Ex-journalists share the inside scoop on transitioning to PR

Alexander Liddington-Cox speaks to several ex-journos-turned-PRs about their transition to the other side of the fence. As one anonymous contributor succinctly puts it: 'PRs think they’re smarter than journos and journos think they’re smarter than PRs.'

The new media journalists hitting the job market right now are some of the most talented in a generation and communication industry recruiters will be looking for ways to hire them.

However, journalists raised in the era of Buzzfeed, VICE and Business Insider Australia have had a radically different experience to their industry elders. Recruiters should understand what this means to get the best out of them.

An estimated 3,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Australia in the last 10 years. While there are no hard statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests they’ve ended up freelancing, in academia and communications.

What follows is an account of how six online journalists have made the switch to communications, what we went through making the transition and what future employers can do to make that change easier.

You’ll hear anonymous accounts from an executive for a finance company (we’ll call her The Executive), an internal communications professional who’s honing her craft overseas (The Expat) and two communications experts at top 10 ASX companies (ASX 1 and ASX 2). You’ll also hear from The Media Accelerator founder and director Harrison Polites, and myself.

Why do journalists leave the industry?

“There are obviously many answers to this question,” said The Executive. “The shortest and sweetest is for progression, pay and a challenge.”

If you’re not sacked, the lack of career progression and poor pay wear a lot of us down by the time we’re about 30, often earlier. All respondents shared that experience.

The traditional media journalists also expressed frustration at the lack of mentorship, which was made worse by the massive, legacy salaries of senior journalists for a fraction of the workload.

“Some part-time journos get hundreds of thousands for writing two articles a week, while young journos are lucky to get $60,000,” said ASX1. “It will hurt the industry long-term.”

“It’s very competitive,” agrees The Expat. “In Australia in particular, it’s full of people that have been there for decades making it very hard for new voices to be given airtime.”

Add into that the at times toxic culture that develops in a newsroom flooded with talented, overworked, underpaid journalists who have been promised promotions that never come and the feeling is helplessness.

“Stealing of work by some overly competitive colleagues and false promises from management eroded trust,” said ASX 1.

If it’s so bad, why was it hard to leave?

Recruiters might think if the pay, conditions are culture are so bad, wouldn’t you be glad to leave for better pay, conditions and culture?

Part of the answer is precisely because it’s so challenging, young journalists don’t want to walk away empty handed. But the main reason is journalists don’t want to want to leave the industry. It’s the best job in the world, and it’s part of our identity in a way some other professionals don’t understand. Walking away from it is really difficult.

“Glad is not the right word,” said ASX 2 about deciding to leave. “But had I stayed, I think I’d have ended up a victim of lost job redundancy like many others.”

All journalists I spoke to at the very least expressed a bittersweet sentiment towards their old lives.

“It was a huge decision, that I really agonised over,” said Polites. “I genuinely miss and value journalism. I have a huge respect for its role in society and the role of reporters in democracy and business.”

Beneath the surface, I suspect journalists are also grappling with something The Executive pointed out – a loss of status.

“As a journo at least to some extent you get to call the shots,” she said. “As a PR you should probably leave your ego at the door or you won’t get far.”

So I’ve hired a journalist, will they be a gun?

“Whoever says the transition from journo to PR is easy is lying,” said Polites. “It was tough.”

Because so many journalists make the jump to communications after receiving so many awful, awful pitches on the job, they assume shifting to communications will be easy. I certainly did.

“PRs think they’re smarter than journos and journos think they’re smarter than PRs,” said ASX 2. “The truth is everyone is about as smart as each other, they just have different goals and process to get there.”

When you make the shift, you have to broaden your news sense and expertise considerably, because your spectrum of clients aren’t confined to a beat, publication or even a medium. You also have to be selfless in a way journalists don’t understand.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

“You need a level of empathy that’s a bit removed from reporting,” added Polites. “You need to identify with clients, reporters, the reporter’s audience and more. You need to see everything from their perspective and adjust your communications accordingly.”

It should also be pointed out that many journalists quietly struggle without daily deadlines. They make your day might be frantic, but they also mean you can’t take your work home with you.

The feeling that ‘the to-do list is never done’ is something that can be quite stressful in the beginning. Being understanding if this comes up is a huge help with your new recruit is a huge help.

What journalists want in their new jobs

Aside from better pay and conditions, respondents are looking for two things from the next stage of their career. One, strategic business thinking that most journalists are not equipped with. Two, the sense that their journalism skills and passions can still be celebrated.

“I’ve able to try new things and it has challenged me to be more strategic in my thinking,” said ASX 1. “I also see better career prospects and have received opportunities to learn and develop.”

Working in PR has given Polites, a former business journalist, a better understanding about what motivates businesses, how they operate and why they want media at different points in their lifecycle.

“It’s helped me ask better questions and better weed out information. It may be controversial, but I contend that if went back into the media, I’d be a better journo for making this choice.”

I agree with him. And going back into journalism at some stage is something the majority of respondents indicated was something they wouldn’t rule out.

So put their skills to work. If you’ve got an opinion piece that needs to be written for the CEO, give it to the journalist. They’ll do a much better job.

And champion the freelance pieces they do in their spare time. Those pieces come from a place that’s very special to them.

“Yes. I miss writing,” says the Expat. “But now I can afford to do that for fun.”

Alexander Liddington-Cox was a business journalist for 10 years. He is now a media advisor. Follow him at @AlexMediaGuy.


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