Christina Fecher’s career transition out of newspapers took her from a newsroom to a public relations department. The journalism-to-PR path is pretty common, but Christina found that some of her assumptions about her new profession were way off. Read on to find out what she’s learned, the skills she’s used in both roles and what she keeps at her desk to remind her of her newspaper days.
I used to sit in the newsroom, drumming my fingers on my desk, frustrated that the representative for the hospital or organization I was writing about kept me waiting for that one piece of vital information that would balance my story.
Didn’t this person know I was on deadline?
That this was an opportunity to set the record straight?
That I’m the Queen of Persistence and would slam the person with the “so-and-so-couldn’t-be-reached-for-comment” line if my request wasn’t accommodated?
What could this person possibly be doing other than schmoozing with bigwigs over lunch, purposely keeping me at bay? The source must be hiding something. It’s not like the person’s job was so hard. I could do it in my sleep … not that I ever would.
In my opinion, that’s an accurate assumption for many reporters whose stories, spun with gold, are exposing wrongs to educate the public or shedding light on controversial topics. It’s what I believed.
But I also believed I’d never go to what many reporters call the dark side: Public Relations.
I can look back and laugh now at how silly I sounded and how quick I was to judge these flaks – and I had great relationships with many of them – and a profession that I truly knew nothing about.
As it turns out, I was completely wrong about what PR pros really do.
We are strong and confident professionals who represent a company, organization, or government agency. Everyone from executives to entry-level personnel turn to us at one time or another – many at the same time – for direction and support on how to respond, solve a problem or gain exposure.
We are counselors, confidants, firefighters, spokespeople, event planners, writers, and strategic and creative thinkers.
We plan for the worst to a T, and are pleasantly surprised when our hopes for the best become reality.
We are always “on,” by way of energy levels and mobile devices, ready to go at a moment’s notice all hours of the day, and on weekends and holidays.
This is not the career path for the weak, meek or lazy.
Switching sides, so to speak, is much easier said than done because not every great reporter can become a great PR pro, at least not on the first try.
A reporter’s greatest asset – usually, writing skills – will afford you a valuable role on any PR team, but it won’t land you the job. That skill – no matter how seasoned a reporter you are – doesn’t guarantee you a managerial or higher-level position the first time through the gate.
When you change career paths from journalism to PR, you’re doing just that: changing career paths. Journalists and PR pros are similar in the sense that they’re strong communicators and can craft a sentence like nobody’s business. Plus, people are either really pleased or really upset to see them walking their way.
But that’s where the similarities end. It’s a whole new ball game when you’re on the PR side, responding to pointed questions from your friends and former colleagues about system abuses and program specifics.
It requires a new way of thinking and writing, as well as a different understanding of what is and is not a story. Because what once was a sexy story you would’ve loved to see your byline on becomes a topic you wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Or, what once seemed like a snoozer of an assignment becomes the focus of an awareness campaign you proposed for your organization’s social channels.
Some days, you’re pounding down the doors of reporters, pitching them a story you know will interests them and their audiences.
On other days, you’ll need to be firm and say the word “no.” But, not because you just don’t want to take the time; rather, there are new rules to follow based on HIPAA, HR and proprietary information.
The bottom line is there’s a lot to learn, and it truly takes time to adjust and execute well.
While some reporters can successfully join a large team and learn the ins and outs of PR on the job almost seamlessly, it’s recommended to first get your feet wet at an agency to soak in as much of the industry know-how as possible.
Agencies work with a variety of clients, all of which have a different PR goal in mind. Some focus on digital assets and trade publications, while others prefer consumer media. Some clients need support defending their positions on sensitive issues, and others are touting their services, programs and products through proactive outreach.
The agency world truly opens the door to fun, fresh ideas and projects, and a variety of opportunities. You learn the tricks, build confidence to develop and execute successful strategic plans, and figure out where best to utilize your honed journalism skills.
Transitioning from one to the other can be as easy or daunting as you make it. To do it right, takes time, patience and a self-confidence that you’re making the right move.
I never thought I’d do anything else besides newspaper journalism. I didn’t think I possessed the courage or skills to make a change. But, I was wrong.
And, now, I’m having fun learning the profession and sharing a different perspective – thanks to my insider knowledge of the other dark side – with my team.
Q: How much writing do you do in your current job? How much copy editing?
A: I love to write, and do it whenever I can. I honestly wouldn’t feel at home in any job without it playing a large part of my day. I’m fortunate that writing takes a lead in my role on the Meijer Public Relations team. But, I have also come to realize – much to my surprise – that I make a great editor and copy editor, since I regularly review materials written by others.
Q: Talk a little about your job search. Did the job find you or did you find the job? What were the “must haves” you needed in a new job to make you want to transition?
A: My position at Meijer was not my first in the PR world. Like many reporters who work hard to mine a newsbeat, I found my first PR role through one of my reporting sources who knew I was looking for a change. Some “must haves” included writing, growth opportunities, and project managing.
Q: What item on your resume (education, specific job or skill) was the most relevant or interesting to potential employers when you were transitioning out of newspapers?
A: I think the length of time I spent at The Detroit News, as well as where I was in my career when I took that reporting job, stood out to potential employers. I spent nearly seven years at the newspaper right out of college. That right there showed that I was loyal, and possessed the skills and drive to become a valued member of the newsroom staff. The fact that I could write well helped, too!
Q: Anything in your current work space (office wall or cubicle space) that you have to remind you of your newspaper days?
A: I have a few things in my office that remind me of those days gone by. I regularly pull out an AP Stylebook when drafting news releases, advisories, and other materials. I also have a stack of newspapers at my desk. While I primarily go online to check out the latest headlines, I still believe there’s nothing quite like having an actual printed newspaper in your hands. And, lastly, I have a coffee mug from a police department that I used to cover. It’s holding some pens and pencils because I honestly don’t drink coffee.
Christina Fecher is a former reporter with The Detroit News, and now handles public relations around corporate philanthropy at Meijer, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer that operates 200 supercenters and grocery stores throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.