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

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, 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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