PR pro: Journalism was all I knew

A journalist faced a major decision when his newspaper shuttered five years ago. Now he works in PR. Find out how he got there—and whether he misses the newsroom.


This is the first installment of a weekly series on Career Makeovers.

At a recent new business pitch, a client asked me if I missed being in journalism.

I stumbled over the question before getting my footing. The short answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that. I miss journalism from 20 years ago, when reporters had the time and resources to pursue good stories, and when our audiences expected nothing less.

Do I miss the journalism world of the last five years? No way.

When the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009, I was out of a job. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, it was probably the best move for my career. It allowed me to reinvent myself in the world of crisis communication to use my skills—writing, editing, management, and strategy—honed over the past two decades. At the time of the paper’s closing, I was a business and metro editor, and had experience with about a dozen newsroom jobs.

Starting at my college newspaper, I’d been slowly working my way up the long journalism ladder, going from small paper to mid-sized paper and finally to a major metropolitan daily.

The thrill of being in a vibrant newsroom was great for the first 15 years, but during the last five years, my career basically stalled as the industry retracted and the excitement waned. I continued to gain valuable “change management” experience, and first-hand experience of the changing media landscape, but the mantra of “smarter, not harder” really meant working much harder with fewer resources.

But journalism was all I knew, and I couldn’t imagine starting over in a new career. Plus, part of me wanted to be among the innovators to make journalism work again. We were busy migrating our newsroom from one that delivered news to readers’ doorsteps once a day to a 24-hour operation. And we were doing it amid layoffs and buyouts.

As it turned out, new media and quality journalism, as evidenced by the Rocky’s recent Pulitzer Prizes and growing Web traffic, didn’t matter much to stockholders.

And so, a newsroom of senior journalists at the top of their profession was told that the presses would stop for the first time in 100 years. Good luck and goodbye.

For me, I didn’t have any idea what my future held, but I did know for sure that I was not going to stay in journalism. I knew all too well that the profession was going to continue to hemorrhage, and I didn’t want to relive the experience. One of my friends in the newsroom the day the presses stopped has worked at four newspapers since then.

I was able to string together some financial writing jobs to make ends meet, and began a consulting business focusing on crisis communication and issues management. A turning point came while working for a client that was pitching financial journalists—and I found myself on the pitch list. Playing in both worlds was not going to work, so I jumped into PR.

I realized I would do better in a more flexible agency setting than in the world of corporate PR. Agency life matches the dynamic setting similar to a newsroom, and offers a diversity of work without the corporate guidelines.

I had worked in the past with Laura Love, the owner GroundFloor Media, a boutique firm in Denver. She offered me an opportunity to explore the world of PR.

As it turns out, my skills were perfectly suited for this world, particularly crisis communications and reputation management. Years in a newsroom covering elections, scandals, tragedies, and natural disasters gave me keen insight into coming up with response strategies and, most importantly, keeping a cool head under fire.

But the world of PR is not without its challenges, and is not the right fit for many former journalists. I had to learn a whole new lingo, and be accountable for everything that I do. I had to ditch my preconceptions that no one works as hard as journalists, and that sometimes, despite your best efforts, your counsel is ignored.

Nearly four years into in my second career, I continue to be challenged in many of the same ways as I had been in the newsroom. My co-workers are not that much different than journalists either, and some of them would make great reporters.

Newsrooms refer to the world of PR as “The Dark Side,” and to PR pros as “flacks.” But, having seen both sides, PR has shown me the light ,and I’m a true believer in how we can help our clients manage issues and get their sides of the story fairly told. There’s value in what we do.

Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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