Help me cross over to the dark side!
April 11, 2014 5:49 AM   Subscribe

After 15 years or so working as a journo/editor on niche technical magazines, I am considering a move to the PR/communications sector...

I know this is a fairly common career move for journos, but would love to hear everyone's experiences – how you managed to change over, what challenges you faced, what surprised you most about newly working in PR.

I am from the UK so British experiences would be ideal but international is fine too. Thanks!
posted by low_horrible_immoral to Work & Money (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, don't call it the "dark side" -- it can irritate the flacks. Oh wait, don't use flacks either.
Also, read up on PR theory.
~ PR person - former journalist.
posted by Lescha at 6:59 AM on April 11, 2014

When you say "PR/communications sector," where do you see yourself working? There are PR people at private companies, at nonprofits, at universities, at agencies -- and I would guess the experience is different for all of them.

In my experience, PR and journalism are so different in practice that unless you want to be a PR person who focuses specifically on media (i.e., does the pitching, maintains the journo relationships, etc.), your media chops may be less valuable than your tech editing chops. There are many, many journalists in the world, but there aren't a ton of people who are great at taking difficult/technical information and converting it to something readable and understandable. That, to me, is the soul of public relations and public affairs.

(Also, I know it's a joke, but agreed on the whole "don't call it the dark side" thing. PR is probably a lot more boring than you imagine.)

Source: 8 years' PR experience, 5 at a world-leading agency.
posted by harperpitt at 9:59 AM on April 11, 2014

I made this move, and life is so much lighter on the dark side (and I regularly hear both journos and PRs using the phrase quite happily).

I went from being a news reporter on a city evening paper to being a digital/press officer for an organisation which had previously pitched stories to me, given me quotes etc, so there was already a familiarity there. In fact, when I was a reporter and had first met their PR woman for a coffee, I'd thought "Ooh, I'd love her job", and then one day about a year later one of her colleagues phoned me about something work-related and mentioned that she'd left. I contacted him from outside work and asked if they were replacing her, then applied.

Other things that smoothed the way: It's an organisation dealing with a subject I'm interested in personally, as well as having a lot of overlap with one of my areas of reporting; at some point around the time I was switching (can't remember if it was before, during or after the recruitment process) they pitched me a story and I got a splash out of it, which was good for all of us.

A lot of my work now is membership-facing, and for a semi-public body rather than a commercial organisation, so it’s not particularly hard-core PR – I think YMMV greatly in other types of PR job.

I think if you've always been a hack you don't realise how specific the working culture of journalism is. Outside the newsroom, it turns out (at least in my experience):

1. People don't swear very much.
2. People don't complain about each other sincerely and audibly within one another's earshot and then turn round and just carry on working alongside each other.
3. People are not as funny (see also points 1 and 2).
4. People feel that they are busy when they've got several things to do this week, rather than when they've got 20 things to do now and won't get to go home tonight until every single one is done, plus another 6 things that their boss gives them at the time they really ought to be leaving.
6. You get a wonderful sense of rebellion from ignoring news-writing convention occasionally (see the number 6 in the sentence above. Tee hee!)
5. The office doesn’t collectively drag itself screaming through every single day in a whirlwind of crisis, desperation, panic and blame. Everyone just turns up, works calmly for a few hours, is pleasant to one another, then goes home. This is generally a marvellous thing, though I still find it strange and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that sense of urgency about my work. I just have to talk myself down sometimes and remind myself that it doesn’t matter if this gets done tomorrow morning instead of tonight. In that sense, I will always be a journalist.
6. People go home at the same time every day. Utterly extraordinary!

The last two points are completely transformative when it comes to general quality of life.

Other thoughts -

I like the fact that this is a fairly small organisation and my immediate boss here is also an ex-hack, so we share a healthy dislike of 'strategies’ etc, as opposed to just getting our heads down and doing the job. So that's one thing to look out for if you want to minimise the culture shock. (In fact, I think our CE deliberately employed two journos because he liked that directness, and he’s not about to make us spend hours writing media strategies when we could be doing things).

One nice surprise was realising how much expertise I had. After years of working as a journo, learning on the job from junior reporter upwards, I didn't notice how much I was learning. Now I find myself working with people who can’t write in plain English, don't intuitively know what to say/what not to say to the press, etc, and I realise I am an expert. Who knew? Occasionally (because I’m still a narky journalist at heart) I find myself about to be a little short with people when they are being clueless about these things, then I remember that I wouldn’t have a job if they knew how to do them.

Oh, and the word counts are much more relaxed...
posted by penguin pie at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've done this.

My question is, where are you located? If you are in a town with lots of head offices, or a government town, it will be easier.

The thing to stress much more than your writing ability is your social network and ability to connect with editors etc.

Issues management is another one.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:04 AM on April 11, 2014

I've done this. It's been a positive change, overall. My last job in journalism was producing international news (all desk-based, I didn't get to travel). It mostly involved rolling deadlines, very little sleep, lots of adrenalin, and, endless horrible images coming in via satellite feed. Getting out of that role was a bit like I was losing religious faith, or at least faith in a particular church. I mean, I still believe that true stories are a powerful way to inspire public empathy for the suffering of others. But I realised that what I was doing wasn't really furthering such lofty goals; people don't need updated death tolls from a particularly gruesome disaster, every hour, on the hour. I wasn't saving the world by sitting behind a desk, cutting the words of grieving mothers into punchy 10-second sound bites. All those little surges of adrenaline were about things that would literally be forgotten by listeners within months or weeks of broadcast. Eventually I did what many colleagues had done before me - so many, in fact, that it had become a sort of catchphrase in the newsroom: "Fuck this, I'm going to work for a non-profit".

Penguin pie is right about the differences in workplace culture. Conflict still happens, but it tends to be hidden beneath day to day pleasantries, rather than exploding in phone-slamming, desk-pounding anger. There's also a lot more vagueness and obfuscation - you will be reading a lot of emails, memos and reports written by people who haven't had "Get to the fucking point" drilled into them from day one. I found the prevalence of corporate jargon kind of soul-sucking after a while - do we really have to "cover off on" the latest media coverage? Can't we just "talk about" it? Do you really need a five-page strategy document from me before I write a press release and start calling journalists? One of the things I liked about the newsroom was that people usually said what they meant; you can't bullshit when you're surrounded by journalists who are trained to call you out on it. At the non-profit, I often found myself sitting in meetings, resisting the urge to interrupt interminably dull strategy discussions with a plain-english summary of what people actually seemed to be trying to say. Similarly, my journalistic tendency to say things in the most straightforward way possible sometimes worked against me; high-level managers in particular seemed to take me more seriously if I peppered my speech and emails with jargon and unnecessarily long words.

Watch out for job creep; be clear about what is and is not in your proverbial wheelhouse. You may encounter colleagues who assume that PR, communications, marketing and advertising are interchangeable, and if you're not careful, all of those tasks will become "your problem". My own skills lie in issues management, media liaison, social media and member communications, and I was clear about that when hired into a role that covered exactly those functions. The organisation was undergoing a lot of internal change, and within a few months, I was being asked to do things like: commission a TV advertisement, acquire airtime for said TV advertisement, fix the usability and information architecture of a website, organise the printing of T-shirts, hire promotional staff to wear said T-shirts while handing out brochures, commission a graphic designer to update said brochures, et cetera, et cetera. Some of those things I did anyway, because it was a non-profit and sometimes we really didn't have anyone more qualified to do the task. Other times, I had to say, "Look, this is a marketing problem. You need a marketing specialist, and that is really not what I do".

When we did have marketing staff, I was often surprised by their poor understanding of journalistic culture. I had to explain, for example, why sending "gifts" like cupcakes and logo-ed pens to the newsroom of a public broadcaster was not going to get us better coverage on the TV news. And why it would be inappropriate to discuss discounted advertising space while pitching a story to a newspaper journalist. And why it wasn't okay to use "fudged" participation figures in marketing copy when I was already using the honest ones in my press releases. I ended up leaving that organisation when my job was restructured to report directly to the marketing manager. This is something I'm quite particular about when seeking new roles; I want to report either to a senior PR/communications manager (preferably someone with a journalism background) or directly to the manager of whatever service or program I'm trying to get media coverage for. I'll happily collaborate with marketing staff, but I prefer not to be their subordinate.

Despite all this, I think leaving the newsroom has made me a happier and kinder person. Journalists use gallows humour to get through the day, but over time I think it builds into a sort of callousness that overflows into everyday life. No longer working crazy shifts has allowed me to develop more of a social life and commit to regular volunteer work, which I have found really fulfilling. And penguin pie is right about realising just how much you know. Journalism can be so hyper-competitive that people often end up doing work that's below their true skill level. When I left, it took a while for me to adjust to being the most knowledgable person in the room, at least when it came to writing and dealing with the media.
posted by embrangled at 10:04 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

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