Shedding light on the dark side

This article was originally published in 2012.

There are times in most journalists’ careers when they glance over the fence at the greener grass of public relations and wonder what it would be like to jump. Former Seven News reporter Alicia Hall switched teams 18 months ago, and offers valuable perspective.

Providing an insight into life in the public relations world couldn’t be more timely with news of mass redundancies across all sectors of the media. In the last week alone, I’ve been approached by two of my girlfriends and three other people in media wanting to grab a coffee so they can pick my brains about ‘‘making the switch’’ to the ‘‘always wondered about’’ field of PR.

I made the change because I knew from being a TV reporter for almost eight years that there weren’t many good PR people out there. Events? Yes, Melbourne does events extremely well. But when it comes to media relations and storytelling, there was, and still is, a gaping hole. In starting an agency along with an established PR professional, Lainie Blusztein, called Project PR & Media, we’re aiming to alter the reputation the PR industry has created.

So, here goes, with some brutal honesty (not so unusual for me). I hope to help anyone who is sick of being underpaid, working 14-hour days (often cooped in a news car with no food and a grumpy cameraman) and being told to knock on the door of a mother who has just lost her child, for the sake of a photo.

However, I’ll start with some things that as a journalist, many of you take for granted.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for journalists not to underestimate the joy of being UNaccountable.

Yes, the job of a reporter can certainly be stressful. Trying to get an exclusive interview with a car crash victim’s family can be a nightmare, especially if you know your competitor already has it. Your chief of staff is calling you twice a minute to ask if there is any news at your end, as you stake out the house in the outer suburbs.

But at the end of the day, if you don’t get the interview, you go home feeling like a failure, yes, but you wake up to a new day, a new story and what happened yesterday is generally forgotten. You still get paid the same salary if your story falls over five days in a row.

Don’t get me wrong, PR people are also paid a set wage, but if you were to fail at something five times in a row (often due to something that is out of your control) the outcome would not be the same.

In PR, the stress is different, and, I would argue, much worse. You HAVE to secure a certain number of stories for each for your clients. If you don’t, well, there really is no ‘‘if you don’t’’. They pay a certain amount of money each month, in exchange for a certain number of ‘‘hits’’. So, if you’ve recently received a desperate call from a PR person trying to convince you (in some cases even begging you) to run their story, this is why.

If a story idea had been pitched to you but you never replied or, worse still, you took them up on their offer, did the interviews, shot and wrote the story but it didn’t get a run, well, that’s every PR person’s nightmare. We don’t know whether to pitch it elsewhere, or wait until this one goes to air or to print. All the while, time is ticking and at the end of the month when the client meeting comes around, you HAVE to have met your set targets.

As a journalist, I never had to meet targets because they don’t exist in the world of a reporter.

So how do we meet our targets? Number one for me is contacts. One of the biggest surprises I received when I joined the ‘‘dark side’’ was exactly how valuable every one of my media friends became.

What I learnt very quickly is the ‘‘them and us’’ mentality between PRs and reporters is alive and well. In some ways, I can understand why as a lot of people in public relations don’t understand the media, but in other ways it absolutely frustrates the life out of me.

Warning: if you’re going to make the switch, be prepared to be patronised by reporters who have been in the industry for less than a second and think you are stupid, be prepared to be hung up on by bitter editors who should have retired years ago, and be prepared to be told ‘‘that’s not a story’’ when you know perfectly well it is! A lot of us PR people are classed as ‘‘silly little time wasters’’ who don’t know what makes a good story.

From my experience, when a reporter receives an email from an unknown PR, no matter what the subject line says, it is generally ignored (unless it’s followed up with that desperate phone call and you, by chance, haven’t deleted it). Having strong contacts in the media can make or break a career in PR, so if you do decide to jump ship, take your relationships with you.

The second most important thing you’ll need to bring is the skill of storytelling.

One of Melbourne’s most experienced TV news reporters, and my former Seven News colleague, Dean Felton, recently wrote a column for this website justifying colour stories, and detailing how they can help leaven the often dark and depressing line-up of bad news that dominates nightly agendas.

He also confirmed telling colour stories requires more imagination than might be called upon for your average story. The big ones write themselves, as they say, but softer stories need some effort in telling and selling.

This is what I have found to be the main challenge of working in PR. When a client is paying you to generate publicity for a cup or a website or an industrial laundry, trying to make it ‘‘sexy’’ and newsworthy often seems impossible. This is where the skills I learnt as a journalist save me.

As another of my former TV news reporter colleagues used to say ‘‘the majority of our job is spent turning shit into strawberry jam’’. This art still applies in PR, perhaps more than it does in the media. Seeing the bigger picture, and understanding how the product you’re promoting will fit into a broader story, is key. No one is going to run an advertisement for you unless you pay for it and that is not PR.

As Dean Felton also described in his post, when there’s no obvious news peg, it’s up to the reporter to find enough elements to hold the viewer’s attention. In PR, it’s up to us to find that peg and captivate the reporter, chief of staff or producer enough to run the story. It’s extremely similar.

As a reporter, rarely would I toss and turn during the night, unless I knew I had to get up at 2am or 3am instead of 4.45am. I now know that was because I never knew what tomorrow would bring, so there was nothing to fret about. In PR, most meetings (and there are a lot of meetings, and meetings about meetings) are locked in days, even weeks, in advance, so you can often wake up at 2am and stress about all of the things on your agenda for the next day.

Client interaction was also a foreign concept. Clients rule your professional life in PR. It’s a constant balancing act to keep them all happy. Once you sweeten up one, another will become unhappy. Sometimes (actually often) things are done through a gritted-teeth smile and we laugh at situations we’re in because if we didn’t, we’d cry!

But in my opinion, the good things about PR outweigh the bad (I wouldn’t be here otherwise). I love a challenge, and if you’re not willing to wait in line for the next presenting gig, or live in hope that your decrepit news director will give up the ghost, please think about PR.

The hours are much kinder than journalism, there’s not too much doom, gloom and death knocks (actually, there are no death knocks) and you still get to tell a story about something every day. The difference is, you’re storytelling to a much tougher audience!

The truth is, there aren’t enough journalists in the world of PR, but hopefully that’s about to change.

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