Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Why former journalists thrive in PR
A few years ago, before I transitioned into the corporate communications world that would be my career for the rest of my life, I was a newspaper reporter. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than writing hard news and in-depth analyses for a newspaper. The transition to corporate communications wasn’t easy. It took a while to understand that I was no longer a watchdog, but rather I was working to further my employer’s business goals. True, I continued to use many of the skills I’d acquired as a journalist; I still use those skills today.. But while the skills apply it is not all about journalism.
Nevertheless, the other day i happened to meet one of the top CEO's in the country and he stated strongly that he would never hire a former journalist to do employee communications because reporters know only how to report; they are reactive.
In my day to day work I always meet former news reporters in the PR industry,whose responsibilities go beyond media relations and other externally-focused communications. But one story that we always share is that,those doing media relations need to do more than put themselves in a reporter’s shoes; they need to have worn those shoes…I’m not saying that only former journalists can be great at media relations. What I am saying is that the likelihood of a former journalist making some of the basic media relations mistakes is slim.
It would be easy to make analogies here suggesting that anybody who deals with a particular audience needs to have once worked in that audience’s field (e.g., to be an effective crime reporter, you need to have pursued law). But that response skirts the issue, which is that public relations practitioners need to be trained to understand their audiences. The problem with agencies sending lame press releases to reporters whose beats are far afield of the releases’ subject matter aren’t making this mistake because they’ve never been reporters. They’re making the mistake because they haven’t been taught what will offend a reporter or piss him off. Pollard suggests “PR neophytes without journalism experience can learn media relations via baptism by fire.” No such baptism is required if their schooling includes an understanding of what reporters want and don’t want.
Looking for journalism backgrounds, though, could actually hinder public relations efforts that are getting far more conversational and much less one-way, top-down (for instance, the ability to participate in a blogospheric conversation). And strategic public relations isn’t necessarily about media relations, which, while it will never go away as an element of PR, is certainly diminishing in overall importance.
One of the benefits of hiring a journalist is that you’ll get a communicator who can write. I’m routinely shocked to hear about another PR graduate who went through an entire four-year degree program without having to take a single writing class. But any entry-level PR job candidate should be subjected to a writing test, and there are plenty of communicators without journalism backgrounds who can write the socks off of many journalists.
Obviously, I have nothing against the many former journalists in the PR industry, since I used to be one myself. But I do resist the notion that it should be a prerequisite to a PR job