Jumping the fence to PR isn’t as easy as it looks

Ben OliverMaking the switch from the solitary profession of journalism to the team sport of PR was tougher than imagined, writes Ben Oliver.

Whether deleting emails with zeal or bitching to colleagues in the newsroom, pouring scorn on the erratic, misguided or plain bizarre PR pitches was always a fun sport.

But having now worked in agency for two years after nearly a decade in journalism, I can say without hesitation that not only do I now fully appreciate the pressures of agency – it’s a hell of lot harder than what I used to do.

Please don’t misunderstand; journalism has it’s own extreme pressures, exacerbated in recent years by fewer journalists producing more copy – since 2012, Australian media companies such as News Ltd, Fairfax and Channel Ten have cut around 3000 staff, mostly in editorial roles – and additional expectations around social media. Burnout in journalism is, unfortunately, all too common.

While equally stressful, journalism and agency do differ, however, in one important aspect -the diversity of skills sets required to do your job well.

When I first made the switch, I was told that few journos succeed in the world of agency PR.

Whether ex-journalists make good PR professionals has been debated at great length, and in my view, the switch is harder than most journalists – myself included – appreciate.

In my view, good journalism is supported by three core competencies: researching, interviewing and writing. To use a sporting metaphor, Journalism is like tennis; a lonely profession requiring a few, finely honed skills.

To continue the sporting metaphor, I see agency as a little more like the decathlon, where multiple, unrelated skills must work well in tandem. While the foundations of good agency PR – story ideas, pitching and writing – came to me relatively easily, it was in management and business development where I faced a steep learning curve.

Firstly to management, where the twin demands of clients and staff require very different touches. It’s a cliché, but managing client expectations is bloody hard work, requiring a touch somewhere between needlessly cynical and unjustly optimistic. Nailing that sweet spot is the nirvana of good client management.

Meanwhile, managing staff is a whole other ball game. Confession time; to every manager about who I’ve ever complained, hand on heart, I’m sorry for being such a dick. Managing. Is. Hard.

While news editors have a role coaching and mentoring junior staff, journalism is generally a solitary profession. The newsroom is not a unified country but a chain of islands; how many journalists would share their story ideas or contacts with their colleagues? While not ideal, journalists can do their job sans inter-company communication.

In agency, communication blackout is a death sentence. I’ve lost count of the number of times a media contact or a story idea offered by a colleague has saved my ass when a client was pushing for top tier coverage. Brainstorming ideas, and sharing skills and experience is the only way an agency can thrive.

In journalism, new business development was something left to senior management not involved in editorial, but it’s a skill set you better develop quickly at agency. NBD quickly separates the strategic thinkers from the herd; prospective clients simply won’t accept a slide deck of media outlets you’ll call on their behalf. In the age of earned, owned and paid media, creating a fully integrated strategic plan involving such elements as media pitching, blogging and paid social media augmentation is crucial.

To any journalists reading this, please don’t consider the above a slander on your profession.

My respect for journalism has only increased as friends in the industry take on more work for less pay.

But if you’re considering a move to agency, be prepared; the work is fun, challenging – and unlike anything you’ve done before.

Ben Oliver is senior account manager at PR agency Buchan


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