Four Reasons Former Journalists Make Great PR People
For a generation, journalists stayed “in the game” until retirement. In fact, I used to joke that I would leave broadcasting when they pried the microphone out of my cold, dead hand.
These days, that’s the exception and not the rule. Therefore, many of us (hi there) end up as PR people, writing and pitching story ideas like Nolan Ryan for the Houston Astros in the mid-80s.
On the surface, journalists transitioning to the PR world could seem very drastic. As a reporter, I spent weeks chasing some stories. I spent a day doing nothing but trail NBA Commissioner David Stern around to various meetings as the NBA prepared to return to the Big Easy in early 2002. I was following the story in the very literal sense. Now, the nature of my work is to be the one steering the narrative, as opposed to chasing it.
At the same time, the more things change, the more they actually stay the same. Any good journalist knows not only how to write, but how to write well, build relationships, and be strategic in telling a story.
1. We Know How to Engage the Audience.
I worked for WWL-Radio in New Orleans for three years. During that time, I built relationships with dozens of spokespeople from a wide variety of agencies and outlets. One of those was then-St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman James Hartman. He was the first PR person to send me a release that made me laugh to the point of tears.
Hartman knew how to craft a strong press release, even for minor-league crimes like the thefts of port-a-lets (“Deputies Seek Purloined Potty”) or the disappearance of a rare exotic bird from a pet store.
(yes, this is real: courtesy of St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, Covington, LA)
Were these stories particularly meaty? No. But they definitely got our collective attention through an engaging and often hilarious headline.
Journalists in any medium get literally hundreds of press releases, pitches, story ideas, etc. every day. Often, the media alerts go onto a calendar with little further thought until the day of the press event arrives. Hartman’s use of humor often sparked our interest in turning these otherwise banal press releases into stories. In my current PR life, I think about the rash of purloined potties often. I know a strong story with a clever lede can hook a journalist every time.
2. We Understand Deadlines…Really Well.
Deadlines have changed significantly, thanks in large part to the lightning speed of the news cycle in the age of social media. When Michael Jackson died in 2009,. I was working as an assignment editor at a TV station in Indianapolis. Everyone was refreshing Twitter because TMZ, then not much more than entertainment gossip, had broken the story there. The story unfolded as we were opening our afternoon/early evening news broadcasts. The desk, alongside the producers, anchors, and reporters, were moving as a collective unit to get on top of what had become a breaking news story with local implications (Jackson was born in Gary). Our deadline during those few hours was every half-hour.
The sometimes breakneck pace of a newsroom conditioned me quite well for PR.
Deadlines are just as critical to our clients in the PR world. When they launch a new product or a trade show is coming up, we build a detailed plan and work as a team to hit every milestone. Admittedly, deadlines don’t hit every half-hour, but even PR has exceptions to that. A major product or company launch can and has made me feel like I was right back in the newsroom, refreshing social media and producing new deliverables at a heart-pounding pace.
3. We Are Industry-Agnostic.
Versatility is the name of the game. Some outlets still have beats assigned to specific people, like crime, the school board, or politics. More often, though, tight staffing means journalists need to be ready to write about and cover just about anything.
The same principle applies to PR agency work. We often have to switch up our style and subject matter rapid-fire throughout the day, but our strongest writers can conform to our clients’ tone and content with ease.
4. We Know the Value of Good Relationships.
Honestly, this is probably the most important point – the fence between the media and public relations does not have to be surrounded by barbed wire. A transactional relationship is still, at the end of the day, a relationship. No, you don’t have to be besties. But, since you are collaborating on something that has a similar outcome for both sides, why not work together? I’ve learned how to approach my former peers in the media in a way that respects their deadlines and needs. In return, they respect the quality of the information and access I can provide.
The reality is newsrooms are far smaller than they used to be. Ex-journalists like me who have joined the PR world can play an important role in helping my former peers fulfill their missions. Don’t worry – I’m still holding onto the microphone. I am just standing on the other side.