Advice on how to make a journalist hire work for your communications and PR team

Over the last decade there has been a vocal and ongoing debate about whether journalists can make good PRs. At Deverill we feel that this is far too simplistic a way to look at the issue. We therefore decided to survey a pool of former journalists who have moved into senior PR roles – some more successfully than others – to move the debate forward. Our conclusions should help senior executives and HR directors to identify what to expect and consider when interviewing senior journalists for PR roles in their organisations, and we have also outlined some key points to consider when recruiting a former journalist.

Without meaning to state the blindingly obvious – journalists can write; quickly, accurately and insightfully. There is no doubt that this is one of the key skills that can also serve to make them great PRs. Our survey results showed that former journalists consider their ability to write equally as important in their PR role as ‘knowing how the media works’ and ‘knowing what makes a story’.

This ability to predict potential angles for a story is another obvious key strength of the former journalist. Our research showed that they feel most confident in helping to place articles, in anticipating difficult questions and predicting potential pitfalls for a company when dealing with the press. Equally, having a robust contacts book and ‘the ability to sell’, especially during the current climate, came through strongly in our research as naturally transferable skills.

Although these abilities are no doubt important, journalists, like other sections of society, are known to have certain personality traits. The ones that seem to be the most beneficial for successful converts to PR, in either a corporate or agency, are curiosity, being a self-starter and having the pragmatism (or perhaps the cynicism) needed to question a received wisdom. Also valuable is the ability of the journalist to think quickly on his or her feet – to ask the right question at the right time in order to anticipate upcoming issues. A further strength is their ability to see the broader picture and get the gist of an argument long before other colleagues may, inside or outside of PR. Furthermore, confidence built over years of interviewing top management enables them to give tough advice to CEOs and Chairmen which their non-journalist colleagues might find more difficult to deliver.

Although journalists have plenty of positive skills and traits, the move from journalist to PR isn’t always plain sailing. For instance, over half of journalists questioned cited that they had to work hard at communicating within a team environment and to understand ‘corporate thinking’ to progress in their career. Having operated as sole traders for so long, the currency of shared communication was often alien to those used to working autonomously. The concept of hitting performance targets such as KPIs, delivering 360 degree staff assessments, drawing up and maintaining budgets, and the
limited flexibility of their working days came as something of a shock to the system for many. Several were astonished by the amount of process and administration involved in large and even small companies. As free thinkers, many struggled with having to fit within a structured environment and being collegiate and collaborative.

Over 85% of those that responded had received no training, or indeed re-training, when they moved from journalism to communications. Those that worked in the financial PR environment wished they had had a more structured training on the ‘City Code’. Others were flummoxed by the breadth and the scope of PR. One cited ‘PR is like an iceberg, when outside the industry you see the effortlessly reached pinnacle, however until you are on the other side of the fence you don’t realise the sheer hard work beneath the surface.’

Whilst happily around 90% of those questioned said they had no regrets about leaving journalism, there were the odd few that did. Although they were, in the main ‘happy’ in their present employment, they still had an ambition to go back to journalism or a broader writing environment one day.

In our view, successfully placing journalists into senior PR roles is based around five principles, which we outline below. However there is one overarching mantra – culture, culture, culture. It is essential every step of the way to ensure the employer has a full and frank discussion about the culture of the organisation the journalist will be joining. Crucially this must focus on how the organisation operates, the working environment and the daily routine.

Once you feel the potential employee has a genuine sense of the culture shift they may face, then move onto the five checklist principles.

Firstly, make sure they have a genuine reason to leave journalism. PR is a serious and demanding profession and should not be seen as an ‘escape route’ in harsh economic times.

Second, ensure they can work as part of a team. At Deverill we use a psychometric testing tool to help clients measure potential candidates’ ability and aptitude for this.

Third, clarify that they have a broader skill set than purely reporting and that they have experience as a commentator with proven analytical skills. Without analysis, there can be no advice, and being a good advisor is the cornerstone to becoming a successful PR.

Fourth, give them some formal training on their arrival; either about business, management or financial regulation. A large part of PR is giving common sense advice, but don’t underestimate what you have learnt during your career in structured and sometimes political environments.

Finally, ensure they recognise the need for humility when they move across into communications. There will be plenty of times when they no longer have the last say or word. As Hemingway wrote in The Old Man and the Sea, “Humility is not disgraceful, and carries no loss of true pride.”

Many journalists have made extremely successful transitions into the communications industry and have become leaders on both sides of the fence. At Deverill we believe that by focusing on the five principles we have identified, both employer and employee can avoid some of the more obvious and avoidable pitfalls of this transition and minimise the potential risk.