Journey to ‘The Dark Side’: A journalist’s expedition to the world of PR

• 5 minute read

Guest blog post by former BBC journalist Nafisa Sayani.

I vividly remember the first day of my university journalism course, looking around the crowded lecture theatre at eager, inquisitive faces and feeling roused: WE were the truth-seekers on the frontline, defending democracy. Which of us would be the future Paxman holding politicians to account, or the intrepid reporter whose sleuthing would expose the next big corporate corruption?

It didn’t take me long to learn that not all journalism was like that. And the truth is that, three years later, as graduation came and went, we entered ‘the real world’ and as the recession deepened, I discovered many of my peers hadn’t chosen journalism as a career path, and many of those who had, wouldn’t stay on it for long.

I committed to news from the beginning and it became my entire identity. Yet, the more journalists I met, the more I kept hearing the initials PR – every newsroom I worked in, there were stories of colleagues that had ‘defected’ to ‘The Dark Side’. It was always said with a wry smile and a teasing tone, but the implication was that they had sold out, switching to a world where the motivation was not truth, but profit. Perhaps the force was too strong. But could it be that The Dark Side wasn’t so dark after all? When the London team at Infinite Global offered me a glimpse behind the curtain, my curiosity got the better of me.

My first impression of the Chancery Lane office was that I was walking into a newsroom – the communal table stocked with every daily newspaper available, the familiar whiff of the constant stream of coffee, the background buzz of every television tuned to a different news channel.

As a journalist, I had an idea of how public relations worked, but had never sat on that side of the table. I’d dealt with some great PR people – the ones who, we declared, ‘must have been former journalists’, because they knew what we wanted down to the relevant details of concise press releases, and often delivered just what we needed in the nick of time. In the constant rush of the broadcast newsroom, where a minute past the on-air slot was a minute too late, these professionals were a godsend.

And then there were PR people who weren’t so great – the ones who created unnecessary roadblocks, always seemed to call at exactly the wrong time and didn’t seem to understand the nature of the news industry at all. They elicited a kind of frustration unlike no other.

Time though, I observed, was also a currency in the PR world – generally, a more literal one and in this case, itemised by the hour. This team had a system in place to track what was being handled, who was handling it and exactly how long they’d spent handling it, to determine whether each project was cost-effective. I noted the skill of having a conference call with a client, trying to cover all necessary details and ascertain the relevant information, while being aware that every minute spent on the phone was a minute less that could be dedicated to the account. Much like an on-air interview, the timer was ticking, albeit without a producer counting down through an earpiece.

But the modern public relations world, as illustrated here, did not simply revolve around phone-bashing and churning out press releases: In amongst advising clients on marketing and media strategy, staff were preparing for pitch meetings, hosting interactive training webinars and creating promotional material.

The biggest eye-opener was spending time with the creative team who produced video, online and print content from scratch. From the very beginning, even the simplest elements of the design, such as the colours, style and layout, were considered as part of the thought process into how to boost the impact of the campaign and shape the perception of the client. And not only did the conversations look at how to market the organisations, but why. With ideas of audience and engagement having changed drastically since the dawn of the digital revolution, this required getting to know the client inside out, finding inspiration in their culture and purpose, to create authentic connections and use them as powerful branding tools.

It was at times of crisis that the Infinite Global office felt most like the home I knew. When unexpected stories broke and tricky situations required immediate attention, the pressure stepped up a notch. Emergency meetings were called to assess the current position and make quick decisions around how to react – or even if to react at all. PR and the press have always had a symbiotic relationship, but it can also be a complex balancing act from both sides. As the journalist used to asking the questions, I’d never really seen the stress that can be induced by a call from the media, but it was clear that in crisis communication there was a challenge in weighing up trust and protecting interests, trying to pre-empt how a response would be interpreted and whether engaging might lead into potentially deeper waters.

I could see why to many journalists it seemed an obvious career transition – not so much a leap into the unknown, but a logical shift in perspective. And it works both ways: recently the Head of Communications at another global public relations firm told me wistfully that if it wasn’t for the flexibility of her high-profile role and how it complemented her current lifestyle, she would have considered giving it all up just to be a reporter chasing stories again.

Ultimately, though we are all communicators trying to sell a story – perhaps in different ways or for different purposes, we are not always as far removed from each other as often portrayed. Needless to say, not all journalists are moral and impartial; not all PR people are shady and profit-motivated. What seems to matter, is not what you do, but how you do it.

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