If You Are a Journalist and Want to Work in Public Relations …

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… your ability to write content and have a keen eye for news will not suffice.

There is much more you need to know to ensure your transition to a Public Relations role is smooth and provides you with plenty of development and advancement opportunities.

Following an article I wrote two weeks ago, some ex-journalists turned-PR practitioners were very unhappy that I had chosen a, and I quote, “divisive” headline. Many simply couldn’t get past it and found it very hard, if not impossible, to actually read it and understand what that article was about.

Consequently, Vanessa Moon – an ex-journalist herself – told me that “maybe it would be more constructive to write about what journalists turned PR practitioners need to know about the industry when they consider transitioning, rather than beginning with a divisive statement”.

You may know this or not but, often, my articles are inspired by my community’s (online and offline) needs and wants; I listened to Vanessa’s request and, if you are a journalist and reading this article, you may wish to take heed of the advice given here not by me, but by many ex-journalists and PR practitioners themselves.

My article on “Never Hire a Journalist to Do Public Relations” has seen a lot of engagement. As I’m writing this post:

– 279 people clicked through to read it on my blog

– it was retweeted 89 times and liked 176 times

– on LinkedIn it was liked 34 times and it got 50 comments; others shared it, too and between them, it was liked 43 times and commented on 60+ times.

These statistics matter but not as much as understanding the reason behind my writing that article, the arguments it put forward and the questions it raised for us all, PR practitioners and (ex)-journalists alike.

There is one very good thing that came out of it (other than tackling a very contentious subject): the comments and recommendations many made, some pertinent ones being captured below as a “what you need to know to be good at PR if you are a journalist”.

The really disheartening thing for me – and a bit of a shock I might add – was the fact that NOT A SINGLE ex-journalist whose feathers were ruffled by the headline I chose, not a single one had said that BBC Radio 4’s guests on the Media Show were wrong to describe PR as fluff, its practitioners as liars and manipulators etc. Not a SINGLE ONE.

I would have loved to read just one comment, just one to say “I’ve been a journalist and now I work in PR. My experience of PR is not as described by/in … etc.”. JUST ONE.

And before I leave you with the wisdom and advice of other current PR colleagues (ex-journalists or not), I would like to emphasise this one more time: in Public Relations, as in any other industry or trade, any skill can be taught; absolutely any skill.

What we cannot teach, and what we need more of in this line of work, are character and behaviour – as I said here, not even “talent” matters that much because hardly any talent is innate; anything can be taught. And with this last remark, I hope you will enjoy reading the advice below (a list of abbreviations, in case you’re not familiar with the acronyms, can be found at the end of this blog):

There is also a very important piece of advice to PR membership bodies and what they can do to raise the awareness of what PR is actually about and stands for – helping breaking down misconceptions and fallacies about this industry will help not just the current PR practitioners but, also, those who wish to embark on a career in PR – journalists or not:

To raise awareness on what PR is actually about, there is plenty that membership bodies could do:

1. CIPR/PRCA award scheme/event for any journos who might conceivably cover PR

2. FSB, IoD and CBI free (co-sponsored) regional seminars on PR and its benefit to business

3. (Ironically) trade media campaign, in the “business” trade not “PR” trade, across those sectors where misconceptions of PR are most prevalent

4. Postcards for practitioners – ‘PR is much more than media relations’. The practitioners to distribute these to their senior managers and clients. Produced by someone like CBI (not a PR body).

Ben Verinder, CIPR Lead Assessor for the Chartered Practitioner Scheme, researcher for the State of PR Annual Report and Managing Director of Chalkstream

I trained as a journalist, and this absolutely set me up for my working life. But just because you were once a hack does not necessarily make you a good flack. I found the jump from hack to flack a steep learning curve. I confess I get really frustrated when fellow PRs avoid developing themselves because “I was once a journalist, you see”. I’ve actually had that conversation with an ex TV journo who was justifying not engaging with the rest of the PR community. Hugely egotistical and hugely naive. Rant over.

Rachel Picken, Chart.PR and Director of Agile PR & Communications

I was a journalist and knew my limitations in a PR capacity – I felt it would be incredibly arrogant to assume I knew everything in an industry I had never worked in. That’s why I opted to join the best possible agency I could find who would take me in. It was a compromise for both of us. I took a less senior role and a pay cut, they took on someone who wasn’t the finished article but had valid experience to share. Almost four years with them was invaluable. I’m proud to have earned parity with my previous career and gained prospects which had died in the news room. I moved on and now have the perfect job for me right now – a mix of PR, journalism and content for the city I love

Simon Donohue, Content Curator at Marketing Manchester

Sadly, the majority of journalists only comprehend their own language, ‘journalese’, which can reflect a very poor educational platform. However, a creative writer is the best bet of all; this is the individual (in many cases), who can stand on his/her own feet and elucidate in ways that even the most ardent PR cannot.

Iain Peter Robertson, Motoring Editor of Business Money Magazine

Aside from writing skills, former journalists can deliver to a new public relations job healthy scepticism and a comfort level with providing appropriate push-back to management. However, public relations today is far more than just managing information and crafting / packaging messages to talk about problems, challenges or new opportunities. In and of itself, the public relations function today must provide strategic, core solutions, through management of diverse and often complex symbiotic relationships with stakeholders. Operating in a silo as a one-trick pony to what should instead be a comprehensive Public Relations program, Media Relations alone doesn’t even begin to cut it

Mary Beth West, Fellow PRSA and Senior Strategist of Fletcher Marketing PR

I myself was a journalist before going into PR decades ago, and I’ve said the transition starts in the “public information” model of PR but individuals need to learn what PR is fully before they take on larger roles. Joining PRSA or other professional organizations, do some reading, get a master’s degree, seek APR accreditation and networking are good ways to disabuse oneself of the PZR = media relations mindset. But it continues to be a problem.

Tim Penning PhD, Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at Grand Valley State University

There are many amazing ex-journalists who work in Public Relations – some of these I’ve grown to respect and call friends. Their ability to cut through the noise, get to the very bottom of the information and story they are being told or sold is equal to none.

But a story is not everything – it will never be. Seeing the bigger picture and understanding where the organisation lies within it, how it can change or shift its swim lanes and how it can demonstrate its competitive advantages and thought leadership in its sector are far more important in Public Relations.

It’s easy to say “to be a successful PR practitioner you need to do XYZ”. That’s like telling a GP that for them to become surgeons they need to …what?

My advice to a journalist (and not only) wanting to transition to PR? Buy some PR books, put yourself through some professional courses (start small to begin with) and read plenty of material so you can see what you have versus what you need to master.

Social media has brought us together under its massive umbrella. We can have plenty of conversations online and there is always someone ready and willing to help: there are Twitter Chats, Facebook Forums, blogs and LinkedIn Groups on anything and almost everything you need to know about Public Relations.

When you’re not sure, just ask – just ask more than one person because there are many self-proclaimed “gurus” out there. Take everything everyone is saying with a pinch of salt and draw your own conclusions – use that uncanny journalistic “nose” to suss out what matters and what’s true.

The simplest advice I can give you is this: to work in Public Relations, you have to be the Chief of Staff, the Trusted Advisor, the one who Makes Things Happen and the One Who Joins the Dots – you should know yourself better than anyone does, so only you should know best what it is you need to be able to do that.

We are an unselfish and highly supportive community and many of us will always be here, myself included, to help you make your transition as smooth as possible.


List of Abbreviations:

– APR = Accredited in Public Relations

– CBI = Confederation of British Industry

– Chart.PR = Chartered Public Relations Practitioner

– CIPR = Chartered Institute of Public Relations

– FSB = The Federation of Small Businesses

– IoD = The Institute of Directors

– PRCA = Public Relations and Communications Association

– PRSA = Public Relations Society of America

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