(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)
If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me in an exasperated voice, “Why do I need this stuff? I’m going into (fill in the field they plan to enter)!” I’d never need to work again.
The analogy I use as an answer is this: I’m putting tools in your toolbox that you’ll likely need in that field and pretty much anywhere else you’ll go in journalism. You might not use them every day, and you might use them in a different way, but they’re tools you’ll be glad you have eventually.
To what degree I’m right has often been a mystery. Sure, former students sometimes send notes or emails or texts and tell me that they’re still using these skills, even as they move from Job X to Job Y to Career Change 1 to Career Change 2. That said, there are days I wonder if I’m flying blind.
I asked the folks nice enough to talk to me about their career transitions from news to PR if the tools we put in their toolboxes in college really helped or if they had to do a serious course correction once they changed jobs.
The answers vary, but for the most part, it sounds like we’re being pretty successful.
A former broadcaster and college media adviser who works in public affairs and public relations probably captured it best:
“I honestly don’t think the skills are all that different though – it’s all about writing. In PA/PR, it’s just that we tend to focus on the positive. But we also have to deal with the negative. The biggest difference is that when we go negative, it’s framed in the best possible light instead of just giving the facts. Like you, I went to school when we were all pretty siloed. And I was hard core news. But in the end, it’s all about the words. And that is a skill that easily translates.”
A marketing pro with 25 years of experience in the field said her news background gave her not only the ability to work with words, but the sense of how best to use them when she moved to PR:
“The skills I learned in college related to news writing certainly transferred into all that I’ve done. Learning how to tell a story with all the right parts was the very basis of everything I’ve done all these years. Those skills were honed and expanded upon as I took each new job in my 25+ year career.”
Knowing how to tell a story was about half of what people said they learned. The other half was learning how to tell that story to a specific audience. In other words, instead of following the model of “Here’s what I want to tell you,” these professionals learned the “How can I tell you what you want to know in the best way possible?” approach.
A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she developed her audience-centric approach in her last stop in her news career:
“The skills 100% transfer. Everything I learned from my 6 years in journalism provided that bridge into marketing, and continues to provide a unique skill set that has served me well on this side of the fence.
“My last position in journalism was an engagement editor, where among other responsibilities, I lead the newsroom’s social media efforts. This experience landed me a position in social media at a marketing agency. After that first position, having a solid background in journalism gave me an edge for several copywriting/content-focused roles, including one where I lead content marketing for all of the agency’s clients.
“Journalism taught me how to engage an audience and tell a story, along with mass communication skills. Those skills (along with having newsrooms on my resume) have put me at an advantage in every single position I have worked in since leaving the newsroom.”
A VP who serves as a content strategist at a major financial firm said she learned a lot in school and as a news journalist that transferred to her new position. Even more, she said she continues to ask questions about how best to serve her readers every time she plies her trade:
“The skills totally transfer. Knowing how to talk to people, keep a conversation going, get people to talk, find the interesting nugget, etc. is helpful in any job or really any life situation. I always say that between my journalism career and then agency career, I’ve covered just about every industry, which is great for dinner parties! I may not be an expert in, say, fiber optic cables, but I worked on a brand that creates them, and if fiber optics happen to come up in conversation, I know enough to jump in and sound half intelligent.
“Learning how to communicate to your audience is probably the top skill I’ve used consistently throughout my career. You don’t really think about it in straight news as much, but you learn it instinctively – always asking yourself: Will the audience care about this? Do I need to explain this concept or will doing that insult their intelligence? Is this a topic they like to read about? Is this a format they prefer?
“Later as I got into B2B publishing and then agencies, those are the questions I still ask myself every day when planning content. It’s just different than straight news, because instead of your audience being “all humans who can read and live in this area,” it’s “grocery store managers” or “hospital system executives.” Knowing your audience and thinking about things from their point of view is key whether you’re creating an infographic, pitching to a journalist, or writing a tweet.”
Even though most folks said the skills transferred, more than a few said they still had to struggle a bit when it came to making the switch. Not everything they did in news worked in PR and not every PR need was taught to them during their college career.
A content manager for a firm that specializes in thought leadership said it took a while to settle into the new job and new expectations:
“The skills transfer, but the processes took me a while to figure out. I’ve only worked for one PR firm, but the systems in place are so much more structured than anything I ever experienced in newsrooms, even when I worked for Gannett. Most days, that’s a good thing – the people in charge know what they’re doing and really think ahead – but I do miss the freedom of just jumping in my car to find a random story.”
A PR professional at a prestigious private university also said that although the skills transfer, he’s not done learning yet:
“I find the writing I do in my current job very challenging, which is a great perk frankly. And I can read the minds of reporters and editors with a fair degree of accuracy. I wouldn’t be able to do my current job nearly as well without my journalism training and experience. That said, I learn everyday from my colleagues who do not have a journalism background. Their skills and viewpoints are different but complementary.”