Why the PR world needs journalists' skills more than ever

It's true that PR isn't as singularly focused on reporters writing stories as it once was. Neither is the news business.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

In the wake of CNBC editor-in-chief Nikhil Deogun’s appointment as Brunswick Group’s Americas CEO this month, PRWeek asked readers a provocative question: "Do former journalists still make good PR executives?"

On one hand, the poll noted, some of the strongest agencies in the industry are led by former journalists; on the other, "most former journalists in top roles made the transition years ago, when PR was much more about media relations." The voting, nearly a week later, was running roughly 50/50.

Having made the hack-to-flack leap myself more than eight years ago, I believe journalists today are more qualified and better positioned for PR roles than at any prior moment.

For one thing, they’re already working as content marketers. In my reporting days, my performance reviews focused primarily on how much news I could break. That’s still a concern for many, but the urgency of most publishers to build financially viable digital businesses makes journalists more accountable for the performance of the content they create.

I got a window into this a few years ago when a business media contact who I knew was personally interested in real-estate news turned down what he called a compelling pitch on that very topic, noting that "real estate stories just don’t perform well." Our pitches were being evaluated as much by clicks, views, and shares as by newsiness. Sound familiar?

Now, it is true that PR isn’t as singularly focused on reporters writing stories as it once was. Neither is the news business.

The journalists I deal with are producing video content, and they’re supporting and even running events businesses and operating content-management systems. Their worlds are significantly larger than newsgathering.

But as much as journalism and PR evolve and expand, the best of examples of both remain rooted in relevance and credibility. Journalists understand storytelling, which is important. Because they’ve spent years listening to the kinds of stories brands and organizations tell, they also understand that a narrative that’s beloved in the boardroom may not be as warmly received beyond a company’s walls. Good journalists know BS when they hear it and are comfortable speaking truth to power. They’re well-suited to help companies avoid the mistakes that happen when they spend too much time talking to themselves. Corporate America needs more of that, not less.

That said, just because journalists have much to offer doesn’t mean they can simply be plugged in to a standard, off-the-shelf PR job description. One of the reasons my transition to the "dark side" was relatively smooth was that my earliest PR bosses recognized my strengths and limitations, and they designed a role accordingly. I was driving editorial-content efforts and counseling on media relations. I wasn’t asked to manage accounts at first, which was smart: Most agency employees at my initial level would have had nearly a decade of client-service experience; I, at that point, could barely tolerate editors asking me where my past-deadline copy was.

PR needs journalists’ skills and senses more than ever. Organizations willing to be thoughtful about how they incorporate them will surely be glad they did.

Jeremy Mullman is SVP of media engagement at Olson Engage.

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