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Write Stuff: 15 pieces of advice for journalists heading to a career in PR

So, what is the difference was between journalism and PR? I’ve stopped and asked myself the question this week. I’ve been thinking of how to explain the difference.

For 12-years I was a journalist and rose to become assistant chief reporter of a daily regional newspaper. Back then I would have told you that the difference was news was everything they don’t want you to know. The rest is PR, I’d have said.

Eight years on and director of my own company I know the difference is more to it than that just a lack of shouting news editors and no double murders.

The truth is that if there was a Venn diagram, there would be surprising little between the two. At best, it’s a common use of the English language and the knowledge that news is people. And people like to read about people.

Here are 15 differences

A yardstick of success. As a journalist, your measure is if you’ve got the front page. Failing that, it’s a healthy number of pageleads. As a comms person, it’s a number of things. Chiefly, being able to show the material difference your content has made. The number of foster carers recruited, for example.

Criticism. I say this with love, knowing journalists will take umbrage. There is nobody so thin skinned as a journalist. I knew this when I was one. I know it now too. As a comms person you are like a sniper in no man’s land. Under fire from all sides. Your organisation and those outside will throw things at you.

Professional regard. Journalists are special. Not trusted, especially. But special. They have a Press bench and a Press pass. Doors open. Comms people have a daily battle to have their opinion listened to. Solicitors? Planning inspectors? Doctors? Their word is law. But anyone with spell check and clipart thinks they are a comms person.

Audience. A journalist, in the words of a former colleague only half in jest ‘tries to make old people scared to leave their homes.’ They used to have one main channel. Like the printed newspaper or radio bulletin. Now they have to use more. A comms person needs to know as many of the 40 different skills as possible.

Skills. While the reporter needs more skills now than ever the PR or comms person needs to draw either individually or across a team of 40.

Diplomacy. A journalist can smile politely and ask why the chief executive has failed to build 100 homes on time. A comms person needs the tact to talk through the implications of how that failure will play out and suggest a course of action.

There are no jacks under it. As a journalist, I’d be encouraged to make a story a bit more exciting by ‘putting the jacks under it.’ Outrage, slam, row. As a comms person you play it straight. You stick to the facts which are always sacred.

Accuracy. Now, here’s a thing. I was more accurate as a PR person than a journalist. There. I’ve said it. The news desk request to write a story to fit a pre-determined idea is a thing. I’ve done it. In comms and PR you need to be certain of your ground or you become the story.

A difference. A journalist can try and make a difference by holding power to account. A comms person can make a difference by drawing up the right content in the right place at the right time.

Planning. Long term planning on newspapers was often tomorrow. The concept of a comms plan to work out the business priority, the audience and the channel is alien.

Obsolescence. The journalist suffers from being in an industry whose business model is being re-invented and as a result there are casualties. Comms as an area is developing.

Hours. Long hours to make sure the paper is filled are common on newspapers – who are often renamed media companies. Hours in comms and PR are long. But it’s rare to be stood outside a burning factory in Smethwick, I find.

Writing. Just because you can write for a newspaper doesn’t mean you can write for the web. Or Facebook or Snapchat.

Your employer and your ethics. You bat for your employer as  a PR person. But you bat for your ethics first. At times you have to know your ground and say a firm ‘no’.

Innovation. There can’t be a more exciting time to be a comms person than now. The internet has tipped up old certainties. The tools we can use are evolving and the guidebook on how to use them you can write yourself. How good is that?

Like many former journalists, I admire good journalism. But don’t anyone think that being a reporter and being a press officer or a PR person are remotely the same.

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4 comments on “Write Stuff: 15 pieces of advice for journalists heading to a career in PR
  1. Many a true word is spoken in jest – thanks for this comparative feature. And for making me laugh out loud with your long hours for journalists v PR comment that ‘it’s rare to be stood outside a burning factory in Smethwick, I find.’

  2. Lesley Muir says:

    This is a great article and I agree with the points but would like to propose another. One of the peculiarities of a PR/comms role vs journalism is having to take a ‘boundary spanning’ role, whereby you have to simultaneously represent the interests of multiple stakeholders. For example, if you are in a media relations role, you have to be able to reflect on what the journalists’ needs are and translate that to the client or company you are working for. They may have unrealistic expectations of what’s achievable and you need to be able to represent both sides and achieve a conclusion that’s of benefit to both sides. That’s not easy to achieve and in my experience people always underestimate the range of skills you need to be an effective PR.

  3. Ali Bell says:

    Tru dat, Dan Slee!

  4. Ex-journo, current pedant and comms chap says:

    Think someone needs to sub-edit this…Dan should know what a sub is….
    This is the problem with PR and communications – there is a genuine lack of professionalism, which is illustrated when you have a piece of writing that has typos like ‘snspchat’, and poorly constructed sentences. Do you need to ‘know your ground’ as advocated in the article, or ‘stand your ground’ as most people know the phrase?
    Getting the basics right are the only way PR and communications will ever get the respect it rightly deserves

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