After 10 years as a journalist I am crossing the floor to ‘the dark side’. Working in journalism has been a remarkable journey and one I will finish with many cherished memories, but I am ready to put the skills and expertise I have acquired to use at a communications agency. I’m not sure if I will continue to write, but I know many recovering hacks never quite shake the urge, and will continue to want to report one way or another, wherever they end up. Once a journalist, always a journalist.
And there are lots of us out there going through this same transition. Redundancies at the UK’s biggest media organisations are often in the headlines these days, and for those who cling on, a rapidly changing industry is forcing journalists, writers and editors to be more flexible in what they cover. Some are broadening their scope of interest; others are hot-footing from one section or speciality to another with abandon. Plus, there are other scenarios that bring change, such as maternity or shared parental leave, sabbaticals, or a new role or publication.
For PRs, all this can present a conundrum. You’ve invested time building relationships with these journalists, so you don’t want to just write them off if their situations change. But how best to approach them once they’ve moved beat or left the job altogether?
The first thing to say is to keep in contact – if you hear about a move, make sure you get in touch to get a new email, or a mobile, plus follow them on social media. Not only does this mean you can reach someone in the future, but it shows you care – an interaction out of the ordinary will likely strengthen a relationship. Wherever that journalist ends up, they will keep you in their little black book, especially if you can demonstrate in your email that you really understand what their interests and strengths are.
Once you’ve got their details, think hard before you get in touch. If a journalist is no longer regularly pitching the type of story you want them to take to an editor, there has to be something in it for them. They aren’t necessarily going to be as thirsty for stories, so it has to be really tempting to get them interested. For example, if it’s a former travel journo, then your client has to match their interests, or for a former beauty journo, your product should slot into their particular specialism. You get the idea. Do your research and this isn’t going to be a stumbling block.
I think the most difficult people to contact will be those like me, who have left journalism altogether. They might still be keen to cover something, but you don’t necessarily know the full story of why they packed in journalism, so you’ve got to approach with the utmost sensitivity, and make sure it’s the dream pitch. Saying that, these people may have more time for an in-depth piece, or could be more willing to take on a commission that could incur extra expense or use their holiday allowance, precisely because they are no longer regular hacks. Plus they will still have the contacts and access to their former publication.
Things are simpler if your contact has just moved publication, or section within their company. In these cases, always check that your approach is still relevant to their patch, and show that you know things have changed for them. Don’t pitch a food story to someone who’d just moved to the culture desk, unless you think it could work for their new beat in some way, or they might just want to do it for fun (see above). Ignorance of their new situation can seriously frustrate journalists, especially if they’ve just opened their 11th irrelevant email of the day.
If a writer or editor is on a sabbatical or paternity leave, it’s going to take quite an offer from a PR to get them back to their desk – but it is not inconceivable. When I was on paternity leave last year, I welcomed the few times I did a little work. From writing for Roxhill, to planning an exciting press trip to the Seychelles that fell victim to the pandemic. It made a pleasant change to be briefly back at my desk.
The easiest change of situation has to be if a journalist has just gone freelance. They will probably be more receptive to pitches, but you’ve still got to ensure your approach is well-targeted. If you don’t know what they are looking for in terms of stories, take them to lunch and quiz them. Never underestimate how much damage ill-conceived pitches do to a journalist’s view of a PR.
Saying that, don’t be scared off. Bold and considered contact can be wildly successful, so long as you recognise that the timing, or the act of pitching at all, might be unusual.
And it works both ways – a former journo, or one who has changed beats, might come to you outside of their usual remit with an idea. In these cases I’d suggest you hear them out but scrutinise their approach. If I emailed someone from my personal account to cover an unusual topic, I would expect the PR to do due diligence on my plan. But I’d be motivated to produce something brilliant, if the PR were to take a chance on me.
These are the sorts of interactions that raise the regard in which journalists hold PRs. They can be great for getting coverage for your clients, but also will benefit you in the long run by giving you more insight into who your contact is as a person and what they like. Then you can pitch even smarter the next time. Indeed, these are the moments that can cement a relationship between a PR and a journalist for life.