation, familiarity with the cut and thrust of a newsroom can also help a consultant to stay ahead of the curve, anticipating lines of enquiry and the route a story may take.”

But Wilson says that succeeding in a move from media to PR depends on the individual concerned: “I’ve also worked with former journalists who possess a reluctance to hit the phones, cannot turn their mind from media ‘attack dog’ to providing a clear and deserved defence of the brands they represent, and even run a mile from media engagement. Some cannot shape a strategy to help a brand to stand out from the crowd, overcome obstacles or reinvigorate its position with key audiences.”

Journalists understand news, but their business sense isn’t always so keen. Ked Mather, communications manager at technology company MasterCard UK&I, says: “There have been many agencies over the last five or so years who have appointed journalists to act as their head of content or head of news. I have witnessed PROs asking for these people’s guidance to strategically set out their media targeting for campaigns or to assist in providing suitable news angles which can be pitched to journalists with confidence. There is no denying that journalists have credibility and experience in providing counsel on such activities.

“Where making the conversion from journalist to PR might not help so much is when dealing with the client or business itself. To ‘win’ in PR is to essentially negotiate and convince business leads (who may not have PR top of mind) such as CFOs or even CMOs to spare budget for PR activity. My view is that a raft of expertise in this area to effectively ‘sell’ PR to a business would be better acquired by someone who has been in the PR sector for a number of years. ”

According to Lee Blackwell, head of PR at annuity provider Partnership, asking whether journalists make the best PROs is a silly question, like asking if parrots make the best birds: “Yes, some of the best PROs I’ve met and worked with do have a background in journalism, but sadly, so have some of the worst. Regrettably, PR is far more than just media relations and Moet.

“Depending on the organisation you work for, anything from promotions to crisis management to business development and social media can fit into the category PR. And, whether you are in agency or in-house, you will also need to manage stakeholders so they understand the value you bring to the business. Some former journalists thrive in this type of environment, but others find it hard to work with this type of uncertainty – especially if they disagree with a strategic approach. A really excellent PRO is a chameleon – not something that all parrots are very good at!”

There are many successful journalists in PR, but there are also those who have failed. Andy Turner, founder of agency Six Sigma PR, lists a few examples: “Ex-FT editor Andrew Gowers is a widely respected figure who had various senior PR roles: Lehman Brothers from 2006-08, when the firm crashed and burned spectacularly. He then handled BP’s media response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He’s now at scandal-tainted commodity trader Trafigura. Describing these roles as ‘successful’ would be a moot point for many.

“Staying on the agency side, Edelman triumphantly hired two ‘big hitters’ from high-profile media positions a couple of years ago (Stefan Stern, FT management writer, and Richard Sambrooks, BBC’s global news director). Neither lasted very long and both reverted back to journalism.”

Turner suggests that before hiring a journalist for anything other than a media-facing role, you should ask these questions:

1. Do they understand long term, multi-faceted, multiple stakeholder campaign planning?
2. Can they have a grown-up conversation with a CMO or CCO about message development, brand-building or positioning strategy?
3. Do they understand the much wider remit of PR – not just the narrow story-telling and media relations side of things?
4. Do they understand PR’s place in the context of marketing?
5. Can they cope with the difference between telling the best story and telling the story that portrays their paying client or employer in the best possible light?
6. Are they commercially-savvy? Can they build profitable client relationships?

Turner believes that journalists can make good PROs, but it’s a good idea to catch them early: “Journalists’ work has changed dramatically in last five years – they now do much more which makes them more valuable for PR roles. But it’s easier if they make the transition early so they can learn the ropes.”

Case studies
Two ex-journalists discuss how their previous lives helped them to succeed in PR

Kate Cunningham, account manager at agency Teamspirit Public Relations:
“Of all the qualities that make a good journalist, there are three main skills that can be transferred to the world of PR: recognising a good story, adaptability and working to deadline. Having an understanding of how the newsroom works and how to sell a story is a huge benefit, as well as being able to see through a journalist’s eyes to spot any potential pitfalls in an idea.

“On the other hand, you can’t just put out a story because it makes a good headline. Part of the learning curve is how to support business objectives and get the best messaging across. The long-term planning that goes into putting those stories together is also something that ex-journalists have to get used to, not least strategy and looking months ahead of time to map out what should be issued, when and what could affect it. This all comes with time and, at the end of the day, knowing how to combine what’s newsworthy with what is shareable is key to driving a story forward. Central to PR is turning around content quickly and reacting to breaking news, to get comments out into the field faster than competitors – something journalists do on a daily basis and can take with them when hopping from the newsroom to the other side of the glass.”
Jennifer Cimerman, campaigns and media director at broadcast agency 4mediarelations:
“Before entering the world of PR, I spent five years working as a broadcast journalist in both local and national newsrooms.

“Working in broadcast PR, I have found my journalism experience invaluable. It has allowed me to approach a campaign from a different perspective. I know what I would have wanted to hear from a pitch, I’m aware of the things that would have put me off and I understand and empathise with the constraints and time pressures journalists work to. I also write copy in a way that (I hope) appeals to journalists, ensuring that it has the best chance of being read, rather than simply discarded to the dreaded ‘deleted items’ folder.”

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