Opinion

So you want to hire a journalist?

Rob O'BrienIn this guest post, Rob O’Brien has a few words of advice for PR agencies looking to hire journalists.

As demand for content increases via digital channels, and brands and agencies evolve into de facto producers, so the need for creative writers and journalists has gone up too. It has become vogue to hire journalists to find ways to liven up the steady stream of content that is being churned out. But are they necessarily the right people for the job?

I wouldn’t classify myself as a traditional journalist. But I did move from journalism to PR, so I do feel duty bound to share what I’ve learned through that transition. If for nothing else it might spare you a few hissy fits, tantrums and any other diva antics that a journalist could bring into your organisation.

1. A builder of media relations

This is frankly a no-brainer. They’re primed to engage editors and listen to what they want from the industry. A journalist can and should be used as a conduit between key media and your portfolio of clients – not just one, all of them. Journalists have a hard time putting faces to the names of the dozens of PR execs they work with, so why have four or five people contacting the same journalist via email, when one can meet up and pitch the ideas him/herself? Strong media relationships are paramount now, in fact they’re critical to PR’s relevance in the digital age.

2. Not for the coal face

I would avoid placing a journalist at the accounting side of business at all, unless you’re keen to lose that business. It is a waste of time for them to be embroiled in the minutiae of the day-to day; that’s time they could be spending on building media relations. They may be a good person to deploy as a ‘fire hose’ of sorts,through their insights from working in the media. But it seems like a wasted opportunity to hire a journalist and morph them into your organisation’s way of doing things.

Their real value is in writing for the media, knowing what kind of information to pitch to which outlet, and in developing strategies to land opportunities.

3. An alternative voice

Anyone who has crossed over is going to have a period of ‘What the…?’ when they join the agency world. You need to slowly work them into a position where they can offer advice to team members and be heard. That is actually quite difficult. I was told by a London PR friend that being a journalist would mean I’m a ‘loud voice in the room’. But that’s not entirely true. Or rather it ignores the inconvenience of the fairly well-ingrained processes which exist in agencies, and the client-agency dynamic.

4. Representing the media’s point of view

They will be useful on the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of media pitching, for sure. But probably more so as a resource for painting the picture of the changing media landscape – and correcting how it is perceived by clients and the industry.

Education seems to be a problem for creative industries right now; with the emphasis on more and more output, little time is spent taking stock of what is happening. No one really knows what the media will look like next year, so it helps to have someone with their finger on the pulse to explain why newsrooms need information quickly and why they are writing the stories they are writing.

In Asia, it’s particularly useful to have someone explain how news works across national boundaries, and the complexities of national wires and publications, such as Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, which are all in a state of flux.

An appreciation of the level playing field that the media is today, which allows a blogger to scoop a national newspaper, is in need of attention too: stamping out the practice that still makes it acceptable to pitch a story to a leading newspaper one day, and to a trade magazine the next.

A PR question often asked about journalists is whether or not they are ‘friendly ones’. The thing is, they’re not really here to be your friend. But if you can help them you’ll be more liked than the PR bod who can’t.

As a footnote to all of this, it will obviously vary according to the type of journalist you’re bringing in and their skills and the time they have spent in the industry.

The point is: the journalist transitioning isn’t likely to change anything internally, and that’s something to be aware of when you’re looking to bring them in. A good question to ask yourself before you take that step it is: are you looking for them to adapt, disrupt or erupt?

It may be a bit of all three.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist at Weber Shandwick in Singapore. He is a former journalist, an author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7

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