Six biggest miscues journalists make when jumping to the “dark side”

Countless former journalists are now working in PR and many others are probably considering the merits of such a move. With more and more media outlets scaling back, a transition to the “dark side,” as many journalists refer to it, can seem logical.

Ostensibly, the skillsets are similar–writing quickly, pitching story ideas, meeting deadlines. But be forewarned: the mindsets needed are often night and day.

After almost 25 years in the industry, I’ve seen many journalists change hats and apply considerable talents and experience to working with clients or running in-house communications teams. For many the shift is seamless. For others there are tradeoffs.  For some, it’s a short-lived disaster of opposites clashing reminiscent of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Both for reporters who might be considering the jump, and also as a reminder to myself before being seduced by another savvy journalist testing the waters, here is my checklist of reasons why things usually go south.

1. It’s closer to sales and promotion than you think. “I can’t promote something I don’t totally believe in,” a former reporter might say. While most of us PR people have refused to represent our share of dictators, tobacco makers and the like, being rah-rah is part of what makes PR fun, even if it’s on behalf of companies with half-baked products or causes that won’t win prizes.

2. It’s client relations more than public relations. “That client is clueless about how media actually works,” a J school grad will proclaim. Maybe so, but our job is to educate diplomatically and give constructive yet upbeat pushback, while remembering who pays the bills.

3. It’s uncomfortable if you see it as favors. “How can I stalk my friends in the newsroom?” a colleague once asked.  Yes, there are times you have to go to the favor bank and make a withdrawal-like asking for a reporter you know to make time for a backgrounder (with no promises of writing anything, of course). But if you see media relations as purely an exchange of favors, then you’re missing something about the art of making a client’s story genuinely worthy of editorial consideration.

4. It’s a different kind of writing. “I’m first and foremost a writer and storyteller,” she said, assuming this is the main thing. Well, yes and no, I replied. I have seen many examples of former reporters who can write a beautiful 800 word op-ed in a snap, but ask them to write a press release, or even to craft a memo before a client meeting, and they can freeze. Us PR pros might experience a similar writer’s block if asked to write wire copy for a day.

5. It’s not for people who don’t like pleasing people. “Just leave me alone in my cave and let me write,” said a cynical former top reporter who was used to working in more solitary fashion before joining PR. Meetings and conference calls, let alone client schmoozing, are seen as a waste. Sometimes they can be. But in the words of my mentor Buck Buchwald, who helped build Burson-Marsteller, “If you don’t like people, get the hell out of this field.”

6. It can conflict with life mission. “It’s frankly beneath me,” a friend who left journalism confided. It can feel that way to me too- but I can usually find the Zen in it, from navigating a client through a crisis to brainstorming on a new tagline. If you can’t, it’s not the place for you.

Many former reporters avoid the pitfalls above and opt for becoming industry analysts or even going into finance, with a larger number working in non-profit and academia. For some, it’s a way to put their critical thinking and investigative toolset to better use than PR. Others successfully carve out niches within communications that leverage their writing skills, or become social media experts, media trainers or thought-leadership mavens. Most recently, cranking out branded content is the rage for many former reporters. Those are better ideas for people who react to pitching and client contact like a sort of food allergy.

Yes, you can get by, but you’re never going to thrive in the agency world if you can’t also be a rainmaker. The goal here is business. And that is something to think about- both for journalists contemplating the leap, and for the PR people who love them as they are.

Marco Greenberg is president of Thunder11, a New York City marketing communications boutique.

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