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Steve Warburton worked as a journalist at The Mississauga News, The Edmonton Journal, and CBC Halifax for 11 years before moving from journalism to PR. He’s among one of the thousands of journos who said goodbye to the world of breaking news and stepped.
Steve shares his insights on moving from journalism to PR that if you’re thinking about a similar move, his thoughts will give you a sense of how to prepare and what to expect.
Moving from journalism to communications
What was it like moving from journalism to PR, from CBC Halifax as a reporter/producer to your first role in communications as Director of Communications with the Government of Nova Scotia?
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 wrote speeches for) the same as the waitress and shoemaker.
Another important point to mention in moving from journalism to PR I was 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
After moving from journalism to PR you were the one contacting reporters and pitching stories, or dealing with their requests for interviews or comments. What was the change in role like?
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. 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.
Journalism training gave a grounding for PR work
You have a BA in Journalism, as well as a degree in history. 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 that 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. Presumably you’ve worked alongside some of them. Have you ever felt out of your depth, of that you had to study or read up on something pretty quickly to get 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 moving from journalism to 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 moving from journalism to PR 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 moving from journalism to PR?
Have an open mind. Leave any attitude in your old newsroom.
Journalist and communicator Steve Warburton
Steve 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.