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What makes journalists thrive in PR?

Journalists and PROs love to have a go at each other, yet not only do they need each other, but many journalists end up moving into PR. There are many reasons why PR benefits from employing ex-journalists, and Chris Lee, founder and CEO of integrated communications, content and training consultancy, Silvester and Finch, former tech journalist for IT Week, Computing and what is now is happy to list a few of these: “I went from PR to journalism and back again at the start of my career, when salaries were comparable. I therefore have seen both sides and probably learnt more about how not to do PR as a journalist on the receiving end of pitches. I took that learning back into PR with me. I think all PR agencies need to hire a former journalist, or at least have one in to train about the pressroom experience. If younger executives – who tend to do most of the pitching – only have exposure to people to who did the same routine before them then the industry cannot improve. The same complaints journalists made of PROs in 1998 when I started still occur in 2016.

“Why hire a journalist? First and foremost, journalists understand – and can connect with – their audiences. They know what makes a story and how to tell it. A generic format press release is neither a story nor, in isolation, an effective method of delivering a message in 2016. Journalists also often bring contacts, high social media followings and sometimes a knowledge of SEO. In an era when content skills are in high demand, good journalists can turn around high-quality copy quickly. PR agencies that hire journalists must let them focus on their core creative strengths, rather than shoehorning them into other PR agency activities, such as people management and client handling.”

Speaking to Lee and other ex-journalists, suggests 10 key skills that journalists offer:

  • Practice in synthesising information quickly
  • Skills in interviewing
  • Understanding of the importance of getting the story straight
  • Making sure the message is absolutely right
  • Adeptness at finding the most interesting angle
  • Ability to connect with different audiences
  • Practice of communicating using different media
  • Appreciation of what the media wants from PR
  • Knowledge of SEO
  • A great contacts book

My experience of moving from journalism to PR

Richard Griffiths, founder of PR consultancy RGC Partners, former BBC reporter: “As a BBC business reporter and presenter, I spent more than a decade getting my head around sometimes complex business and economics stories and then distilling them into either live or packaged broadcast pieces on TV and radio. Having spent the next 10 years advising UK and international clients on how to manage their reputation or credibly promote their product, the most transferable skill I gained as a journalist was the ability to interrogate and synthesise something quickly. But in PR that skill – whilst valuable – is not enough to succeed. Journalists are generally lone wolves and single-minded when it comes to getting the story. PR means working across different internal functions, including a board or executive team, liaising with in-house counsel as well as external partners – sometimes with different agendas. The skill is being able to listen and to speak up when a decision is about to be made that could get your client into trouble. The fact that a CEO is making the call or a two-million-dollar-a-year lawyer won’t necessarily make that decision right in the eyes of customers or the general public.

“In PR, where meetings and conference calls are meat and drink, patience and tact are key which isn’t something I ever needed much as a journalist. And in the last decade, PR people have had to constantly reassess the channels they’re using, which change with the client. Yes, the New York Times and the BBC probably still count, but so do other channels whether that is social such as Facebook or Weibo or for some, the good old customer email database. That demands not only different treatments but assessing what will be cost effective, quick to implement and easily measurable. And can I trust that team to make it happen? Getting the story straight – or message right – is still an essential requirement but in communications there are other skills that count.”

Emma Lowe, media manager at agency Smoking Gun PR, former Daily Mail show business reporter, news reporter for Masons News Service (SWNS) and Barcroft Media: “The greatest  challenge when moving into PR is the cultural difference of going from working in busy ‘yes-no’ newsroom to being in a client-facing, negotiating PR environment. How your new-found route of storytelling is now as much a brand message as it is a great piece of coverage. In a previous life your sole goal was to get the best news line – now there are many client factors to manage. In the beginning of the transition this can be really tricky to get your head around. However as the journalist in the PR room, you are used to stories falling off the news list, your skill lies in being able to see another line you could take to make that story work – to secure the all-important hit for the client. 

“What you can offer as journalist is a different take on content. The natural and trained intuition to news jack on breaking stories, the need to shake up the fluffy survey results with a hard news line and also the understanding of human interest – how to find the case study, find the news hook in the case study, which will turn a nib into a page lead or DPS.

“In the changing world of journalism where reporters are expected to be video and social media savvy, the way we use these tools as journalists can open up new coverage opportunities for PROs.

“All that aside, ultimately as a journalist you know what you want from a PR. You know the tight-clean news copy you want to read, the headline that will get your attention and best time for someone to get in touch with a great lead or story opportunity. You are an insider on how to pitch and how to package for journalists, therefore reducing the risk of squandering opportunities for clients .

“Sadly there can be almost a tug of war when it comes to PRs vs journalists – when ultimately we are both aiming for the same goal - you are only as good as your last story. As newspapers change, the demand for online grows, there will be more need than ever to grow the relationship between PRs and journalists.”

Sophia Morrell, associate director at PR firm Lansons, former editor at trade mag ICFA: “The move to consultancy is a huge change and demands new skills to adapt. In many respects it is possible to operate as a lone wolf when you are a journalist, especially on a slower-paced monthly where you are accountable for your deadlines alone; I had no Blackberry for requests to follow me out of the office. Consultancy life, in contrast, demands a seamless team approach where you are on call for clients, should they need it, 24/7. For me, this change of pace was invigorating, and I feel I have developed a wider set of business skills which are essential in this environment. Increasingly, PR practitioners are becoming more visible at board level given how central reputation has become to a business’s success.”

David Alexander, managing director of agency Calacus Public Relations, former journalist at the BBC, Sunday Telegraph and Reuters: “My media contacts were stronger than those of anyone at large agencies I worked at and I understood what made a story better than many. I secured great coverage for clients, but I was also accused of thinking too much like a journalist when advising that unrealistic ideas were not likely to get the exposure the investment in time and effort demanded.

“These were pre-social media days, but I still found that many of the skills that were taken for granted by those who had worked their way up from junior positions, such as spreadsheets and powerpoints and presentations were completely alien to me. And I didn’t often get the support or guidance I needed to match my experience and media skills with PR processes.

“I still hear from journalists who move into PR being shocked at the systems and processes our industry requires, let alone the sometimes slower pace of getting things done when sign-offs are required.”

James Saville, press director at agency Up Communications, former news editor at the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People: “Hardly a day has gone by in PR where I’ve not used journalism skills. They’ve not just been handy in producing some great ideas and coverage for brands and business. They've been essential.

“Working on the basic principle clients want as many of the right people to hear about their good news, here is a solid adage: you’d hire a mechanic to fix your car, a tailor to alter your suit, then why would you not hire a journalist to get you into the papers?

“I quit running a busy newsdesk at Trinity Mirror in August 2014 to start up my own comms agency. There have been bumps along the way. Dealing with my first client – an online diamond retailer – was a real learning curve. The brief was simple; they wanted to be in the newspapers. No problem, I said. I picked out some obvious stories and within a few weeks they appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and on BBC Radio Four. They were delighted. However, the results came too fast and too furious. The words rod and own back spring to mind. They simply were not ready for it as a company. What they really needed was a thought out plan and strategy, starting at the bottom and ending at the top – vital for any successful PR campaign.”

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