More than a few journalists now are contemplating making the move into public relations, sometimes out of necessity, and other times it’s a grass-is-greener kind of thing.
There are many ways to make the transition, from working as a freelance writer or a digital content creator, to going full tilt, taking the plunge as a public relations professional.
If you are a journalist thinking about a career in PR, here are some things you should know.
If you do, you’re only seeing a fraction of what PR people do, and that’s the media relations outreach component.
Whether you deem it difficult or not, effective or not, what you are not likely to see is that a PR person’s interaction with you may not be the most important part of their day. To be sure, it’s not their job to let you know this.
In fact, if they are doing their job well, you should feel like meeting your needs is all that matters to them. That’s not phony. It’s professionalism. Just like a doctor, lawyer or management consultant, they truly do have to put your needs front and center once they’ve gotten to the point where they are talking to you.
Still, given the breadth of their other, non-media responsibilities, there is a good chance that call to you isn’t the most important thing they have to do on that day.
This is more than simply equating media exposure to business results.
A good public relations professional has to have a pretty deep understanding of how business strategy supersedes simply getting publicity to raise awareness. A good public relations plan is tied to a good business plan, which includes a tight marketing or corporate communications strategy. These plans should all balance the public good with business objectives.
They are interdependent to the extent that what a reporter might think is just a quick request may not be so simple when viewed from the other side. The SEC and other regulators that have to be considered, not to mention, non-disclosure agreements, legal risks and other issues that could come to play even when all the reporter may want to know is, “How many people do you plan to hire this year in Toledo?”
Yes, you may have some very good experience selling story ideas to your editors, and that’s a great and transferrable skill in PR.
But here’s a key difference.
An editor is usually looking for a way to get something in front of the public. That’s not often the case on the PR side.
While most organizations would welcome the visibility for a new product that only good publicity can provide, senior management is well aware of the bureaucratic hassles and risks associated with making a bad decision at any step in the planning process. For this reason alone (and there are others), PR agencies and corporate departments constantly find themselves needing to sell certain communications strategies, campaigns and programs to senior managers who may be non-plussed about the whole thing.
And even when they are excited about communication, getting them to rethink their own preconceived notions, finding budget monies, shifting organizational resources and priorities, and then getting them on board with your specific approach….well…let’s just say, that is not as easy as you may think. It’s no small thing, too, to know that your career and perhaps the careers of a few others in the organization are riding on the outcomes of your recommendations and ideas.
This may be one of the biggest misconceptions many veteran journalists have when considering what they offer when making the transition into PR. By the time they’ve gotten to this point, they’ve seen so much atrocious PR behaviors that they are convinced that most organizations lack an understanding of the media. While this may be true in some cases, for the most part it is not.
The truth is, agencies and many corporate communications departments are populated with a good share of former journalists who get it.
What they need is people like you who get it, too, but someone who realizes that the role of PR is much more involved than simply meeting the needs of reporters. It’s not that simple. This can be a challenge for some, while not so difficult for others.
The public relations field is woefully deficient in the number of high-quality writers it needs to do its job. It needs people who can write journalistically, and on deadline. Further, the field needs people who know how newsrooms work, how editorial decisions are made, but it needs those same people to understand that meeting that criteria alone is not the end-all, be-all.
In other words, it needs good writers who understand the media but know at all times that we do not work for the media. We are advocates who work in the public arena where the media serves as the fourth estate. When we all play our roles ethically and responsibly, society benefits.
If you’re a journalist contemplating a career in PR and can go into the job search process with this mindset, your journey stands a better chance of succeeding not only for you, but for your future employer.
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.
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