Good communication has always been important to me. Partly it comes down to accessibility: like the Plain English Campaign, I share the belief that everyone should have access to clear information. They've been campaigning against "gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information” since 1979, when founder Chrissie Maher OBE shredded hundreds of official documents at a demonstration in Parliament Square.
It's probably no surprise I ended up working with words - copywriting, proofreading and then training as a journalist. But after two years reporting for a daily regional newspaper, I found myself wanting a change. Rather than churning out story after story on the constant treadmill of news, I wanted to be crafting a bigger story.
PR was the obvious next step: I’d still be engaging with the news agenda and using the writing and interview skills I’d worked so hard at as a journalist. Plus, the many hours I’d spent drilling shorthand into my brain to achieve 100 words a minute (and the attractively large lump that developed on my writing finger in the process) would not have been for nothing.
Having researched local agencies, Midnight Communications immediately appealed to me for the journalistic approach the team takes to campaign planning: carrying out interviews and digging for the best untold stories within an organisation. I was excited to embark on a new challenge, where I’d be helping to pinpoint key messages and using creativity to come up with campaign ideas.
At Midnight, I’m among a few ex-journos who have made the move. Senior Account Manager Samantha Clark spent more than a decade working as a local reporter, while Senior Media Consultant Chris Hatherall has years of experience on national newspapers.
So, what can an ex-journalist bring to PR? During my first three months in the job as Account Executive, I’ve already seen how my skills and experience can help the team get good results for our clients, but my background and training in news has helped me transition to PR in more ways than I expected.
Apart from having useful contacts and real insight into a journalist’s working day, news writing is great training for all forms of communication. Here’s why.
What makes a good story?
When a journalist receives a pitch, there are two simple questions on their mind: Why are you telling me this? And why are you telling me now? Any pitch, whether it be for a trade publication or a national newspaper, must be offering new information - which is bizarrely sometimes forgotten. This could be anything from revealing new data or research findings to a fresh voice speaking out on a topical issue – and therefore moving a story forward.
Of course, there is more to impactful storytelling. Other ingredients include:
- Relevance and timeliness
- Being emotive
- Being quirky
- Expert knowledge
- Case studies
By applying the journalist’s mindset (Why are you telling me this and why are you telling me now?) to all readers, writing can be quickly improved, because it forces the author to think strategically about what they’re really trying to communicate.
Which brings me on to…
Getting to the point, fast.
Learning to write a good headline is excellent training in getting to the point – particularly for printed publications, where no word is wasted because there literally isn’t space on the page.
There’s a good reason news writing follows an inverted pyramid structure, with the essence of the story in the top line. This is the second chance (after the headline) to hook the reader in with a summary of the Who and the What, followed by the Where and When, explanation, quotes and then background information.
Even loosely following this “all killer, no filler” style and structure tightens up communication. In PR, this applies not only to writing good pitches but also to analysing what a key message should be within a campaign.
Whatever you do, don’t be vague
Vagueness is the biggest crime for any writer. Not only will it massively cheese off any journalist if they receive a vague pitch – it will immediately be cast into the scrapyard of deleted messages, probably to the sound of lots of swearing and curses. And who can blame them?
The first job of all writing is to be read. It is the writer’s job to engage an indifferent readership.
Vagueness undermines any shred of confidence in the writer or storyteller because it makes their expertise seem weak. Also, journalists really value details – they’re what add colour to any story.
As well as vagueness, repetition, jargon and cliches are among the other deadly sins which will make any reader switch off. Meaning is lost, leaving one with deeply unsatisfying word salad.
Take a risk
Journalists are always looking for a new take on a story or topic. When it comes to thought leadership and opinion pieces especially, it pays to take a risk.
Imagine a hot and cold scale of communication, where very hot feels really interesting but a bit risky, and very cold is being stone cold factually correct. There is a sweet spot towards the hotter end where thought leadership should be.
Good thought leadership means big ideas, executed well. It pays to be assertive. If it’s a bit “out there”, it’ll almost definitely be worth reading.
Time is precious
Having first-hand experience as a reporter means being able to empathise with journalists, i.e., knowing how insanely busy they are. Sure, everyone is busy – but reporters work around the clock, bashing out stories, chaotically juggling interviews with monitoring breaking stories, often jumping from one complex topic to the next. Pre-Covid, I’d never done so much actual running in any job.
As a PR, it’s crucial to make journalists’ lives easier, by not wasting their time. Ever.
The subject line and the top line of emails need to be concise and engaging, which brings us back to the golden rules about getting to the point outlined above.
More broadly, not wasting any reader’s time is good practise. This doesn’t mean being ruthlessly blunt when emailing your mum of course, who will definitely appreciate niceties more than any journalist.
Know your audience
Journalists know what interests their readers. And just as reporters have to stay up to the date with the latest news, PRs are also keeping a close eye on the rolling news cycle to spot potential opportunities and tap into the topic of the day.
When pitching, it’s important to think about the “end user” and to know the publication – who are their readers? What do they care about?
Each client will have a target audience and target press. It sounds obvious, but any piece of writing can be anchored when the writer knows who they are trying to please. How should the reader feel? What’s the desired outcome of the communication? Can it resonate emotionally with the audience?
It’s also important not to try to please everyone. If there is more than one target audience, it can help to establish a common denominator.
A picture is worth a thousand words…
PRs should never underestimate the power of a good picture in getting journalists’ attention.
What makes a good picture? It helps to think about how print headlines - especially in the tabloid press – are written to the image (headlines like “Taken to the cleaners” or ”Gotcha” spring to mind). The photo and the headline work together - so the picture should illustrate the story in the clearest way possible. As well as being a visual representation of the story, it needs to be an engaging image (not a dull stock photo), in colour, not covered in text or filters, and a decent size. No matter how good any pitch is, it’s going nowhere with a pixelated thumbnail image.
I have lots more to learn in making the move from journalism to PR, but having these essential skills in communication, informed by intense training in news writing and my experience on a daily paper, are good foundations. And at Midnight, I feel lucky to be supported by an experienced, fun and multi-talented team who know how to cut through the noise.
To find out more, contact the Midnight team today.
By Rose Lock