PR Jobs Require More than Good Writing Skills: Ex-journos find life is not so easy on ‘The Dark Side’

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Hands breaking pencilAn old joke in the PR business is that all reporters hate PR people – until they need a job. Then you’re the first person they call. Public relations would seem like a natural extension of the skills you acquire in journalism — writing, news judgment, editing and graphic design.

However, the PR business has taken a huge hit over the last few years, and many laid-off journos are finding that those PR positions, which they hoped to move into, are just not there anymore.

When the economy plunged into a recession one of the first areas that companies cut back on was marketing and public relations. In addition, when business credit dried up many companies simply could not afford the monthly retainer for a PR firm. And for the few PR jobs that do exist, journos are having to compete against recent college grads, who are often more attractive because they are cheaper to hire. In many cases these jobs have been turned into non-paying internship positions. (That is a whole column itself.)

While my business is public relations, I still managed to keep my skills sharp as a journalist. I like to think of myself as both, but pulling it off is easier said than done.  You need to use different skills sets for each job, and it can often get confusing when you switch hats. I found this out the hard way, when I was laid-off from my more recent PR job, and realized that my fall-back career industry, journalism , was in even worse shape.

Journalists are still sought after by PR agencies for their industry contacts and their ability to place stories, but some journalists have a hard time making the leap to the “dark side.”

Here are some of the reasons why and a few pointers to help you make the leap:

  • Writing a press release is different from writing a news story. Yes, a press release has many of the elements of a news story, but it needs to be considerably shorter. Long and bloated press releases get deleted. Reporters who are used to banging out 1,200-word articles might have a hard time dealing with these new restrictions. Also, a press release has to portray the client in the best light. Reporters are used to quoting people verbatim. A good PR person learns how to pick and shape the quotes to make his client shine. PR practioners also have to master the art of pitch writing.  Many PR reps are finding that harried reporters do not have the time to wade through a press release. They just want the nugget of the story, and they will go from there.
  • Wardrobe. This is a touchy subject, but I have noticed that many reporters, especially the male ones, are very casual dressers. This may be due to their finances or the casual nature of many newsrooms. PR requires a more polished image. A PR representative is going to be meeting with CEOs who expect his counsel. He is also expected to be the face of an organization when talking to the media. This means you have to look professional, and a sharp business wardrobe helps convey that image.
  • Communications skills. It is ironic, but some reporters have very poor communications skills. I don’t know if this has to do with the nature of their job, which is high stress and requires them to be on deadline all the time, but many reporters come across as gruff. They are also used to demanding information in a confrontational way.  PR requires its practioners to have more personable skills when they are dealing with clients and members of the media. Pitching story ideas to the media is a lot like sales and, in my opinion, sales is an area most reporters are not comfortable with.
  • Ability to provide counsel. People hire a PR company, not just to write press releases and get media attention, but also to give them counsel during a time of crisis and input on marketing strategies. The job duties of a PR professional include designing strategic press campaigns that meet and support client objectives, creating strategies to deal with PR crises and crafting official statements for the media.
  • PR is more than writing press releases. When I was a reporter, my job involved writing the story and getting it in on deadline. And providing there weren’t any errors, once I turned it in on time, my job was done. But in PR there is a lot more to do than just writing the press release. The press release itself may often have to be rewritten and edited several times. Once it’s completed you still have to create a list of targeted media contacts, distribute the press release, pitch it, and follow up with phone calls to see if they plan to publish your story. And after that you still have to track the story down and make sure your client gets a copy of it. These tasks require patience and tenacity.

Life is not as easy as you think on “the Dark Side.” If you plan to make the leap, know that in order to hack it in the PR world, you will need to develop a few new skills and be able to adapt to a new atmosphere.

Manny Otiko, vice president of social and new media at Desmond & Louis PR, has worked in the public relations and journalism field for about 15 years as a journalist and a media relations specialist. His experience includes stints as a reporter at a daily newspaper, serving as a media relations specialist for a state agency and working for Southern California public relations agencies, Dameron Communications, Tobin and Associates and WunderMarx PR.

Manny has worked with clients in the public affairs, technology, education and economic development fields. He has secured coverage in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, CNN.com and Men’s Health.

Manny has been published in The Riverside Press Enterprise, The LA Sentinel, The LA Wave, The Washington Afro-Am, IE Weekly and Our Weekly. He is an active member of the Orange County chapter of PRSA, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Black Journalists’ Association of Southern California.

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  • Joy Capps

    Your blog post is dead on. But I’m viewing it with a different lens as I’m former agency, now working on the corporate side. I’ve hired journalists to come work on my team and quickly learned that the transition to corporate America is challenging for some.

    The challenge I find the most interesting is getting C-level executives to understand the time involved in all that external communications (pr and analyst relations) executes on behalf of a growing company.

  • http://twitter.com/AllieMcKenna Allison McKenna

    This is a great post. I have travelled over to “The Dark Side” and haven’t found it too diffucult as I was only in journalism for a short period of time. I do think that the foundation that a journalist has is very important to a career in PR, however there are other aspects that are just as important. Just as you suggested, PR is more than writing press releases I agree with 100% there has to be a personality in there and a sense of “know how”.

    Love this!

  • http://twitter.com/westthirdgroup West Third Group

    My very first non-newsroom job (nearly 25 years ago — ack!), I got pulled into my supervisor’s office after three days with a very blunt question: “Have you ever worked in an office?”

    Well, yeah, I’d worked in a few newsrooms and —

    “No, an office. Never mind. I can see the answer is no.”

    It hurt like hell, but it was true — newsroom time does not equal office time.

    Great post!

    • http://twitter.com/Mannyotiko Manny Otiko

      Wow that was harsh. But the supervisor was right, a news room is very different from an office.

  • http://twitter.com/Mannyotiko Manny Otiko

    Thanks for all the positive comments. It feels nice to be appreciated. Follow me on Facebook as Manny Otiko or on Twitter@mannyotiko

  • Gary

    I don’t know of any journos accustomed to banging out 1,200-word stories – 300-400 is more the norm these days. I think you’re dead on with the rest of this, especially when it comes to the appearance and demeanor of reporters. We have had them show up late or not at all, sporting bed head and smelling of alcohol when they do arrive. (I wish I was making this up, but I assure you I am not.) They don’t apologize, mumble questions, look like they’re going to nod off to sleep and then they wonder why the CEO isn’t available for comment at 5:30 on a Friday. I am a former newspaper reporter, so I understand where the arrogant attitude comes from. Still, reporters need to have some courtesy and finesse if they want to get the information they want in the long term.

  • Tonyj0145

    Manny,

    As someone who has worked 12 years as a TV journalist and five years in corporate communications and, most recently, in media relations with the Census Bureau, I can understand what you are saying and I agree with all of your points. The one point about wardrobe is especially telling. Like you say those coming off of journalist salaries don’t have the money to diversify their wardrobe. When I worked at the bureau my personal rule of thumb was suit and tie (no sports jackets) Monday through Thursday and business casual on Friday. The other former journalists who worked with me were casually dressed every day. When they asked why I wore a suit every day I told them that if you want to be respected in what you do you must look the part. Great article and a must read for anyone in or out of the business!

  • http://twitter.com/Asher8072 Jon Stone

    Manny,

    As an account executive at an agency I agree that strong and concise writing skills are essential. However, my approach to the craft of PR sometimes takes a more statistical and technology-related direction. Just as many reporters are now becoming a ‘one stop shop’ for pre and post production (blogging, web design, research, interviewing, audio/video editing, copywriting, desktop publishing, etc) PR practitioners must be tech savvy. Knowledge in the latest blog creation tools (basic HTML doesn’t hurt either), graphics editing software, social media tracking apps, RSS readers, and some metrics and analytics methods are like a “utility belt” for PR. Pitching and securing that ever elusive “ink” is still the name of the game, but effectively monitoring and measuring today’s information overload is how I spot trends and stay ahead of nascent stories. It is as close as we can come to predicting the future and reading reporters’ & editors’ minds.

    Cheers,
    Jon Stone
    @Asher8072

  • news journo

    Just bite your tongue on this one Stephanie. Real hard! Calm down and then send Manny a message. But not now. Newspaper journo

  • http://pharma-ink.com MarianCutler

    Trying to figure out if I owe @mhuckman an apology or not based on this post. While I’ve never been a journalist, having been in PR for 20+ years now–both agency and client side–I have yet to understand anyone referring to this job I love as “the dark side”. I’ve been known to be too literal, a characteristic I own, but I just can’t get a handle on what people see in public relations that is evil. Adding it up and comparing to our sister industry — advertising — it ends up being one more path where we get in our own way fighting for credibility and respect.

    So, @mhuckman you might be right, senior PR folks are the worst offenders of this slip of tongue. Sadly.

    @mariancutler

  • Steve Earl

    6. They may find that their new colleagues have sod all idea what an apostrophe is.

  • http://twitter.com/LewisTaylorVox Lewis Taylor

    Good post. I made the shift from journalism to PR two years ago and I’m still making adjustments. Our editor recently scrubbed the word “stagnant” from one of my news releases. “But it’s a classic newspaper word,” I told her. “Too negative,” she said. She was right. Journalism skills can be applied to PR, but they need to be tweaked and ex-journos need to acquire new skills. We’re not just writing for newspapers anymore.

  • Rob Holderness

    This is a great article. I just made the transition from the newsroom to a PR firm. It’s definitely different. The attire subject really hit home. I used to be a sports journalist, so – especially on days when I was covering high school football – I would wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, sometimes even work boots if it was going to be muddy. Besides my press badge, I looked no different than most of the fans.

    When I started working in PR, I had to go shopping for slacks and nice shirts. Now my jeans are just sitting in my closet.

    A few weeks ago, I went to the state capitol to take notes on a meeting. There I felt under-dressed in normal PR work attire (slacks and nice button-up shirt), so I went home at lunch and put on the suit and tie. I felt much more comfortable. If I had worn the same thing to the sports desk, they probably would have asked me where my job interview was.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a former TV reporter but now I’ve been in the PR industry for over seven years and love it. You’re right there is so much more to PR than just writing. Depending on what campaigns you’re working on you might be asked to do a variety of things like set up events, give presentations, set up a Web page, blog, edit a video, media buying, be a spokesperson, and the list goes on and on. A journalist just gets the facts and interviews and writes the story. PR is a little more dynamic because you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. Check out my Web site http://www.adrianagallegos.com

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