Over the years, the group of writers at ITBusiness, which includes all our print publications, has shrunk in size. Like most other publishing houses, it has fallen victim to the shifting sands of the IT market. We hire now very rarely, as positions to fill are few and far between.
Those jobs that do become available are usually those of entry-level writer. Filling those positions usually falls on the shoulders of Shane Schick, editor of the ITBusiness.ca Web site, who manages the pool of writers working in that division. It’s an onerous, painstaking process, and one he is not fond of repeating with any frequency.
Often – more frequently than we would like — when there is a gaping hole to fill, it’s because the writer has been seduced by the PR firms who come calling early in the writer’s tenure here, before the kind of alliances are forged that would make that decision unlikely for most of us.
And usually, that person is hired by the PR firms holding the accounts of the clients we interview for stories, putting them in the awkward position of having to pitch stories to the writers and editors they recently worked with.
Some people make this transition better than others. Some use the knowledge they’ve gained of how newsrooms work by making sure they target with their e-mail and follow-up phone calls only those whose readership would likely be interested in such stories.
Others either didn’t acquire this knowledge of what to pitch to whom during their time on the journalism side or just seem not to care once they leave. Or, unfortunately for them, their new employer refuses to listen to them – which was ostensibly the reason they were hired in the first place — and forces them to carpet-bomb everyone on their e-mail list, complete with follow-up phone calls.
I can think of several ex-colleagues who now work in PR on whom I know I can rely for last-minute interviews and an unvarnished assessment of what the real story is. I can think of several more whose calls I ignore when their phone numbers come up on call display and whose e-mails get automatically deleted.
So to those who’ve made the transition successfully, I salute you. To those who still don’t have a clue, chances are you just never will. And for those who really want to make the relationships you once had with journalists work in your favour, here are a few tips from someone who, in my opinion, has made that transition successfully.
Lawrence Cummer, who left the position of editor of Communications &Networking magazine six years ago to join Environics PR, advises former journalists now on the other side of the fence to not abandon the sense of news value they once exercised. Clients need to know the PR professionals they hire have a clear idea of what could – and should – make it into print (or online). But, he adds, “That works both ways. It makes us more relevant to journalists as well.”
Former journalists, Cummer adds, also need to buy into a concept that doesn’t really exist in the news room: customer service. Yes, writers know they are accountable to their readers, but customer service in a business sense is just not part of most journalists’ daily reality. PR is all about customer service — and it must seem like everyone is your customer sometimes. But you can’t provide good customer service to your client at the expense of reporters, Cummer points out.
“You wouldn’t want to work towards successful short-term advantage and get a quick and dirty story when it would compromise future stories,” he says.
Last, Cummer says a successful transition, which ultimately translates into high job satisfaction, comes from understanding what the job really involves. And while to those on the outside it might look like it’s all press releases and media briefings, the reality is there’s much more.
“It’s not just the place you work, which is really important — some places foster and hire a lot of former journalists and some places former journalists leave — but it’s also the understanding that PR isn’t just news releases and media relations,” he says. “Not everyone is going to like the tasks … (but) you have to like the fact you are accountable to people.”
Kathleen Sibley is the editor of Technology in Government.