PR Insider: Making the Jump from Journalism to PR

Pat Fitzgibbons
Pat Fitzgibbons

When I decided to make the jump from my professional home of almost 20 years – journalism – into the unknown realm of public relations, I had a long conversation with a former editor and mentor about it.

In general, he was supportive. But, near the end, he asked me if I had thought very much about what my new career would be like. It was a good question. Now, five years later, I have a better grasp on what he was asking me and the experiences to help guide the next generation of journalists-turned-PR mavens asking themselves that same question.

For my former brethren in media: There are two ways to go when you start to get the itch for PR – do you want to work in-house, maybe for a company you covered when on a reporting beat? Or would you like to (as I do) work for a PR firm.

The PR firm was the right choice for me. I’m glad I made the jump. It was a difficult decision, but it also really opened me up to a lot of possibilities. Coming from a news organization like Reuters, where I was editing and reviewing a LOT of news stories everyday on a lot of different topics, a PR firm is closest to this model. With the wide range of clients we have at Weber Shandwick, I know that I can be working on a financial firm one day, a product launch the next, and a new drug approval later in the week. The breadth of brands and issues you’re able to work with ensures your appetite for excitement won’t leave you hungry at the end of the day.

For some journalists, though, you’ve been covering the widgets for 15 years, you love the widgets, you know the widgets. Go work for the Widget company.

Now that I’ve been in PR for a few years, I finally feel as if I have come a little closer to mastering the “art of the bullet.” We like bullets a lot more in PR than I ever did as a journalist, so here are a few for those of you slogging through the wild world of journalism and looking to make the switch, and a few for those of us looking to hire you.

  • The Help Helps – As PR pros, hiring the right journalist can be an immense help. Good journalists like to tell stories, love to read a well-crafted sentence, and believe they can help solve problems. When I was a journalist, I wasn’t the phone-slamming, anti-pitch type of reporter or editor. Sometimes you’d get a good idea and sometimes you’d get a dud. But it was worth listening. When hiring a journalist, ask him or her to describe some good pitches they’ve received. If they say they can’t think of one, let them walk.
  • Write right – Believe it or not, all of us who lived in the media are not necessarily great writers. It doesn’t come naturally, and not all journalists have it. As with all hires, give a writing test to see how they handle subjects and verbs – without the loving care of an editor, a copy desk, and an assistant. Some reporters are good at making sources, some are good reporters, some write well, but very few do all of these well.
  • The Client Matters – In journalism, our editors might tell us of a story they had in mind and we’d try and cobble together a story that answers some questions. On the PR side, our goal is to help our clients tell the stories they want to tell. Our firms have hired us because some of us are good at artfully spinning a yarn, and we know what will play well with reporters. But, at the end of the day, our goal is to serve the client, and there will be days when victories look a lot different than they did in the media. Gone are the days when you can slam the phone down on someone if you might not like what they are saying. Trust me!
  • Pitching Matters – No matter how much you may wish this not to be true, eventually you’re going to have to pitch one of your friends. We’ve all had to do it, and this is the life we’ve chosen. If you don’t want to pitch your friends, don’t make this jump. PR firms like us for the people we know as well as the skills we have.
  • The Dark Side? – It’s not that dark, actually, especially when you consider what a lot of newsrooms look like these days. In general, once you start at a PR firm, you will be surprised at how smart and creative the people are and how quickly your perspective on work can change.

The world of PR presents a world of challenges, but many of them have turned out to be quite fun. Our clients need us to help them tell their stories, and lucky for us, that’s what we do best.

Pat Fitzgibbons is a Senior Vice President, Lead Media at Weber Shandwick in New York City. He worked for almost 10 years at Reuters News in company news covering autos, finance & banking, consumer & retail, manufacturing, real estate, and airlines & defense. You can follow Pat on Twitter: @FitzTweetz.

  • Gayle Falkenthal

    News media who think PR people spend their days writing news releases, calling reporters and doing interviews are in for a wake up call. Media relations and public relations are not synonymous. It’s not a profession for someone used to working alone or calling the shots. You need to be a diplomat both internally and externally. You need to be a strategist and adviser. For those who have only worked in print, you need to be able to think visually. In general, editors and producers make a better transition than reporters do. Pat is right on target with his description of the type of reporters who successfully make the jump. TV reporters can do well as spokespeople/PIOs, but they generally make the worst PR people.

  • Chris Greenfield

    I would be interested to know why the author moved from journalism to PR, what are his thoughts about PR as a profession during his 20 years as a journalist, and, why does the author believe that it is a good idea for journalists to move into PR?