Steve Warburton worked as a journalist at The Mississauga News, The Edmonton Journal, and CBC Halifax, for almost 11 years before moving into PR/communications. He’s among one of the thousands of journos who said goodbye to news and stepped into the world of PR.
Is the transition fairly easy, and what prompts reporters to make it in the first place?
We ask Steve these questions and a few more. If you’re a journalist thinking about making this leap (and we know many are, given the state of media outlets today), you’ll have a bit of insight into what this career change feels like and how to navigate any challenges, too.
What was it like moving from CBC Halifax as a reporter/producer to your first role in communications, which was Director of Communications with the Government of Nova Scotia? How did it feel at the time, and did you miss the fast-paced world of news? Did your office ever feel just a little bit too quiet?
To back up a bit, a year before I made that move, we had moved cross-country to Halifax. There were a couple of competing thoughts going through my head then. I had noticed, early in my journalism career, that older journalists were few and far between – and of those that were around, many had gone from sarcastic to cynical.
Also moving to a new part of the country where I was virtually unknown offered a clean slate. So it seemed like a good time to re-brand myself. I had a family to support and when I looked around the media landscape in Halifax, there weren’t many choices – and fewer good choices.
So before I moved, I had already started to change my own identity from journalist to communicator. Every job I had after, I have brought the best traits of serving the public, be factually correct and treat the Lieutenant Governor who I’ve wrote speeches for, the same as the waitress and shoemaker.
Another important point to mention I was so busy and almost overwhelmed that I didn’t have any time to miss journalism. In retrospect, I was really in the deep end – new province, new setting, new career and I had six staff to manage!
Developing connections in PR
What was it like suddenly being the one to be contacting reporters and pitching ideas or stories, or dealing with their requests for interviews or comments?
Hmm, it took a while to get use too. My wife was still at a newspaper, the Daily News, so I still had a foot in that world. As well, Halifax is one-degree of separation and I was playing summer softball in a reporters league so I knew many through that avenue too. I had no PR training so I used techniques like chit-chat to get comfortable.
Most journalists are driven by a big streak of curiosity and some – particularly in the broadcast world – are said to have pretty impressive egos. How do these qualities play in the world of communications?
Overall, the Maritimes isn’t a place for egos. Of course, like anywhere, there are a few big egos. Overall, though, I’d say there are fewer of them in communications.
You have a BA in Journalism, as well as a degree in history. In retrospect, how did your journalism studies help prepare you for the world of PR? Did you have skills that helped you with your comms work that maybe even students from PR schools lacked?
There are a few parts to answer that question. First, it turned out every course I took in first year university I’ve done as part of my career. Journalism, political science, business, English and history. I sometimes say: “I was millennial before it was invented.”
A few years into PR I wondered what I might have missed with journalism training and not a PR degree. I got appointed to Mount Saint Vincent University’s Professional Advisory Board for the PR program there. From the insights I picked up there, I felt comfortable I knew enough. I was also asked to teach PR at the community college here so I thought that was reassuring. My public speaking skills from journalism have definitely help.
Crisis management in media relations
Have your journalism skills equipped you with a niche in comms, such as media relations or crisis management?
Absolutely, I’ve managed dozens of crises so staying cool and focused on task was key. I covered cops and fire in Edmonton. I didn’t like it at the time. That was the hardest job I ever had, so in comparison, everything else has been easier.
I got so good at media relations; I earned good money offering seminars as a former reporter.
And the flip-side of the coin, you’re based in Halifax, Canada, where there are two schools producing journalism graduates. Presumable you’ve worked alongside some of them at some point in your PR career? Have you ever felt out of your depth, of that you had to study or read up on something pretty quickly to remain on equal footing?
Not only journalism grads but two PR schools as well. This place is crawling with communicators. Social Media comes to mind in terms of keeping pace. After my civil service career, I’ve been running my own PR company and have taught Social Media for Adults courses. I try not worry about what I don’t know.
What things do you wish you’d known before going into PR?
At this stage, not a lot. When I first started, I acted like a reporter for quite awhile and I think my staff liked it and didn’t like it. I had to learn to be more strategic and proactive, instead of being so reactive.
PR in government departments vs agencies
You’ve worked in in-house communications departments and for agencies, too. How would you describe the differences to a reporter thinking about a change?
Agencies are dog-eat-dog. Billable hours, lots of firing, but lots of fun if you make it that way. In-house government communications can be very busy depending on where you are located. I have been super busy and less so. Traditionally, in government, I was as busy as the deputy and other senior managers.
Are there any other tips you have for a reporter thinking about going into communications?
Have an open mind. Leave any attitude in your old newsroom.
Journalist and communicator Steve Warburton
Steve is currently Digital Content Co-ordinator with Nova Scotia Community College, Halifax. He has a BA in History from Huron Community University, London, Ont., and a Bachelor of Journalism from University of King’s College, Halifax. You can find Steve on Linkedin.