You likely know several comms leaders who describe themselves as former reporters or, if they have a sense of humor, recovering journalists. In the wake of countless newsroom layoffs and the ever-creeping influence of generative AI, those struggling to find stable work in the media industry can go on to have fruitful careers in PR. But the same skills and disciplines that journalists apply to a media relations role are also useful in internal comms.
The big shift, according to The Home Depot’s Senior. Director of Content, Creative, HD Story Labs and Home Depot TV Lou Dubois, comes from understanding that your work won’t be front-facing anymore — and that’s all right.
“What do you tell people that you do for a living when you go to that dinner party?” wondered Dubois. “It’s a little bit of ego, but it’s also being OK with the idea that there are a lot of complex jobs out in the world, and you don’t have to be the person who has an easy job to explain. It’s okay to have a job that isn’t so public facing. In fact, it might be better for you.”
Dubois co-hosts the Beyond the Newsroom podcast with former network news correspondent Diana Alvear, and the two interview former journalists with the intent of helping others succeed in their careers outside of the newsroom. Conversations are built on an understanding that the playing field is different now than it once was.
“It’s not easy to dream about a long life in journalism,” said Dubois. “That, to a degree, doesn’t exist in this generation the way it did for our predecessors, unfortunately. This world is evolving every day, every week, every year, and so are the jobs and careers you can find yourself in. It doesn’t need to be a linear path.”
His words underscore how many former journalists bring their myriad skills to internal and employee comms, too.
Journalists become effective, flexible internal project managers
Kate Seegraves, senior manager of communications at Silfex and a former journalist herself, firmly believes that journalists make great internal communicators, emphasizing that the journalistic discipline of having a sound process and project management is an underacknowledged skill.
“Journalists have got multiple stories and projects at any given point,” she said. “They’re juggling and managing all those different things to publication. That takes the ability to understand where I am in the creation and execution process. When do I need it? What pieces am I missing to make this a good piece of writing? What do I need to double-check? What do I need to verify?”
Journalism and internal comms also require flexibility when the project changes.
“When you’re a journalist, you could be writing this amazing piece and it’s going to get bumped because something happens and you have to adapt — just like internal comms,” said Seegraves. “You could be working on this amazing, wonderful campaign and then a crisis happens that completely upends the Monopoly board. Then you have to figure out the new landscape and how things fit into it, or don’t.”
Moving from journalism to internal comms has empowered Seegraves to push back on certain decisions. It may be saying “This may not work, but here’s why” or, “’ Here’s why we can’t do a certain thing right now.’ It’s not a no, just a ‘not yet,'” Seegraves explained.
Journalists and internal comms both understand accountability and trust
Both journalists and internal comms care strongly about doing right by their readers and audience. “You want to give them clear information because, as a journalist, you have that responsibility to your community, ” she said, “to be honest and upfront.”
“Same thing for an internal communicator. Your employees ultimately need that information you’re presenting to them to do their job well, to understand and connect to the greater mission of the business.”
When Dubois initially made the switch, his biggest mental shift was moving from the day-to-day outputs of journalism to an internal comms leadership position and realizing that you may not see actual contributions around some of this work for six months or so. There’s an implicit trust that you’re giving the team everything they need and they’re going to deliver on what the expectation is.
“It’s trusting them that they’re gonna do what they need to do every day to get to that goal, right?” he said.
Internal comms can apply journalism’s hierarchy of story
Dubois emphasizes that internal communicators, like journalists, must find the work that will be enhanced by their skills and also keep them motivated.
“Ultimately, I can’t do my job without applying journalistic principles to a lot of my conversations,” he said. “You think about the hierarchy of story, right? That doesn’t change when you’re telling a brand story.”
A guest on a recent episode of Duboi’s podcast, Jonathan McFadden, who leads UX at Shopify, said he thinks about that hierarchy every time he creates a web page. While that concept was new to Dubois, he said it shows the benefit of journalistic skills in most other disciplines of work.
Seegraves adds that sometimes remembering the basic journalism lessons like an inverted pyramid reporting structure helps her when drafting emails.
“It’s still something that you need to remember because internal communications can be so dry and kind of rote,” she said. “You want to pull people in and say, ‘If you’re only going to read the subject line and the first two sentences of this email, here’s what you need to know.’”
Nurturing communication-based relationships
If there’s a caveat to any of this, it’s that journos are often so adept at working with their heads down that it can be jarring to suddenly learn how to work with a team.
“There’s something that is embedded in your brain as a journalist, this mentality that is me (or us) against everybody else, this incredibly competitive aspect of performance,” Dubois said. “And when you make the switch to another career, whether it’s to PR, marketing, whatever the role is, you have to relearn what it’s like to work within a team sometimes, and realize that to accomplish the goal, it’s no longer an individual sport.”
“There’s a lot to be said for being able to communicate clearly within those relationships, and not just from an accountability or transparency perspective,” added Seegraves. “You need information, you need details, you need facts to get the piece written. As a journalist, you learn to talk to lots of different types of people who have lots of different types of knowledge bases and you learn to get the info. You learn how to phrase things in a way that gets you the nuggets in such a way that you can get the piece written for your audience. That’s not a skill everybody has.”
Dubois clarified that his time working in the TV medium was very much a team sport — a nightly news team has producers, editors, graphics, a news desk and more. That said, learning to work in a group as you move into leadership roles can be challenging for some to learn and relearn. But having more resources and a team at the ready helps—and offers a degree of institutional support that many journalists are not used to.
“In this new environment, you often have more resources,” Dubois said. “That’s the biggest differentiator — you just have to figure out who those people are and who you can work with that has a similar mindset, a similar work style. Find your people, that’s always been my thing.”
Justin Joffe is the editor-in-chief at Ragan Communications. Before joining Ragan, Joffe worked as a freelance journalist and communications writer specializing in the arts and culture, media and technology PR, and ad tech beats. His writing has appeared in several publications including Vulture, Newsweek, Vice, Relix, Flaunt, and many more. You can find him on Twitter @joffaloff.