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Being Bullish On Journalists Joining Communications Firms

Josh Cobden

If you’ve paid any attention to the journalism profession over the last few years, you’ll know it’s not a happy story. For several years now, newspaper reporters have made CareerCast’s annual list of endangered jobs, alongside mail carriers, meter readers, farmers and other waning professions. I doubt it’s much better for broadcast journalists, and it’s probably worse for those in magazines.

Working in a communications firm, I see this first hand when media people I regularly contact are suddenly “downsized,” beats disappear, or entire shows or outlets are unceremoniously shuttered. I have also had an uptick in calls from former journos (or worried journos) who want to talk about PR. Having spent much of my career trying to get the attention of journalists, I take no pleasure from this role reversal and their difficult situation. Quite the opposite.

I admire what journalists do greatly, and I’m the son of a career newsman who later became a journalism professor. I want journalists who find themselves on the wrong side of their company’s balance sheet to land successfully. And while a lot of smug and discouraging advice has been dispensed by PR people to journalists seeking a change, I’m bullish on journalists who understand the changes occurring in modern media, because this equips them well for the changes occurring at modern PR firms. So, to the modern-minded journalist meeting with a communication firm to explore opportunities, I respectfully offer these tips:

Look beyond media relations. Journalists have many of the skills required to excel at media relations: most notably, an understanding of newsworthiness, strong listening and observation skills, and a knack for distilling dense subject matter in clear and engaging prose. Since media relations play a much smaller role in PR than it used to, be sure to explain how these skills apply to more than just getting a client in the news.

Demonstrate your familiarity with modern communications approaches. Many journalists now produce and file content in different formats across different media and platforms. They hold a growing knowledge of audience insight and segmentation, and how these audiences consume, engage with and share content. Similarly, they understand how digital marketing tactics can be measured using data analytics. These skills are increasingly important in PR, so talk about them.

Understand the role of pay-for-play.  While media outlets should maintain a wall between editorial and advertorial, many journalists will be familiar with native ads, sponsored content, custom publishing and other options available from their advertising departments. Similarly, many know about banner ads, page takeovers, social media strategy and audience retargeting. Show a PR firm your edge – your first-hand, insider perspective of how this works within a media outlet. Your understanding of the “paid” and “owned” approaches that many of us are now using in addition to traditional “earned” tactics will impress.

Harness your skepticism and curiosity.  Skepticism and curiosity are fundamental to good journalism, and showing how you will apply these traits to PR will go a long way. For example, at times in PR we must be skeptical and challenge our clients’ naturally-biased view of themselves, their brands and their products to prepare them for what they will face in the public eye. We must also protect our own reputation by being certain that what we are promoting stands up to scrutiny. Similarly, given the diverse range of clients many of us serve and the new skills we need to constantly acquire to do our job, it helps to be a naturally curious person.

Showcase your optimism and creativity. Some say that skepticism versus optimism is, in fact, the dividing line between journalism and PR. I disagree. An inspired journalist is optimistic that he or she will get the scoop, inform the audience and create positive change. Similarly, when handed a bland story assignment or one being covered by a trove of competitors, great journalists stand out by using creative approaches. These traits are directly transferable to a PR assignment that may seem dull or impossible (neither of which a client wants to hear!).

Don’t settle. Occasionally, when I speak to a journalist seeking a job in PR, it’s obvious they consider it a step down. They’ll tell me they’re thinking about crossing over to “the dark side” because there aren’t many opportunities left in journalism. My advice to these folks is to stick with your calling. There will always be a need for great journalists, and there are many I hope will never call it quits.

Lastly, notwithstanding all of the big changes occurring in modern PR, one of the biggest buzzwords these days is “storytelling”. The ability to quickly capture the attention of an audience and build trust and engagement powerfully so that they come back, again and again, is what most of our clients want, and a key measure of success. And if that isn’t a ready-made opportunity for journalists, I don’t know what is.

If you are a PR professional or a journalist, I would be interested in your views. Do you have differing or additional advice or experience to share? I welcome your comments.