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From Journalism to PR
From Journalism to PR

By Patty Mattern

 

For 13 years, I went to my door, retrieved the daily newspaper from the front step and found my byline, my stories – very good ones, good ones and some so-so ones. But each day, there in black and white I found validation, sense of accomplishment and pride. My work was realized in a very physical form.

I spent 13 years as a professional newspaper reporter and prior to that, at least 10 years as a student reporter. So, when my boss in my new job as a public relations/media relations representative told me how one of my colleagues would get so excited about placing a front page story in the daily newspaper, I thought to myself "big deal, I had front page stories all the time.” My PR awakening soon began.

In my baptism into this unfamiliar world of public relations, I soon learned the challenges of placing stories in the news media and the formidable task of managing clients who had little or no understanding of how media works. I knew little about what public relations entailed other than news releases when I entered the fray in 2002.

I exited my journalism career to escape the bad and long work hours, the high stress and the low pay – had the pay been good, long hours and stress wouldn’t have necessarily been the problem. I the left the career with a feeling of trepidation as my journalism buddies told me that I was crossing over into the dark side. I too believed more shade than light covered PR. I envisioned the sleazy PR types whose work involved hawking products to uninterested media or the ones who rushed in to save the reputation of sketchy Hollywood stars.

Well, I’m here to tell you, it isn’t dark on this side. It’s just different. And, it takes time to adjust, to shift, to let go – to transition.

I’ve never worked at a PR agency, so I’m sure my experience differs from agency PR reps. Coming to a university to do PR made the career change much more palatable to me at the time because much of what I did and do involves stories that garner media interest. Researchers here cure diseases or make discoveries that lead to advances in medicine, technology and sciences – all things that impact society.

Now, I do plead guilty to pitching non-newsworthy stories to media, but only after a client insists. Sometimes people just don’t listen to expert PR advice. They seem to think they know the best approach to communications and PR even if the PR professional advises them against their approach. Doing PR takes specialized skills much like it takes a unique set of skills to repair a car. If a car mechanic tells me that I need this specific part to fix my car, I might push back saying that is too expensive, but in the end, I trust my mechanic and I will listen to his/her advice and get it repaired. Some PR clients however can be likened to the car owner who insists that he/she knows better than the mechanic and installs an incorrect part and then wonders why the car doesn’t start.

While I know a few PR professionals tout the purist idea that only those professionally trained in public relations are equipped for the job, that’s not true in my experience. Media people who have honed their skills as journalists make good PR people. The talents developed in day-to-day journalism translate well.

Here are just afewexamples of journalism skills that translate well into the PR person’s toolkit:

  • Interpersonal communication – Journalists know how to: develop trusting relationships with sources; establish instant rapport with ordinary people who find themselves in the media spotlight because of tragic events; push for more information and manage editors who always think that just one more thing will make the story perfect. Building rapport and managing relationships sits at the center of a PR person’s job.
  • Good writing – Writing is central to a journalist’s trade and that is the same with PR.
  • Quick response – Journalists jump out of bed and can be out the door covering breaking news in a matter of minutes. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, PR people often do the same in their work.

Coming from the ranks of working journalists allows me to know more clearly where journalists are coming from and what they need because I’ve been there.

I still occasionally mourn not being in the newsroom where camaraderie rises up during the big breaking stories and everyone zeros in on the mission of getting the "best damn newspaper” out the door. But there is no shortage of adrenaline in PR.

With the budget slashing and staff cutting at newspapers, I rarely hear my journalist friends and acquatances call PR "evil” or the "dark side” anymore. Both industries continue to change more quickly than ever before. Opportunities abound for journalists switching to PR. It’s a perfect fit for journalists – people who are so adept at navigating uncertain waters and who have the ability to provide a quick work turn around.

As a PR novice, I came into this job and learned by osmosis through observing and hearing my PR colleagues work. I asked a lot of questions and needed to rely on my old reliable approaches to interviewing when I needed someone here at the university to explain complicated situations. It’s good to be a jack- or jane-of-all-trades. Stepping out of the newsroom and into a PR office opens up a world of interesting and exciting opportunities.

So, my dear brother and sister journalists – it’s ok. Come toward the light. PR careers do promise a bright and fruitful future for journalists. If you too worry about an addiction to breaking news, believe me, at least in my job, there is breaking news, but now I just happen to be on the side of where the news breaks rather than the side that covers it.

In fact, a situation early in my stint here mirrored my experience as a young reporter when the police scanner crackled dispatches to a house fire and the managing editor shouted go. I jumped in my car rushing to the scene in my new city with a paper map by my side. A month into my job here, the emergency services director rushed into our public relations office and shouted "hurry we’ve got a fire and we need to set up an incident command center to manage media.” I ran out the door this time with a campus map that guided me to the building I had never heard of before.

I found the building and I’ve found my direction in PR too. So will you.

Patty Mattern is associate director of the University of Minnesota News Service in Minneapolis.

This piece originally appeared in 2010, in the official newsmagazine of NLGJA.


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