CommonSense Blog

Through the Looking Glass: Surprising Parallels a Journalist Finds as a PR Pro

By Ryan Flinn | Jan 08, 2014

On my first day in PR, there was no rest for the newly initiated.

“Great to have you here – can you do some pitching today?” I was asked within an hour of being shown my desk.

This was the moment I had been dreading. After spending 13 years as a journalist, having PR people cater to me, now I was the one who had to sweet talk reporters into taking meetings with clients or ginning up interest in announcements and news.

But funny enough, it didn’t seem that different from what I had already been doing – in fact in many ways it was more enjoyable. Now that I’ve been doing this PR thing for half a year, I can say there are a lot of parallels between the professions (even if some journalists would be loathed to hear that). In particular, three areas stand out: cold calling, pitching and social media.

1) Cold calling: journalists cold call new sources all the time. Sometimes you’re working on a breaking story and need to just get a quick quote from anyone, other times you’re trying to match what the competition has already published. Just like PR people are tasked with harassing journalists until they get a response, so too do journalists have to continuously bother PR people as well as executives, analysts, companies and others to confirm news, get a quote or feel out if a potential scoop has legs.

These types of calls inevitably lead to awkward exchanges. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re asking about – an editor tells you to make calls ASAP for a breaking story off of your beat. Or you call someone you don’t know and ask what seems to be a relevant question and they shoot back – “don’t you know who I am and what I’ve done?” Other times sources just aren’t saying anything useful or quotable, so you try ask them the same question over and over again in a variety of ways, hoping to get a sound bite.

Then there are the situations when you’re calling about bad news and have to ask personal or private questions – such as: did they have an affair with a subordinate? Or cheat their company out of money? The worst interviews are when you have to contact someone that lost a loved one. I’ve covered 9/11, military funerals, school shootings and other horrible events in real time. Understandably, it’s not uncommon to be hung up on or called horrible names.

When it comes to cold-calling journalists as a PR person, you don’t always have a deep knowledge of the company you’re pitching, or the journalist you’re contacting. We work as a team, so when my teammates need help getting press for a client with breaking news, we flood the zone with calls and emails to dozens, if not hundreds, of media people.

There’s usually a spreadsheet with names of reporters broken down by segments such as national news, local news, bloggers, industry reporters, trade pubs, TV and radio. We’ll all take a page of names and get to work. Sometimes the information about the journalist or outlet is outdated and a lot of times they don’t respond. Occasionally people will berate you for not knowing that they don’t cover what you think they do. Frankly, it’s a lot more pleasant talking to journalists, even the disinterested ones, than questioning a source that’s media-shy or even hostile.

2) Pitching: PR people aren’t the only ones pitching stories. As a reporter, I constantly had to pitch my features internally to get them published. It’s not always good enough to find a trend or feature idea that either hasn’t been written by the competition or tells readers the story in a new way. It also has to be deemed worthy of space.

At Bloomberg News, where I worked the past seven years, this meant features were often subject to many layers of approvals, from an editor, team leader, bureau chief, feature editor, managing editor and potentially others. It wasn’t unusal for each editor to take a stab at rewriting the story to reflect what they thought should be the focus. Other times they wanted more reporting, sometimes a lot more (one time a feature editor emailed me more than 80 questions on a 700 word feature).

And after all that time and work of rewriting, re-reporting and winning over numerous editors, someone high up could express skepticism on the newsworthy-ness of the story, effectively killing it. That was always a bitter pill to swallow.

If, on the other hand, the story did get published, the next step would be pitching it to editors at the magazine, radio and TV departments, to get it more airtime. I’d also try to bring it to the attention of industry leaders other experts outside of the company, with the goal of being invited on TV, or included in a forum or panel, or having someone else point to the story as important. That also could be a fruitless and frustrating process.

Same goes for PR. One of my favorite activities here is to continue doing what I did as a journalist, but for clients. So I’ll spend a day at a company, interviewing scientists, engineers, executives, and touring the facilities looking for feature ideas and anecdotes that normally wouldn’t make it out of a marketing meeting. I then come up with story lines and ideas of how to position a company as part of a trend or affecting the world in a unique way.

These are ideas I honestly think are interesting and news worthy, but they still need to get approved by several divisions at the client company before I can approach journalists with them, including their own communications department, legal and regulatory, and whoever manages the executives themselves.

Some clients are excited about these ideas and give me the go ahead to pitch them to the media. Other times, even relatively simple story lines get nixed or dramatically changed because of concerns over any potential of a negative or less than favorable article. It’s less frustrating than getting a story killed as a journalist, but it’s still not fun.

Once these story ideas are approved, I then have to do my main job and get journalists interested. Some reporters like the pitches and take meetings with my clients and write articles about them, while others don’t bother to even respond.

3) Social media: As a journalist, I felt constrained in what I could say on Twitter and other social media sites. For years, I never posted anything political or items that hinted of a personal opinion about subjects I wrote about, even on my non-public profiles. I felt free to tweet articles from colleagues and competitors and tried to spur conversations around the articles I wrote. But most of the time I felt like I had to bite my (digital) tongue.

In PR there are other concerns. My social media output has become much more opinionated about a wide-range of subjects, from sports, parenting, health topics, and politics, as I’m trying to build my influence, actively engage people and retain an audience that mostly followed me because I was a reporter at Bloomberg. But I’ve also felt much more constrained in terms of discussing industry news.

You want to be authentic in what you say on social media, but now that I’m in a client-serving role, I don’t want to be seen as endorsing anything that puts a client in a negative light or something that says a competitor is better. Many times I find myself ready to tweet out a good feature but hesitate at the last second, wondering “will any client be offended if they see I’ve tweeted this?”

These are just a few of the parallels I’ve found between the two professions. Despite my concerns that a career as a communications pro would be completely different from that of a journalist, I’ve found the opposite to be true.