It’s a common expression in business to talk about “leveraging assets.” That’s just the way people in pinstripes talk about taking advantage of skills and resources to achieve your objective.
I’ve been talking to a number of laid-off, outsourced, terminated, bought-out journalists over the past few months who are looking to transition to a new job. Many of them are understandably upset, because they have spent 20-30 years acquiring skills that don’t seem valued in an industry that is collapsing under their feet.
But those skills aren’t entirely irrelevant. There’s no doubt that journalism is adapting radically to respond to the confluence of changes in technology, culture, and economics (see Steve Rubel’s “Clip Report” for a nice overview of the emerging news media landscape. But that doesn’t mean “old-school” journalism skills are irrelevant. It just means they’ll be applied in different ways, across different platforms, and for different organizations, even those outside of journalism.
Public relations has been a refuge for former journalists for centuries. In fact, in 1926 Editor & Publisher decried the number of journalism school graduates going directly into “this new field called public relations.” Many have debated whether journalists can make the transition to PR. Some joke that they have to “sell their soul” to go to “the dark side.” But this merely shows a misunderstanding of what PR really is, and that there are different types of PR jobs out there, based on different models of PR practice.
Journalists can make the easiest transition to the type of PR known as “public information”. Public Information Officers (PIOs) often work for a government agency or state university, and the job involves disseminating objective information, primarily one-way. That’s not too dissimilar from what a journalist does. A recent example would be Ed Golder, former editorial page editor of the Grand Rapids Press, who is now the PIO at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Journalists may struggle a bit more to work in PR roles known as “two-way symmetrical” or “two-way asymmetrical.” The former involves listening and engaging with publics in dialogue and advising management to adapt to public concerns. The latter is still two-way but more driven to be persuasive in ensuring the organizational goals are met. This can be more of a challenging transition for journalists used to writing objective information and distributing it one-way (although editorial writers have an edge here). An advanced degree in PR or organizational communication, or at least attending local chapter meetings of the Public Relations Society of America, could be helpful to make the transition.
But there are base skills that good journalists have that they can leverage for PR jobs, especially since the landscape for PR in corporate, nonprofit and government institutions is changing for the same reasons, social media and otherwise, that journalism is changing. Those skills include:
- Writing. This sounds fundamental, and it is. But a common complaint I hear from employers is the lack of writing skills among the work force. Even the most brilliant strategy or communication plan can fail if it’s not well articulated.
- Storytelling versus catalog copy. Consumers and other publics these days need to be “engaged,” not just informed. Journalists who are experienced in writing more than meeting reports but getting to the essence of a story and stressing its relevance can be an asset in PR. Those reporters who have been active on Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms, building their own brand as well as their media outlet's, are a step ahead here as well.
- Reporting. Reporting is more than asking questions. It’s knowing what to ask, who to ask, processing the information quickly and re-presenting it in a way that is accurate, clear, understandable and compelling. A reporter transitioning into PR can be a “quick study” in learning the organization quickly and well enough to represent it to the public. They just have to remember they are no longer a reporter but actually have to keep organizational objectives in mind.
- Multi-media. Print reporters who also did page layout, photography, or video for a newspapers web site—not to mention former broadcast reporters—bring an increasingly valuable tactical skill to organizations. “Every organization must be a media organization” is a common mantra as corporations, nonprofits and government offices have their own blogs, YouTube channels and other online and social platforms requiring more than simple text.
Former journalists have other options besides working in public relations for an organization. One is to continue to be a journalist. The radical changes in news media are demonstrating that it is not necessary to work only for a traditional newspaper or TV station. Citizen media like the Rapidian and online media like RapidGrowth continue to grow. As mainstream media are diminished, the opportunities for these alternative, online-only media outlets may grow.
Another likely option is to be a journalistic entrepreneur. This is more than the old notion of being a freelancer. Journalists could be self-employed and provide content for a variety of news media and other organizations. While newspapers are diminishing, the online media environment has a burgeoning number of outlets. Add to that the nonprofits and companies and government departments that need to feed the content beast, and a good journalist could stay comfortably busy. This will be even more true as the demand for quality versus quantity of information naturally rises as the public is overwhelmed and seeks credible, timely and relevant information.
Who knows—a group of former journalists could even start their own agency, not unlike Editors at Large, formed by former Grand Rapids Magazine editor John Brosky years ago, or the Wordsmiths whose staff has changed over the years but the agency continues today. They could even start a new news media outlet--either broad based or niche focused by audience or subject--to compete with the one that laid them off.