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Poacher turned gamekeeper – why journalists work well in PR
01 Feb 2017
by Rebecca Dutton

I worked as a journalist for seven years for a variety of newspapers and magazines- and loved it.

Public relations was known as the ‘dark side’ and I often viewed emails and phone calls from PR officers with a wry smile at what they thought might make a good news story.

But I could always spot the PR officers who had previously been journalists.

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They knew how to write a good press release, they gave their story an angle and they made it interesting. They included usable photos with captions. They provided full names for quotes with ages and where the person lived. They made it easy for me to want to use the story.

PR officers who launched into a pitch without a previous background in journalism tried to sell-in stories that were just not interesting, their placement of products or their company’s name was too obvious and they couldn’t understand why you couldn’t print their press release word for word. They were trying to get me to print an advert for free.

Unless you have been a journalist, you cannot thoroughly understand what a newspaper, radio or magazine is looking for in a news story. You need to know how a journalist’s mind works and how journalists operate.

Journalists are busy people and, especially on local newspapers, have a lot of column inches to fill. If a PR officer can write and edit copy, spot and spin a good story and make life easier for the journalist, then the press release is much more likely to appear in the newspaper in a prominent position with little editing.

While it’s a cliche, poacher turned gamekeeper certainly sums it up. A journalist is trying to get the best story he or she can – preferably on the front page –  while a PR officer is trying to get their client in the news in a positive light. If a PR officer can do both, then they are onto a winner.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, a PR journalist knows when to avoid ringing the newsdesk to pitch a story. Calling five minutes before deadline is not going to do you any favours.

Journalists are always looking for human-interest stories. If a PR officer can turn a story from a client into something which has a human-interest angle- something perhaps to do with family or the reason behind why a business is launching a new product etc. then those stories are more likely to succeed. Think triumph over adversity.

Journalists turned PR officers have contacts. They know the media in the area and they know to whom to send the right story. They certainly don’t use a media-contact agency to blankly fire at everyone and anyone.

Journalists have been brought up in a harsh environment. News editors have screamed at them for not using collective nouns, for putting a comma in the wrong place, for writing desert instead of dessert. Check, check and check. If your press release is full of typos, it will end up in the trash.

A PR officer trained as a journalist knows that one word is better than 10. Keep it short and concise. Space is at a premium and if a journalist has to edit your work down, they might not bother.

A PR officer with a journalist’s background knows how important a photo is – as they say, every picture tells a story. It is a good idea to take your own to rule out copyright issues and to always get everyone’s full name for captions.

Working in PR is definitely a big change to working as a journalist but the experience I learnt during those seven years on the Grimsby Telegraph, Shropshire Star, Shropshire Magazine and Moose Jaw Times-Herald as well as freelancing for a variety of magazines has stood me in the best stead possible for a career in public relations.