What makes a good PR pro: A degree or a journalism background?

This former journalist (hint, hint) posits four reasons that experience trumps a degree. Do you agree?

In my experience, I’ve found that the most successful PR people are those who think and act like reporters.

Anyone in sales will tell you that you have to know your customer base. For those of us who toil pitching stories to reporters, it certainly helps—and may be imperative—to have the journalistic background that tells how to define a story, write it and present it. PR is sales, and reporters are the customers.

When I was a journalism student at Fordham University, one of my instructors was a news director at a New York City radio station. He told us repeatedly to use the “who cares?” rule to decide which stories to choose for that night’s newscast. Who cares if a guy drove off the George Washington Bridge? Who cares if the price of oil went through the roof today?

The answer to “who cares?” would determine the order of the stories. If more people care about the price of oil than the poor guy who drove off the bridge, then oil is the top story. Journalists know this viscerally. PR people who have never worked in a newsroom may not have that kind of news judgment.

Here’s a quick recap of four key reasons why journalists make the best PR pros. If your department or hiring manager is debating whom to hire—a former journalist versus someone who has never worked the newsroom—offer this list.

1. A nose for news will help drive client coverage.

First and foremost, it’s our job as PR pros to advise clients on what stories to send out. We’re successful if we can do this with authority. There’s no use letting a client believe that a ho-hum story will sell; we will only look foolish when we can’t sell it. With a reporter’s nose for news, we know to offer the proper advice. If the client knows our background as journalists, he or she will take it.

2. Press releases and company/client copy will be more clear, compelling and accurate.

It is likewise with the writing of a news release. Write your release as well as the stories in newspapers (on websites, etc.), and without the back-patting, peddling and verbosity some would include. Releases should also include data to support what’s presented.

Who better to write a release than the former journalist who has written a thousand stories, and to whom writing comes naturally? Yes, there may be messaging slipped in and a quote attributed to the client, but a good release will be solid news that a media outlet will be happy to share with readers.

3. Hit rates for client or company pitches will increase.

A former reporter knows not to call reporters when they are on deadline—harder these days because of around-the-clock-news—and to make it quick. It is best to avoid these phone calls, but if necessary, include only pertinent information.

4. Media connections will increase and reporter rapport will improve.

Journalists know how to follow a reporter and get to know what topics the person is most likely to report on. Good PR people, like journalists, scour news outlets and read everything they can get their eyes on. They know who’s covering what.

If PR pros are really good, by the time they make a pitch they are able to offer other interview subjects (even if they don’t represent them) and other angles to a story. Former journalist PR pros think like reporters and do everything in their power to help them put together a piece they can sell to an editor.

My background is in radio news; I worked on constant deadline in a busy New York City newsroom. I had to interview newsmakers, cut tape, write stories and package a five-minute newscast, often in fewer than 30 minutes.

There is no better training in decision-making, writing, interviewing and presenting. I learned that there was no such answer as “no.” If there was a story that required an interview from a certain politician, that person had to be found. Deadlines were immovable, and there was no excuse for dead air—not even a split second for a pause or misstep.

This is the way it is in PR, especially when working with journalists at major outlets. If you want your clients to be in a story, you have to make the interview happen per the reporter’s deadline. It helps to beat the deadline so the competition doesn’t snag it first.

There is a potential downside to all of this. Former journalists generally have a number of friends and colleagues working as reporters or editors at the outlets they pitch. Some would say this is an advantage, and they’d be right. But it can also be a disadvantage.

When we are close to someone, it can be difficult to approach him time and again asking for coverage. We don’t want to damage friendships. For me, this was the most difficult part of the transition from the newsroom to the agency. Though I’ve bitten the bullet hundreds of times to make those pitches, I have winced on many occasions. Having these contacts is helpful, but good businesspeople must be judicious.

Also, I will admit that there are good public relations programs at some very good universities. I wouldn’t shy away from hiring someone who came to me with a PR degree and the skills described above, but I would prefer a seasoned journalist.

Debra Caruso is president/owner of DJC Communications, a media relations firm in New York City. She is a former reporter and producer for WHN Radio in New York, and former news director at WFUV Radio. A version of this article originally ran on PR Café. This article first appeared on Ragan.com in August 2011.

Topics: PR


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