How to move from journalism to communications

move journalism to PR
move from journalism to PR
Claire Thorburn, right, enjoys English Tourism Week with MP Anne Marie Trevelyan and Seahouses Middle School at The Bamburgh Castle Inn

With jobs in print and broadcast journalism hard to come by, and newsroom budgets facing ongoing cuts, more and more journalists are moving into PR/communications and marketing.

But what’s it like making the leap? Is the transition fairly easy? And what prompts reporters to change fields it in the first place?

We talk to Claire Thorburn, owner of a successful PR agency in the North East of England, to find out. Claire owns and operates Impact PR & Marketing, based in Bamburgh, Northumberland. She launched the agency about 10 years ago after working for weekly newspapers.

If you’re a journalist thinking about moving into PR (and we know many are, given the state of media outlets today), this interview will give you a bit of insight into what this career change feels like and how to navigate any challenges, too.

The PR buzz

What was it like moving from a weekly paper into PR?

While there is an element of missing the buzz of hard news – working on a weekly newspaper group exposed me to a full spectrum of reporting scenarios: court reporting, emergencies, celebrities, features and so on. But working in PR still gives you that media fix!

My day-to-day work as a journalist involved working with numerous public relations officers from a wide selection of organisations – from local authorities to private businesses. As such, I experienced first hand the relationship between PR and the media – good and bad.

I knew what would help me as a journalist and how public relations officers could help to add value and support my role, in putting together a news story with compelling content for our readers.

Being self-employed certainly gives you more flexibility in my work. As long as my work gets done I can choose to work remotely, have less rigidity in my working hours, and I love the fact that two days are never the same!

You didn’t just change careers, you started your own business, too. Those are pretty major changes to make at all in one go. What challenges did you face? For example, did you have one or two clients from day one?

My journey from journalist to starting my own PR business was incremental. I’d worked as a personal assistant to the internationally acclaimed child care writer Gina Ford, which gave me my first taster of working with the media as a publicist. It gave me a real insight into the workings of the world of PR and its relationship with national media cutting across all types of different mediums including television, radio,

I decided to start my own business after a time-limited project I’d managed with Enterprise PLC ended. We had used a big-name PR agency to raise awareness of the project and I remember thinking “I could do this – and better.”

I was laid-off and so I used my redundancy funds to launch my own business – Impact PR & Marketing in 2006. I might have had the work skills necessary to begin a PR business, but I can openly say I didn’t have a business brain!

Because I’d been made redundant, I was eligible to get start-up funding from The Prince’s Trust – but more importantly, I was introduced to an inspirational business mentor Elizabeth Anderson, who had a PR / marketing background. She helped guide me through my first year of trading, setting up a business plan, identifying targets and steering me to become more business savvy.

I have been very lucky in that my work referrals have always come through word of mouth – the best possible form of PR! I am also incredibly proud that the majority of my clients I started out with over ten years ago (Northumbrian Leisure, The Inn Collection Group, Redhead Roofing and Springhill Farm Accommodation) have remained with me to this day. I am as proud of their own success stories and growth as I am about my own business.

I’m also delighted to manage accounts for national clients too, such as older people’s charity The Abbeyfield Society and to know I am helping to make a difference to a very worthy cause. I have worked for The Royal British Legion and launched the annual Poppy Appeal on BBC Breakfast news, sitting on the famous red sofa with Susannah Reid, which was a great privilege.

My clients are ingrained in everything I do – I am always thinking about ways I can add value to their work, quirky ways to raise awareness of them and story ideas.

How did it feel at the time when you changed careers. Did you miss the fast-paced world of news? Did your office ever feel just a little bit too quiet?

I work from home which has its pros and cons. I think there are still people today who think I sit about the house watching television, when in actual fact I could be writing a national press release, coordinating media inquiries and requests, arranging the guest list for a Royal reception in London – all from my rural Northumberland outpost!

No two days are ever the same, and I do have to travel a lot for work. This week I am in Southampton and London for work, so I am not in an office 9 – 5 each day, something I would struggle to do.

On the other side of the news

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?

[amazon_link asins=’1119070481′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’communicat06-20′ marketplace=’CA’ link_id=’03756381-0349-11e7-b85e-99b4c2536e85′]Having that inside knowledge and experience of working as a journalist is absolutely priceless in terms of liaising with the media.

You are able to pitch a story idea or opportunity that has relevance to a particular media outlet, you know first-hand what will pique interest and how you can make a busy journalist’s life easier with a great story idea, the case study, pictures or interviewee behind it, to offer all the components of a story that is ready to go.

On the other hand, there was nothing more frustrating for me as a journalist than being contacted about a story that had no relevance to my area or title. Do your research, find out the best person to speak to and have an appropriate story to pitch. And be polite. You can’t go wrong!

As a former journalist, I also know the best time of day to call, avoiding busy deadline times; who to contact and how the newsdesk works. You have an inbuilt understanding of what could make a story and how you could position your client to the media to give them the best chance of coverage.

I’m lucky to be in a position now when journalists come to me for stories or case studies or if they need me to comment on a particular topic or story. The word does get out in the media if there is someone who is helpful, meets deadlines, provides accurate, good copy and is honest.

Most journalists are driven by a big streak of curiosity and some – particularly in the broadcast world – are said to have impressive egos. How do these qualities play in the world of PR?

I have worked with lots of different journalists, including national broadcasters and celebrities who are exceptionally talented and gifted at their job. At the end of the day, if you are able to supply them with the story, compelling case studies and strong interviewees they can do their job and everyone is happy.

With your diploma in journalism, did the skills you learned at college help you with your PR work?

Absolutely. There is a real craft in being a journalist, not just in the style and way in which you write, and how you construct an article but also in how you interview and source stories.

Content is king and producing engaging copy to entice people to read is so important, whether for press release writing, web content, social media, eflyers, brochures and so on is a sought-after skill. Creating strong and engaging copy writing is a skill and it’s something I particularly enjoy and my talent for this was honed at college through my National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualification.

I wish I’d known . . .

What things do you wish you’d known before going into PR?

You can say no! It is better to be honest and upfront about prospective jobs and say if you don’t think it is the right fit for you and your skills. Equally, I am upfront about my capacity. As a one-man band, I am realistic with prospective new clients and will always help to redirect their inquiry to other PRs if I am not in a position to be able to assist.

Are there any other tips you have for a reporter thinking about going into communications?

Don’t forget that as well as writing and pitching stories and ideas you need to have strong people skills too. So much of my job involves meeting and communicating with people. As someone who is outgoing and very much a people person I thrive on this element of my work, but I know others find this more challenging. You need to be able to interact and develop relationships not just with potential clients, but with their staff, partners, stakeholders and the media, too. And prepare to be adaptable and flexible.

PR pro Claire Thorburn

Claire Thorburn is based in Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. She studied journalism at Darlington College, U.K., and worked for some weekly papers before switching to PR. Claire has a degree in English and Critical Studies from Northumbria University, and regularly takes courses on PR and marketing. You can connect with Claire on Linkedin and Twitter.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. She is based in Toronto and currently looking for new opportunities. Sheelagh has worked for media organizations and also the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

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