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June 15, 2022
There are plenty of good reasons to hire journalists into the communications profession: they can write, they know what makes for a great news story, and they usually have plenty of media contacts. And at a time when workers are in short supply, media outlets continue to shrink their staffs, disgorging legions of trained reporters who are searching for new lines of work.
But all too frequently, the process goes off the rails. Without the right mindset, the right people skills and the right expectations, the new hire may never adapt to his or her new career. And supervisors must recognize that the transition will take time, patience and a willingness to teach.
For PR executives thinking about hiring journalists, here are five essential questions to consider:
Faced with the prospect of a career in public relations, some journalists suffer from “the fallen angel complex.” Never mind that public relations professionals make 35% more income on average than journalists. And forget that top-flight communicators are highly valued in business, government and at non-profits. By an ancient credo of the journalist guild, going into PR is a step downward.
“We thought of ourselves as guardians of democracy, the high priests of the truth,” says Tom Abate, a veteran Silicon Valley reporter at The San Francisco Chronicle who left journalism to become an associate director of communications at Stanford University. “I can remember on my first day of work at my new job thinking, ‘I have sold out.’ “
In addition, while practitioners of both professions have high regard for the truth (or at least should have), the journalist must now adapt to using truth and facts for the purpose of advocacy. It means a more subjective approach to telling a narrative and taking a point of view. This is often a hard transition for a daily beat reporter to make.
The culture of public relations is far different from the culture of the newsroom. Newsrooms radiate a constant sense of urgency, and management exercises limited control of its reporters. It is great that journalists are self-starters. But in PR they must suddenly adopt to a slower tempo, longer-term goals and closer supervision. Journalists must also be able to sublimate their personal glory for the more anonymous rewards of working on a successful team.
Public relations is a service industry where courtesy, tact and appreciation for who is paying the bills goes a long way. Reporters are professional questioners of authority with finely-honed skills in the arts of interrogation. They often find this new way of relating hard to master.
In addition, newly arrived journalists must have the modesty to start from scratch in learning skills as varied as maintaining a budget, managing a team, and eventually pitching new business. Finally, the newly minted PR practitioner must deal with many kinds of stakeholders simultaneously.
Work in public relations can also mean working in a more corporate setting, where personal appearance is more highly valued than in the hurly-burly of a newsroom. And appearances matter in another way: every document and presentation must be flawless before it goes to the client. There is no copy desk or rewrite desk to save the PR professional from a factual error, a misspelling or a sloppy slide.
Not all journalists are alike. The particular fit between a journalist’s background and the needs of the organization doing the hiring is crucial.
For example, a firm that is involved in complex financial transactions and litigation may want to seek reporters who can do a deep dive into legal or technical documents, quickly analyze what they have read, and pick out salient points. A firm that represents consumer products or celebrities, by contrast, may prize totally different skill sets.
“A smart, analytical journalist can make a great communications professional,” says Lou Colasuonno, a former editor-in-chief of The New York Post who is now a communications executive at FTI Consulting. “But even the smartest, kick-butt journalist is going to take more time than a coffee break to learn this craft. A successful transition is going to take training and time.”
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About the author
Peter Kerr is a Senior Content Director at Bospar PR who is expert in conveying complex issues in language a layman can understand. An award-winning former reporter for The New York Times and communications executive, Kerr now writes content for clients ranging from press releases to op-eds, magazine articles and books. His areas of specialization include health tech, life sciences and AI.