Career Makeover: How to Transition
from Journalist to PR Pro
By Linda A. Johnson, Jeff Winton Associates Consultant
Journalists often joke that their counterparts in public and media relations work on “the dark side.” I admit doing so at times over my long journalism career.
But after decades covering and breaking exciting news as an Associated Press pharmaceutical and medical writer, I wanted new challenges. I decided to become an entrepreneur and check out the dark side.
For others mulling a similar career switch, I can attest my time as a hired communicator has been far from dark. I’m enjoying working with a new cast of colleagues on many different types of work, including ghost-writing bylined articles, advising drugmakers on strategies for earning media coverage and preparing white papers, press releases, fact sheets and website copy.
Happily, I’ve been able to use many of my journalist skills to smoothly transition to PR. Here’s a look at some key abilities needed to succeed in the world of communications for an agency or corporation - and how to make those skills really count.
Being a quick study. Reporters regularly do assignments on unfamiliar topics, products or companies, so they master learning everything they can ASAP and then swiftly crafting their story. Similarly, quickly eliciting the news and key background from your client enables you to do a great job spreading their message.
Having a nose for news. Knowing what will interest different reporters and media outlets - and what won’t – gives you a big advantage over spokespeople and writers who have never worked in journalism. Use that savvy to confidently advise clients on which outlets to pitch to, how to craft pitches and what angles to stress, along with setting realistic expectations on the coverage they’ll likely get.
Doing great interviews. Getting interview subjects to open up about themselves as well as their work enables journalists to tell an authentic, compelling story their audience will enjoy. That talent will facilitate interviewing client executives so you can ghostwrite articles for professional journals and trade media publications or prepare material for investor presentations or employee town halls. Interview skills also are essential for human interest and other feature stories on company intranet sites and the like.
Analyzing and translating the complex. For journalists, particularly those covering dense topics such as medicine and science, turning Ph.D.-level vocabulary and concepts into plain English for the lay public requires current knowledge of the field and the ability to decode science-speak. Use your well-honed research skills to find the best online references, journal reports, statistical sources and, if possible, experts you can question, so you truly understand the client’s information and can write clearly and compellingly about it. Make sure to have the client review your wording.
Multitasking. Just as journalists juggle work for spot stories and longer-term projects on top of keeping up with the daily deluge of news, email, texts and calls, PR pros usually have multiple items on their plates. To keep clients happy, prioritize and keep a running list of tasks and when they must be completed.
Being flexible. Just as major breaking news makes journalists drop what they were doing and switch gears, urgent client needs may suddenly crop up and take over your day. Enjoy the adrenaline rush instead of panicking. Quickly make a plan for how to best help the client, coordinate with the key people right away and get cracking.
Assembling a news package. For significant stories, journalists assemble not just their story, but other angles for possible sidebars, social media posts to promote media coverage and art such as photos, video and graphics. PR pros pitching stories to journalists should provide at least most of those items to boost chances their client’s news gets strong coverage.
As with journalism, helping corporate clients spread their news comes down to consistently clear communication backed by insightful analysis, knowledge of the topic no matter how technical, speedy writing, people skills and a dash of creativity.
Linda A. Johnson has been a strategy consultant and writer for biopharmaceutical- and healthcare-focused public relations agencies, professional associations and startup companies since 2021. She was an award-winning medical writer for more than 30 years at The Associated Press, previously worked for other media outlets and is a Fulbright scholar.