PR agencies are full of former journalists. Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky was a reporter for local newspapers covering beats from city hall to sports. Ketchum’s Dan Kloeffler was an anchor on ABC’s World News Now until 2015. Edelman SVP Brett Philbin worked as a commodities reporter for The Wall Street Journal and before that Dow Jones.
Many journalists, especially in New York City, may be looking to PR either for a career change or to find employment as media titles continue to cut staff mostly due to dwindling print advertising revenues.
Conde Nast, which lost $120 million last year and laid off about 80 employees, is planning to put three magazine titles up for sale, following its shuttering of titles Details and the print versions of Self and Teen Vogue, according to The New York Times. Late last month, New York City tabloid the Daily News cut its newsroom team in half, letting more than 40 staffers go, including 25 of 34 sports reporters.
"Many of my former colleagues have made the leap to PR, as have a number of journalists I used to pitch," says Jennifer DeNick, consumer lifestyle SVP at Coyne PR and a one-time reporter at the New Jersey Herald. "Most reporters used to refer to PR as ‘the dark side.’ I certainly heard the joke, and made it myself, plenty of times. Funny enough, the dark side continues to look brighter and brighter."
However, things have also changed on the "dark side." As PR shops move capabilities into data and analytics, social media, and strategic advisory services, making many seem more like marketing shops or consultancies, can journalists still transition to public relations as seamlessly as they once did?
"It does increase the difficulty factor to enter a new profession while the ground is shifting beneath it," says Betsy Stark, Ogilvy PR’s MD of content and media strategy, who adds that journalists are used to change. "Tell me where that isn’t happening! The newsroom has also been disrupted by technology, big data, new competitors, the need to change the model or die."
"When I left ABC seven years ago, it was amid pressure to make significant changes to how we worked. Now, in the agency world, I see talented 'native' PR and advertising pros who came of age in the pre-digital era struggling to adapt as well," notes Stark, an Emmy Award-winning former ABC News business correspondent. "The transition challenge is a more perennial one: journalists come to agency life under-appreciating the craft of strategic PR, and PR pros under-appreciate the broad value a journalist can offer."
Stark asserts that while former journalists need to understand that strategic PR is a discipline, PR employers shouldn’t try "to turn a journalist into a PR pro."
"I think I will always be identified by my colleagues and self-identify as a journalist first, and that this resident 'other' status enriches what we offer as an agency. A journalist's independent way of appraising things is another kind of diversity," she explains. "Many clients value my counsel precisely because I have been trained to have an unflinching eye and speak truth to power."
Brett Philbin, who joined Edelman in 2014 and is SVP in its financial communications and capital markets practice, adds that for all the talk of new ways for clients to get their stories out, earned media is still important, as is an understanding of how to craft a pitch to a particular reporter.
"A lot of companies we work with want coverage in the top-tier and trade press, and those folks that used to work in those jobs can help them tell their stories in a way that will resonate with those audiences," he explains. "We still have a unique insight into that."
Ariana Finlayson, VP of digital strategy at Marina Maher Communications and a former editor at USMagazine.com, also says a journalist’s ability to tell a good story will never go out of style at PR firms, even as they become more driven by metrics.
"Being data-savvy or having an aptitude for tools is not a far stretch for a digital editor who’s strong in Google Analytics and Omniture," she explains.
Finlayson sees another silver lining for ex-journalists. Many of their former counterparts are finding new homes outside agencies, as well.
"In the past two years, most of the journalists I know have moved into content marketing or audience development roles, some at agencies, but mostly at brands and companies," she says. "They’re quite successful here, because above all else they know content and how to craft it to speak to an audience. And I wouldn't put a timestamp against this - journalists innately know how to tell a good story, which is a skill that transfers so well to helping clients develop compelling content."