Journalists: Look Before You Leap into PR

As the journalism industry suffers cutbacks, closures, layoffs and competition from non-traditional media, many talented reporters are examining career options outside the field.  For some, public relations is a logical place to turn.  I personally made the move more than 10 years ago and found that my skills translated well and my insider’s perspective still provides value to my firm.

Jill Geisler of The Poynter Institute enumerates the many reasons journalists should be welcomed into the PR industry.  But there are factors at play in the public relations field that can make the transition difficult for journalists and the firms that bring them on board.  Following is some food for thought for journalists contemplating a leap to “the dark side.”

You will have to pitch your former colleagues.

Media relations represents a significant portion of the work PR firms do on behalf of their clients. Former journalists are attractive because of their intimate knowledge of how reporters think and work.  But because you know the media so well, and because you have undoubtedly been on the receiving end of bad PR pitches, if you get a job in the field, you may have a difficult time talking to reporters about stories that you don’t feel are newsworthy.  And sometimes those reporters you are pitching are former colleagues or even professional rivals. It is important to remember that, while your perspective is incredibly valuable, if the client says pitch, you have to pitch. You can fix this, though, by helping to craft a better story to pitch to the right people.  Oh, and those follow-up calls and emails you used to receive and complain about?  Guess what?  You have to do those, too.

You will be expected to share your secrets.

You probably already are aware of this, but it’s worth mentioning: Good PR firms put their clients through some form of preparation before every media encounter. We examine the reporter’s background and previous coverage, review key messages, discuss questions the reporter might ask and talk about how to work around potentially sensitive issues. Because you are in the extraordinary position of having been on the other side of the interviewer/interviewee equation, you will be expected to share with your clients how you used to operate when you interviewed your sources.  You may feel as if you are somehow betraying your former brothers and sisters in journalism by teaching clients how to skillfully maneuver through interviews. You’re not. Helping your client understand how best to operate during a media encounter is helping your client do his or her job. You did your job as a journalist, and the reporter will do the same during the interview.


You will need to shift to “sell” mode.

Aside from selling story ideas to the media, if you do make the move to PR you most likely will be required to contribute to your firm’s new business development process. When an agency pursues a new client, it puts a great deal of effort into understanding that company’s position in the marketplace, identifying its communications challenges, articulating recommendations in a written proposal and selling the firm’s services.  Hard.  Your journalism experience hopefully trained you to be objective, which the sales process is most definitely not.  To become a significant contributor to the success of your firm, you will have to develop your persuasion skills and become comfortable taking a position and selling it.

Despite these words of caution, many of the journalists have successfully transitioned into public relations and thrived in their new environments.  As long as you look carefully before you leap, you should not be shy about positioning yourself as a valuable addition to a PR firm.  The agencies you talk to already know that you bring something special to the table. It never hurts to remind them.

Does anyone have other thoughts/suggestions/warnings for journalists making the move to PR? Share them, please!

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