The pandemic has brought the skills of journalists working in PR to the fore

It takes a white-hot news story to bring out the best in a journalist.

It takes a crisis to bring out the best in a journalist, argues Grant Feller
It takes a crisis to bring out the best in a journalist, argues Grant Feller

I’ve been lucky enough to be around the fringes of a few, learning from the razor-sharp instincts of colleagues and editors, being inspired by their lightning-fast reflexes.

The days and nights spent working in newsrooms during wars, Royal tragedy, political turmoil, celebrity scandals and murders – in particular, the Stephen Lawrence affair – are still unforgettable.

The coronavirus pandemic has, in my opinion, shown the media at its very best – sometimes worst, but mostly best. Energetically holding our leaders to account, highlighting unfairness, praising genuine achievement and helping us analyse the daily decisions that are shaping our lives.

And, for PR companies, the health crisis has provided a valuable reminder that being able to tap into that newsroom mentality – using the skills of journalists who gleefully accept the chaotic challenges that a crisis inevitably brings – is an essential tool for the businesses they serve.

Being able to predict where a story is headed, using spin to alter the trajectory of a story, reacting faster than your rival, finding the human element in a sea of data, having the bravery to show initiative and risk, temporarily relegating ego in favour of a team ethic, pouncing on the smallest detail to highlight a wider issue, always trying to find a new line and stir emotions because you intuitively understand what the audience wants – these are the instinctive reactions of a journalist in a crisis.

And PR – as the COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated – is better off for being able to access them.

My own experience during these past few months has shown me that, more than ever, companies crave these skills as they seek to protect the images of their clients and explore news-led opportunities.

However, much more instructive has been the way I’ve watched PR and marketing teams seamlessly shift their focus towards news-generation and storywriting.

The crisis has unleashed a wave of bottled-up creativity. I suspect the skills were always there – heaven knows the industry is chock-full of ex-journalists – but it has taken a full-blown emergency for those talents to have come to the fore.

In PR and marketing, newsroom strategies are hardly novel but they have suffered from not having much of interest to say. They start well, but tail off into a rarely-updated chasm of bland corporate press releases. A crisis on the other hand? Well, as any journalist knows, that’s about as exciting as it gets for content.

By cloaking themselves in the working clobber of a journalist, individuals who’ve never really written ‘proper’ stories are creating a deserved impression of being fast-reacting, nimble and opinionated, offering well-researched and well-written thought leadership. They are reaching new audiences and receiving almost constant feedback from readers, clients and potential leads.

That’s what journalistic storytelling can do – show you truths, explain them clearly, and then help people react to them. At speed.

Enriched by original data, graphics and videos, it’s taken a full-blown crisis for news-fuelled PR teams to show agile thinking, speed of reaction, an understanding of the issues that matter and an ability to pump out easily digestible, meaningful and relevant chunks.

Just like a journalist in a newsroom.

How ironic that just as traditional newsrooms are shrinking, those within PR and marketing are becoming fertile places for energetic, enthusiastic, ambitious, truly original storytelling.

Grant Feller is managing director of GF-Media

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