journalism

Advice for Aspiring PR Pros

Dear PR Student:

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

Congratulations. You are embarking on a fascinating career ride in public relations. Here is some unsolicited advice that may come in handy.

1. Take journalism classes. You very likely will be asked to write press releases. You should know what it's like to receive one.

Understanding news media needs and demands puts you in a better position to help, not just send an email with a news release. The goal is to get your client's message into print, online or on air. Having first-hand knowledge of how news is identified, researched, prepared and delivered can guide when and how you approach reporters and editors, as well as what you serve up to them.

Volunteering to work for a student newspaper is a great way to get experience. It will ground you in basics such as Associated Press style and serve as a reminder of grammar. It also will force you to write with the reader, not a client, in mind.

2. Be a liberal arts student. PR clients come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Their needs will stretch your knowledge. There is no way to know in advance everything you will need to know. The best you can do is to learn how to learn — fast.

Luckily, that is what a liberal arts education is intended to provide. All those non-major requirements may seem like boxes to check en route to a degree. In fact, they are important way stations to widen your horizon, to open your mind to knowledge you may have had no idea how to acquire or assimilate.

Take a physics class. You will be surprised how valuable it can be in understanding new technology. Take an economics class so your client's business plan doesn't look like gibberish.

3. Learn the tools of the trade. One of the exciting dimensions of public relations is that it deals with an environment that changes at the speed of light. Ten years ago, designing and building a website was a rarity. Today it is an imperative. Five years ago, people thought social media was a fad. Now it is viewed as an important communication channel.

The PR world five years from now is likely to be very different. However, you won't be able to leverage what's new if you aren't rooted in what's worked for a long time. A great example is how to fashion an effective presentation. The software may change and the animation may be cooler, but the fundamentals of a presentation that does its job won't be all that different.

You may write on an iPad or dictate into your Google glasses, but solid writing transcends the tools. Knowing how to tell a story and basic principles of design, which are universal, are foundation skills you should develop.

4. Know your chosen profession's history. PR professionals in the future will face an increasingly complex set of challenges in choosing the best platforms and the most resonant channels. A knowledge of how PR professionals in the past innovated is invaluable.

The use of events, contests, third-party validation, outrageous stunts, clever ads, smart writing and guest columns were all new in their time. Study to see how these ideas evolved so you understand, with some helpful perspective, how you go from problem to solution with creativity and élan. You don't need to discover gravity or reinvent the wheel. You can learn from your peers how they did it, so you can do it, too.

A Third Way for the Media

What if a media outlet's advertising staff consisted of writers, photographers and graphic designers who produced custom content for clients that ran in clearly designated, but parallel tracks to the outlet's news content?

Far-fetched? In a digital world that rewards content marketing, it may already be a reality, which traditional media have been slow to embrace.

Bill Momary, writing for NetNewsCheck, says traditional media may be off track trying to find ways to monetize their news content. What they should do instead, he suggests, is gear up to help advertisers tell their stories through content marketing published in conjunction with news content.

That could involve advertising departments hiring writers, photographers, videographers and graphic designers to generate compelling content that tells a story about new products or improved customer service. 

The idea splinters the image, held by old-time reporters and editors like me, that news and advertising staffs work in parallel, but separate universes. In the new model hinted at by Momary, the separation would remain, but the skill sets of the news and marketing content generators would be almost identical. Staff on both sides of the newsroom "Iron Curtain" would be looking for fresh, inviting and informative stories to entice readers.

What these new online publications would look like isn't pictured in Momary's blog, but you could imagine a blending not unlike what you see evolving in social media sites. Except in the case of online news outlets, there would be a built-in acceptance of seeing news and marketing content side by side, unlike on Facebook, which may have spoiled a generation of original users by making its platform available for free. 

Tips for Brand Journalists

Brand journalism is all about feeding your viewers content that interests or informs them, rather than writing a string of press releases about what you want to tell them.

For many PR and marketing professionals, especially those who never worked on a college student newspaper, brand journalism can be uncomfortable. Training to develop and deliver key messages must give way to reportorial instincts about story hooks, absorbing stories and visual storytelling. You don't push, you reel in. You don't hype, you engage.

For the journalistically challenged, here are some brand journalism tips: 

1. Think stories, not press releases

Reporters and their editors think in terms of stories. What's happening that is newsworthy? What would our readers or viewers like to know? Brand journalists should ask the same kinds of questions to determine what kind of content to post on a website or a blog. Understanding brand consumers and their expectations is critical to producing stories that will capture their interest and make them repeat clickers. Social media guru Jay Baer stresses the importance of "youtility" in brand journalism content. Tell stories that matter to your viewers.

2. Package your content for ease of access

Print, electronic and digital media package their content so it is easy for readers and viewers to find what they are looking for fast. ESPN divides its dense website into different sports. Newspapers have different sections, dividing national news from local news and business news from entertainment news. Television stations have different anchors for news, weather and sports. In addition to ease of access, packaging also is designed to expose as much content as possible. There is a reason why the sports page is usually deep inside the paper and the sports report is at the end of the news broadcast. Brand journalists need to employ similar packaging techniques to make their content accessible and expose as much of it as possible.

3. Behave like a photojournalist

Your website and blogs need what journalists call "good art." People like pictures and video. Reporters today, even for print and web-based publications, are asked to tote around cameras or camcorders. This harkens back to the days when reporters, especially those working for small daily and weekly newspapers, served in the role of photojournalists. They covered the stories and conducted the interviews while keeping an eye out for visual opportunities. My personal photojournalism gem was a picture in Portland Angeles showing a mile-long line of log trucks carrying single, huge logs cut down from an old-growth forest. The picture ran with no story. None was needed. As the hundreds of reader comments noted, it was a picture for the history books. Brand journalists need to look for pictures for the history books that tell stories and captivate viewers.