From Journalist to PR Pro: How to Tackle the Stereotypes that Plague Our Professions

By Rose Lee
Rose is a former news reporter who holds a new appreciation for “the dark side” (aka PR) after seeing how SSPR champions values similar to journalism standards: a respect for research, integrity, and quality relationship-building.
 

The human brain likes to categorize things. It’s a survival skill designed to help make sense of the complex world around us. It’s also the reason we’re so quick to stereotype. Entire professions, for example, are branded with blanket characterizations: nurses are sweet, entrepreneurs are savvy and models are vain.

While these stereotypes arguably possess slivers of connection to the truth, they’re more often harmful than not. As a former news reporter who now works in PR – or as journalists call it, “the dark side” – I’ve learned firsthand that letting go of our biases leads to more mutual success than you’d expect.

When we allow our minds to constantly entertain negative stereotypes about other professions, we hinder fruitful collaboration between disciplines – a vital part of what makes progress and meaningful change possible. The notorious love-hate relationship between PR and journalism doesn’t have to be an end-all-be-all. Here are ways to overcome common stereotypes about PR pros and journalists, from someone who’s been on both sides.

To Journalists:

Don’t assume PR pros are sellouts. When I was working as a reporter, I was guilty of believing a common stereotype about the PR industry: that it’s filled with people who either couldn’t make it as a journalist or sold out for higher salaries and better job security. I never thought I’d cross over to the dark side back then, but here I am. The truth is, it’s not all that dark over here.

There’s nothing wrong with changing your career to gain more stability in your life – financial or otherwise. And now that I’ve lived the life of a PR pro, I know firsthand how much skill, determination and emotional intelligence is needed to excel in this profession. There’s nothing easy about PR if you do it right, and it’s incredibly rewarding when you do.

Remember PR pros are people, too. One of journalists’ biggest pet peeves about PR pros is that they don’t treat journalists like people. When pitches aren’t personalized, when follow-up attempts cross the line, when a client’s new technology is touted as revolutionary and MUST BE PAID ATTENTION TO – it’s undoubtedly annoying. “Just treat me like I’m a human being, not a name on a list,” I’d often think as a reporter reading pitches that had nothing to do with my beat. As much as that thought held true, I’ve also come to realize journalists have a stake in treating PR pros with more humanity, too.

The PR industry’s plagued with an incredibly high turnover rate – meaning lots of PR people you’re working with are new to the job or still learning to master their roles. Just like journalists learn to master their craft by learning from mistakes, PR pros will improve if you give them a chance to learn from theirs. One reporter may thank me for sending a follow-up, while another will say they don’t like follow-ups at all. It takes time for PR pros to learn the varying preferences of reporters.

So instead of simply dismissing pitches, try adding a short reason as to why you’re passing. Even if it’s just a few words like, “Not in my coverage area,” or, “I don’t read pitches sent after 3 p.m.” The best PR people will take note of their error, run with your feedback and improve how they pitch you in the future. That ultimately means less misguided pitches in your inbox.

Dispel the myth that PR pros have self-serving, ulterior motives. It’s easy to develop a mindset that PR people are blindly promoting their client’s cause when you’re being bombarded with pitches all day every day. While it’s our job to make clients sound as interesting as possible, not all PR pros are carelessly pushing for undeserved coverage. I can honestly say I have some of the most dedicated and passionate colleagues at SSPR. Our agency has an internal RFP process to staff accounts, which means we get to work with clients we’re truly passionate about. I not only strive to remain knowledgeable of the respective industries they play ball in, but I also believe in what my clients are doing.

Journalism operates under the belief that everyone has a story to tell. A genuine PR pro wants to help reporters uncover compelling stories. Our intentions aren’t always as self-serving as they may seem. Treating PR people with too much caution could keep you from getting your hands on a great story.

To PR Pros:

Internalize this fact: Journalists really are that busy. Anyone who works in PR has been ignored or ghosted by a reporter. Don’t take it personally. It’s important not to lose sight of how busy reporters and editors really are, especially in the continuing age of staff cuts and newsroom restructuring. Remind yourself that for every journalist, there are about five PR specialists. While it’s impossible to tailor every message perfectly, it’s crucial that you try. Personalizing pitches isn’t just a nice cherry on top. It’s a necessity. Keep your emails short, relevant and helpful. Journalists are juggling more tasks for less pay under tighter deadlines. Respect their time.

Don’t perpetuate the idea that all journalists hate PR pros. Yes, most journalists tend to be short and to-the-point. It’s human to feel offended when a reporter responds to your seemingly well-crafted pitch with an unexplained “no,” or provides brutally honest feedback you’re not happy to hear. There are lots of ways pitches can go wrong. Journalists don’t have time to sugar-coat feedback. Getting defensive only hinders your ability to learn. Put your ego aside and focus on how to improve.

Make a real effort to understand how newsrooms work. Most PR pros have a general idea of how newsrooms work. However, not all understand the intricacies. This lack of awareness often perpetuates negative stereotypes about journalists.

Did a reporter change their mind about covering your client last minute? Did they interview your client and then fail to mention them in the article? Did a writer say they’d get back to you on a pitch only to fall off the face of the earth? The easy explanation is that the reporter’s a jerk. The truth, most likely? Just like PR pros don’t have total control over their clients’ decisions, many journalists don’t have total control of their published articles. Editors can cut quotes out of a story without warning. It’s just the nature of the industry.

The main takeaway from my experience on both sides of the fence? Let’s all take a deep breath. Remember, we’re human. Both PR pros and journalists make mistakes, and neither group can improve our interaction when we give in to stereotypes. With an open mind that aims to look beyond stereotypes, the relationship between the two professions can flourish.

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