Rules from the "light side": one writer's journey from journalism to PR and back to journalism again

Rules from the "light side": one writer's journey from journalism to PR and back to journalism again

When my dot com employer filed Ch. 11 in April, 2001, I decided I’d had it with journalism (or at least freelance work) and took the first well-paying offer I received: a lofty staff writing gig with a Sixth Avenue PR firm. This meant packing up for New York and leaving my disinterested carpenter boyfriend behind in Ventura, Calif.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make, yet my conscience-in the guise of one of my producers-resonated.

“Why are you doing this??” M asked at the time. This is the same producer-cum-editor who’d hailed my reporting on proposed death tax repeal as “the best reporting you’ve ever done!”

I told him my salary and asked if it did anything for him.

“It doesn’t do anything for me,” he said. 

Lessons from my time on the "dark side:"

I didn’t last too long in PR, but I’d like to think I learned a thing or two in that Manhattan highrise:

  • It’s all about placement, baby... I had come from the “light” side, as a hack, and as such I was not accustomed to worrying about whether or not I could position something in the New York Daily News or New York Magazine. I was worried about grammar, syntax and getting my facts straight. All of that’s important, but not if/when it means losing clients.
  • And the right pumps. In my pajamas, banging out a story on dancing staplers or rogue Republicans, I could be anyone I wanted to be. Or at least dress like her. But on the Avenue of the Americas I needed to up my game. I invested in a smart cream suit and sling-back pumps. Good move. I’d need them for job interviews- a little sooner than I had planned.
  • At the end of the day, know your place and how to get there. For my six weeks in PR, I was lost-literally. New to New York, I couldn’t even find my way from Grand Central to Sixth and 52nd without ending up at the United Nations. If you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, please do some soul searching. The last thing they need in PR is someone sweating their way through the big pitch.

Back to journalism: rules for PR pros:

Happily, I was able to reorient my internal GPS and get back to my passion, journalism. And having spent some time in PR- which actually includes one year as a secretary with Ketchum in San Francisco, during which time I wrote for their newsletter-I actually became a better journalist.

Why? Because too many reporters are so cocky with their five W’s and one H that they aren’t adapting to the new journalism. This does not mean lying and stealing your way into the headlines, but rather noticing when, say, newspapers are passé but Netflix and YouTube are cool. And over the past decade I’ve had a birdseye view of what and whom I like about PR, informed by those few weeks working in the industry:

Here’s what you should remember:

  • Spell journalists’ names right and don’t give us nicknames. About 30 percent of the time, a public relations professional calls me “Laura”. My given name is Laurie. Laurie is not a nickname. Laurie is also the name on my Gmail address so why are you not calling me by it? And heaven forbid, don’t call me “Laur.” Not even my family calls me that, and they’ve known me quite a while.
  • Please don’t put 37 people on a call when I’ve only agreed to speak to you and your source. This happens to me all the time. And I always wonder who trained these people not to ask a polite, “Do you mind if Miss Smithers, Mr. Henpeck and Joy Jenniwickle join us on the call?”
  • Keep your pitches short. Do unto others, and all of that. By short I mean one page, and ideally, two or three punchy paragraphs.
  • Do not, I repeat, do NOT send me something that is not related to my original query. If I post on Profnet for an expert on radio-frequency identification in advertising, I am not asking for responses on smart car keys or billboards controlled by robots. And do not use my query as an opportunity to try and sell me on your agenda. Not only won’t it work, but I won’t forget you and how annoyed you made me.
  • That said, don’t obsequiously kiss my fanny. That’s also a turnoff. Just follow the four bullets above.
  • Be genuine. I hate phonies. I actually believe most PR pros are good people who are just naturally sunny. Nothing wrong with that. Just don’t promise me something you can’t deliver.
  • Which leads to this point: do not waste my time. I don’t want five emails asking me for sample questions and leading me on with words like “this sounds like a go, but let me double-check” only to later send me an email saying it’s a pass. Yes or no? One email. You do realize freelance journalists are paid by the story, right? (And I have “Dancing with the Stars” to watch!)
  • If I ask to speak to an expert-be she a scientist or businesswoman-I am not asking to speak to you. This does not mean I think you’re subhuman. It means I know you don’t know a darn thing about particle physics or climate change in the Antarctic. 
  • Be fun and likeable. One of my best friends in New York was a publicist I met on the job. Everyone loved her, so of course I was no exception. Not only was she a PR genius, but she made everyone feel special, with humor and grace. 
  • Finally, don’t be a pest. Don’t send too many follow-up emails or put me on some mailing list I didn’t agree to. Don’t turn my name over to your marketing department for phone calls every third week. Don’t call my cell when I’ve emailed you for information. I think we all realize in these days of juggling projects and clients, most people don’t want to play phone tag when a simple email will do.

Have you worked in both journalism and PR? What lessons or rules would you add to this list? Share in the comments below.

Laurie Wiegler is a freelance science, technology and mainstream journalist with credits from Slate, MIT Technology Review, Entrepreneur, Victorian Homes, Yankee, Time Out New York, Examiner.com, About.com, RFIDinsider, Prague Post, IEEE Spectrum, E&T, Scientific American and many other publications. Contact Laurie on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Rules list via Shutterstock

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1 Comment

Ellen Muraskin   •   9¬†months, 2¬†weeks ago

I've worked on both sides of the narrowing Great Divide, and I have a small rule for PR folk that applies to what survives in print: If you want a copy of the story you've succeeded in seeding, put a note in your task manager to ask your writer again when it actually appears. She may agree to send you one, but if that's a week or a month (or face it, a day) down the road her head is probably far into her next assignment. Better yet, ask her for the publisher contact you really need to get the copy.

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