The recent Burson Marsteller “whispergate” mess got me thinking about the long-lived, symbiotic relationship between people who work in PR and those who make their living in journalism. The two PR pros who tried to seed negative stories about Google on behalf of a not-so-secret client (Facebook) were former reporters who had only recently moved to the dark side. Some expressed surprise that ex-journos weren’t more skillful in their media relations, while others chalked it up to different sensibilities. But our industry is growing, and a good portion of our swelling numbers comes from an influx of former media types.
So, do journalists really make the best PR people?
Certainly, someone with deep experience spotting news, shaping a story, and writing against often-hellish deadlines has valuable skills that are in hot demand for publicity generation. And ex-journos impress clients, too. In my large-agency career, some were invited to the big pitch in order to opine on story potential, drop names, and wow the prospect, never to be heard from again. Others were installed in editorial spots where they could wield a blue pencil but otherwise stay out of the fray.
I’ve seen some adjust with ease, while others, even when extremely talented, struggle with the transition, especially to an agency. Here’s what you need to think about if you’re considering a switch – or looking to hire an ex-reporter for an account or media relations spot.
Are you ready to be the seller instead of the buyer? Unless you’ve come up as a freelancer who needs to win assignments in order to eat, it can be hard to pitch stories to unresponsive reporters and editors. And it’s even harder if some of your buyers are ex-colleagues.
Do you speak marketing? One of the tougher transitions might be from the news desk to marketing PR, which hard-bitten reporters often disdain as fluff. Consider a crash course in marketing, but if you can’t see yourself packaging the benefits of a new cereal or pitching, say, Mr. Bubble’s 50th birthday bash, then look at financial or professional services PR instead.
Can you toe the corporate line? Even at so-called creative boutiques, the clients – and the general workstyle – may be more structured and corporate than life at a daily news desk.
Can you practice diplomacy? I once had to reassign a journalist buddy after an uncensored – and highly insulting – response to a question from a C-level client. Contrary to the stereotype of the PR pro as a toadying yes-person, we value honest counsel, and so do our clients. But, the feedback has to be delivered in a constructive way, with corporate objectives and sensitivities kept in mind.
Can you crunch hours? Tracking hours may sound like a silly administrative detail, but, on the agency side, successful time management, accountability, and billability can be the difference between success and failure.
Do you see the bigger picture? Even if an ex-journo starts in media relations, the typical growth path is through account and staff management. That requires a broader backgrounding in the many facets of PR that go beyond publicity, from brand strategy to program development. It also calls for a real talent for managing people – including clients and staff.
Can you serve many masters? Corporate life is very different from a newsroom, and a particular challenge of agency work is that we serve so many constituents. Those on the firing line answer to the media they’re pitching, a direct manager or supervisor, a client, and, usually, the client’s bosses. There can be new communications protocols, bureaucracy, surprising expectations, and tremendous pressure for results.
In the ideal world, every PR person would spend a year as a journalist. And if every reporter spent just six months pitching at a PR firm, imagine what we could accomplish together.