Five things you need to know before hiring a journalist

The PR industry is set to be swamped by HORDES of ex-journalists all turning their backs on dwindling news organisations and stepping into a new world of hope and prosperity.

Journalists are being welcomed into PR with open arms, but they need training up, argues James Saville
Journalists are being welcomed into PR with open arms, but they need training up, argues James Saville

I appreciate this is a ridiculous statement – and with deliberately inflammatory, clumsy language cos that’s wot hacks do, right?

Yet as the comms industry shapes and shifts and the lines blur between disciplines, there’s zero doubt in my mind there’ll be more trained journalists knocking on the door of agencies and press offices and being welcomed in.

There are more journalism students than ever before – and becoming a journalist (whatever kind) seems just so much more accessible a target in the digital age.

Yet getting a paid job in actual journalism (becoming a real journalist, that is, which means finding out facts for yourself) is harder than ever. Local papers are in demise and news brands have to be more picky about who they train and offer careers to.

Simply look at the recent scaling down of the editorial teams at Buzzfeed and Vice and the plug being pulled on The Pool to see how tough the conditions are.

Inevitably, many students are being trained up for journalism, getting first jobs in that field (or not) but then moving into PR or marketing.

Out of a current group of students going through a National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course, only one out of 30 have a desire to work on a national newspaper.

When I did mine 20 years ago, we all wanted to be on Fleet Street at any cost.

Understandably, the attitude now is to gain as many skills as possible on the basis it will one day help for something other than journalism.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’ll be any fewer trained PRs looking for jobs.

It does mean, however, that agency bosses and comms managers need to consider whether hiring a journalist can benefit their team as they go into battle for their client or brand, or is it just too much of a risk?

No doubt the skills of a journalist could be a great addition to your team – but it’s important to handle it right.

Here’s some advice:

1. Go for Flack To Hack 2.0. The days are coming to an end of the stereotyped "poacher turned gamekeeper" who carries their bat from the newsroom to become a hero in the financially rewarding world of flowery shirts and air-kisses. Your candidate must be un-jaded, willing to learn, and uncynical about PR.

2. Train them up. Put them on a good PR account manager course, ideally before they’ve even stepped foot in your office. Ensure they are on regular workshops to learn about different skills, so they understand the multi-layered comms cake.

3. Know their value. Their experience in the newsroom, the contacts they have and instinct for a story should not be underestimated. It can help land your campaign messages, sound out ideas with the media, win you pitches and awards.

4. Get them creating. It’s tempting to use their skills on a sell-in or for crisis comms to take advantage of their ability to talk to journalists in their own language. But let them loose on some creative ideas and you might be surprised at the results.

5. Watch the language. One of the steepest learning curves is striking the balance between what the client or boss wants to say versus what the journalist wants to run – this is solved only with time and experience.

James Saville is co-founder of Goldbug

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