Almost DailyBrett editor’s note: The following open letter is written to a long-time colleague, who in her own words feels like “fish out of water.” She is presently making the seismic shift from a successful career as a reporter/editor for three regional newspapers to becoming a public relations executive for the first time. Her name, venue and present and past employers will remain confidential, but I will share my humble advice to her on the chance it may help other journalists in making a similar career change.

Even though many of your Fourth Estate colleagues and friends may chide you for abandoning your virtues and taking the plunge to the dark side, keep in mind that most of them are simply envious of your courage and opportunities. Many newspapers will not survive the year, let alone the decade. You have made a proactive change that has the potential of being much more lucrative than if you merely stayed the course.

Keep in mind that not all journalists are cut out to be good public relations “flacks.” Yes, there are the same demands associated with making deadlines, exercising news judgment, getting your facts straight and applying the same journalistic techniques (e.g. adherence to AP style), but that is where the majority of the similarities end.

Now that you have made the switch, here are a few techniques that will hopefully lead to a successful transition to the bright lights of the dark side:

● Your former colleagues at your previous publications are not your friends, especially if they are covering your client. They are now friendly and skeptical (hopefully not cynical) adversaries, but adversaries nonetheless. What you say to them, even in a casual conversation, can be misquoted. You are now a spokesperson for your client, and your client signs your pay check.

● When working with reporters, just assume that everything is “on the record.” Avoid going on “deep background” or the rare instances of employing “off the record” for your conversations. If you assume that everything is “on the record” there will be no misunderstandings and naturally you will be much more disciplined with your words.

● Never be afraid to respond with “I don’t know.” Ask the reporter about her or his deadline and get back as soon as you can with the information that is required in the way that you want to present it. The old joke is: “How many press secretaries does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is: “I don’t know, but I will find out for you.”

● Only approach reporters to pitch a story that is legitimate news. As a reporter, you inevitably rolled your eyes (if not a stronger reaction) when a flack approached you and wasted your time with a “news story” that didn’t pass the giggle test. The declining number of reporters that remain are inundated with pitches; make every one of your pitches count. One of the toughest parts of your job will be telling your internal clients that their activity is simply not newsworthy.

● As you well know lying is not an option. Having said that, managing information is your job. How a message is developed, how it is presented and when it is made public is what you are being paid to manage. Reporters refer to this technique as “spin control.” I call it managing information for the benefit of your client.

● Your job is 24-7-365. A crisis can occur at any time of day or night. I have taken reporter calls at 1:30 am and before the alarm goes off in the morning. When someone calls and says, “Gee, I hate calling you at home…” you are now on the record. The trick is to be always prepared to respond, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance…easier said than done. I rarely consumed a second beer or glass of wine, particularly during my service as the press secretary to the Governor of California, knowing full well that a genuine crisis could occur at any time of the day or night.

● Crisis communications is not a manual or a three-ring binder (even though key contact information is vital). Instead it is who, what, where, why and how are you going to make it right. Remember when it comes to bad news (and there will be bad news), you can make the disclosure or let someone else (an adversary, competitor, enemy) make it for you. This choice should be easy: manage or be managed.

● Looking at a financial statement, PR should not be seen as “SG&A” or Selling, General and Administrative (an expense) unless you want an unsympathetic Finance Department to zero out or greatly reduce your department. Instead, you need to demonstrate ROI so that your role is seen as positively contributing to the top line (revenues) and contributing to the expansion of gross margin and ultimately the bottom line. The key here is to document everything that you are doing for your client. Aligning your department with Sales, Marketing and in the case of publicly traded companies, the CFO, IR and Legal, is battle-tested job protection.

● Don’t be trapped into just using conventional tools to do your job. Pitching reporters, writing contributed articles, researching editorial calendars and issuing news releases still are effective in the second decade of the 21st Century. The thinning of the journalistic ranks means that self-publishing and using digital tools (e.g. blogging, podcasting, webcasting, social media) are absolutely critical to establishing thought leadership in your field. It is your job to convince management of this truth.

● Don’t allow the perception of your success or failure be dependent on the local paper that your superiors read every morning. You need to feed this 300-pound gorilla, but at the same time the trade publications, bloggers in your company’s field and of course your own self-publishing need to receive equal, if not greater attention.

● You would be wise to remind management that an organization’s most valuable asset is not bricks and mortar, fancy machines, but those women and men who leave each night and hopefully come back in the morning. Naturally, the focus is on customers and shareholders…and this is justified…but employees are just as important, if not more important, to the bottom line.

You have been honest about your feelings when you described yourself as a “fish out of water.” This is normal. Look at it another way: This is an important reset in your life that employs all of your professional skills in a different way. You respect your employer. They have a great story to tell. Go out and tell that story in the best way possible and let the chips fall as they may. This is an exciting time of your life and a challenging new opportunity.

Embrace the spirit of Carpe Diem and seize the day.

 

Advertisements