Crossing Over to The Dark Side:Why Journalists Get into PR – and What Clients Get Out of It

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    With 15 years in public relations, occasionally it helps to stop and ask, “Why did I get into this profession?” Before answering that, a bit of pre-PR background. I was on the other side of the desk in the world of journalism before making a career change. Specifically, pop culture — music, comedy, the occasional film review, feature or Hollywood junket, and quite a few business stories about various aspects of Show Business. Working for the alternative weekly City Pages and then the Twin Cities Reader (no longer published), I also freelanced for the daily papers, and contributed to Billboard. I floated a few Random Notes for Rolling Stone, penned pieces for Right On! (lots of Prince stories!!), and reported freelance articles for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Utne Reader and others.

    After 10 years, I had my mid-life crisis early and felt that what I once loved doing was no longer fun, or worth doing (even though I had just been offered a sweet position at the Austin-American Statesman in Texas). I needed new challenges and going to work in public relations provided them. I worked at an agency that specialized in custom publishing, marketing communications and public policy and became the utility player in each group. It was great training for what I do now.

    While there are critical differences between journalism and public relations, what joins them intellectually is understanding what constitutes a good story and communicating it effectively. You may (or may not) be surprised that many former journalists go to work in PR (and it is truer today than at any time, given the demise of the publishing business model, mostly because of the internet). Editor and Publisher, a trade publication for the publishing world, once surveyed how many PR people were former journalists. The percentages were surprisingly high if I recall, someplace between 68-72%).

    Journalists-turned-publicists generally have a leg up on those who simply came out of college with a communications degree in PR or related areas. And their clients benefit from their experience and skill sets, especially their ability to ferret out what the story really is. They’re trained to be good listeners and know how to corroborate the details that make up a good story. They also still heavily follow the news cycle. The best ones have super-charged BS detectors. And they usually know what reporters are going to ask.

    Many retain strong relationships with their “ink-stained” colleagues, which never hurts when pitching a client’s story. That’s one “valued-added” advantage, especially if working at just the local level. Still, there are some journalists who would never become PR people because they see it as a stain on what they do and who they are professionally. They are not straying from their beat no matter how beat-up the fourth estate gets. That’s to be admired and respected.

    But so are the people who “cross to the dark side” (a standing expression/joke in the PR and journalism businesses). These people bring a wealth of knowledge, solid contacts who return their calls, and genuine insight into communicating the stories you read in your favorite newspaper or magazine, or a report or interview you might have seen or heard on TV or radio. And that, as one legendary diehard broadcaster used to remind us, is the rest of the story.