Blair: Why the jump from journalism to PR is much harder than it looks

The two professions have much in common, but making the move from one to the other is far from easy, says one recent convert.

Nancy Blair, Access PR
Nancy Blair, Access PR

You’d be forgiven if you thought making the move from daily journalism to PR was a snap, given the number of reporters and editors making the leap. A month into my own transition, I’m here to tell you it’s not.

Sure, the two trades share similar skill sets: an ability to synthesize and analyze on the fly and develop and tell stories that respective audiences want to hear, to name two.

But as more journalists make the jump – and a month into making the switch myself – let me tell you that it really is a walk into a whole new world.

On a very basic level – not even considering the work itself – the days are structured very differently. A newsroom is a free-for-all. You don’t have to account for your time in any really structured way. You’re busy constantly, working on five different things at any given moment – juggling calls internally from other editors or externally from freelancers, dealing with PR pitches and breaking news stories, and trying to plan ahead.

Then you take a break, go home, and have dinner. And very likely you are at it again in some odd evening or early morning-hour. It was always exciting and crazy and often breathless, but you didn’t have to account for everything in 15-minute increments, which is what you do in PR – at least at an agency.

I find myself sort of stressing out about mastering that segmentation of the workday, probably more so than I should at this stage.

But running a stopwatch on tasks is definitely making me much more cognizant of how I spend my time, and I think ultimately will make me much more efficient and disciplined.

It has also driven home to me in a very concrete way just how devalued your time can be as a journalist. If you’re always on the clock, your hourly rate can end up being a very sad equation. I’m glad I never did the math.

And then there’s the creative process itself. At a recent media panel I attended in San Francisco, Flipboard’s Josh Quittner, a longtime writer and editor, noted that at its core, journalism is the hunt for truth. On any given day, that might be a small truth – getting the facts and context right in a basic daily news story – or a larger truth – digging in on an investigation or trend that you hope your organization will be the first to report.

In PR, you’re helping clients tell their own stories to an audience that consists not only of the journalists you’re trying to reach, but often your own customers or users directly. Cynics would surely say that the "hunt for truth" is not necessarily core to PR. But in an age of "content marketing" and "brand journalism," authenticity and clarity in storytelling is crucial. So is impact and relevance – when I was at USA Today, we described it as the "so what, why now?" of a story.

That’s where I come in.

After many years as an editor and writer at Gannett and USA Today, where my last stop was as technology editor, I started 2015 by joining Access Communications in San Francisco as its VP of content.

I am part of the launch team for a new agency division, Access Studio. My piece of it is to lead and build out Access Voice, the "content" development initiative within Access Studio. The idea is to work across teams at Access to help clients sharpen their own narratives in blog posts, guest columns and the like by curating and creating content. Another colleague heads up a digital (social) pillar, another a creative (design) pillar, and yet another intelligence (data analysis).

It’s part of the new wave of a more orchestrated approach to brand communications in an era of continuing change for both journalism and public relations.

The work is varied and demanding, and as challenging as anything I have ever done. At times it’s like being on a construction site with a blueprint in one hand and a pile of lumber and bricks in front of you: sure the material is all there, but it’s up to you to assemble it into something meaningful, sturdy, and new.

To any journalists contemplating the leap, know that you will absolutely work different mental muscles and experience a completely new world view. A friend of mine who made the transition a decade ago commented that as a business journalist, you’re always pressing your nose to the window, trying to see in. In PR, you find yourself on the other side of the glass. I’m only beginning to see exactly what that means, but it’s very cool.

Nancy Blair is VP of content at Access PR and former technology editor at USA Today.

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