Like many PRs, I originally cut my teeth as a journalist before moving to the dark side. As I close in on my sixth year in PR, I’ll soon have been involved in the industry for longer than I was in journalism, including my time studying at university and completing my post-grad.
There’s no arguing that I’m thoroughly entrenched on the dark side by now, but I’m still using all the skills I learnt studying and on the job as a journalist to inform my work in PR every day.
PR and journalism have always been very symbiotic, and being on the other side of the fence brings a lot of valuable experience in key areas.
I spent a couple of years working as a reporter and feature writer for a magazine centred on the exciting world of recycling in the printing industry – the kind of title the word “niche” was invented for. Our inboxes were always bombarded with a huge amount of irrelevant emails from PRs, from an exclusive new look at a dog waste recycling solution to an invitation to a conference about plankton.
These days I know that my old magazine falls under both the technology and environmental categories in databases like Gorkana. The steady stream of weird emails was the result of lazy PRs simply selecting these industries and firing off their pitches and press releases without bothering to check who was on the receiving end. One of the key areas PRs should be adding value for their clients is their knowledge of the media, and any PR worth their salt should be taking the time to research their targets. A flood of irrelevant emails unfortunately makes journalists less likely to pay attention to anything else appearing in their overcrowded inbox.
Another key skill for a PR is to understand what makes a good news story and provide the journalists with all the components they need to write a piece, from stats and background info to access to comments and interesting spokespeople. As a journalist, even when I did receive industry-relevant content, it was still common to see press releases and statements that were just marketing fluff with no real value. This approach is all too common in any industry, and again leads to frustrated journalists ignoring their inboxes – or even worse for the PR, turning to social media with some choice sarcastic comments. At éclat, we focus on providing journalists with interesting content that will make for great stories for their readers, and leave the marketing fluff and corporate non-stories out.
Behind the editorial desk
Aside from any specific activity, walking in a journalist’s shoes also provides a useful knowledge of what it’s like on the other side of the editorial process. In particular, timing for getting in touch with stories is very important if a PR hopes to make it into the news cycle rather than the deleted folder. Online journalism means there is a constant deadline and pressure to report fast, so keeping things simple and minimising distractions and complications will always be valuable. Magazine production is also very time-intensive, so if a journalist tells a PR they’re busy because it’s press week, they really mean it. On-going issues with staff reduction in many sectors of the press coupled with more demand to gain clicks and subscriptions means that most journalists feel overworked, so a little empathy goes a long way. Those PRs who understand what a journalist is going through will not only have a better chance of landing great coverage for their client, but will also forge better relationships with their press contacts.
On the other hand…
Just as journalists are frequently aggravated by thoughtless PRs, a reporter can just as easily cause headaches for a PR team. Looking back, I can think on several times where I must have had PRs rolling their eyes or reaching for a stress toy. I recall one particular company I had regular contact with where I’d often go around the press agency to contact the CEO directly because it was generally much faster that way. As far as I was concerned, I was just completing my copy more efficiently, but I now realise the PRs must have been tearing their hair out as they desperately tried to get back into the loop and prove their value.
While journos and PRs have always been interdependent, the era of 24-hour news means there is less time and more pressure on both sides to work together smoothly. Bringing experience from one industry to the other can be hugely valuable, but those who have never hopped the fence will be greatly rewarded by taking the time to understand how their counterparts work.