So You're Thinking about a Career in Public Relations?

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There's no question that in the world of PR, there are important skills that you must have. Being organized, having an outgoing personality, and being creative in a number of areas are all necessary. But there are two skills that rise above the rest in terms of agency or corporate PR: skillful writing and the ability to secure interest from the media. The truth is there is no better place to learn these skills than in any newsroom in the country.

While I won’t openly advocate anyone jumping into the world of journalism permanently, especially given the state of the industry and the volatility of even the most respected publications, that doesn’t mean a young professional shouldn’t at least get a taste of the business to start out. I’m not sure where I would be in my career in PR without my background in journalism. It has allowed me to succeed where others might have struggled, in themedia relations and coverage areas of the job. For most agencies and companies, that’s the most important element. Everything else can be learned “on the job,” but media relations comes more easily to those with experience on the “other side of the desk.”

There are a number of ways that you can get your feet wet in journalism, get a good sense of what the business is about and how reporters operate, and make it worth your while. Of course college-level classes in journalism and news writing are always beneficial, but the truth is unless you’re actually writing the stories, taking the phone calls, and chasing down the leads, you’ll never truly understand what it is a reporter wants and needs from sources, especially PR people.

I would suggest securing an internship at a local newspaper, a local magazine, or even a website, writing and gathering content and conducting interviews, as a good first step. Even if the internship lasts for just three months over the summer, the experience you gain will be invaluable. Beating deadlines, pulling stories together at the last minute, building a story out, and getting the story approved by editors are all things that PR professionals can hear about but need to see up close and personal to appreciate.

For those who might not be able to afford working as unpaid interns, even working as a staff reporter for a local newspaper for six months to a year would be worth it. In the grand scheme of things, that one year could put you several steps ahead of those you’re working with in terms of results and placements.

The pressure might be less intense at a small weekly newspaper, the deadlines less strict, and the stories far more localized, but the experience will still be the same. You will be on the phone interviewing sources, talking to them in person, and gathering facts. Being “on the beat,” so to speak, helps build vital communication skills.

You’ll also be asked to put together a few stories, hit a deadline, and come up with new ideas for the following issues. All of these skills will translate directly to your long-term career in PR and will serve you well over the long haul. Doing this can hone your writing skills, your communications skills, and your eye for news. It will also give you better insight into how to deal with members of the media once you are in PR and pitch them on stories that might be of interest.

Once you know what makes a good story and appreciate deadlines, the need for sources, and the structure of a story, you’ll be able to put yourself in the seat of the reporter when trying to get him or her to cover your company or client. Even time spent as a fact checker or researcher would help, because you would be exposed to the business and its intricacies, which many PR professionals are unfamiliar with.

This isn’t something that is an absolute necessity, but it would certainly give you a leg up on the competition when it comes to getting a position and then thriving immediately. Companies are always eager to meet with and eventually put at the top of the list people who have had media experience. It’s something that most PR people don’t have, at least to start, and can only gain through working in the industry, talking to reporters, and, unfortunately, getting skewered by angry editors about wasting their time here and there.

It’s a well-known fact that PR in general has a bad reputation within the news media. They view PR professionals mostly as nuisances whom they don’t need. The truth is that from time to time they do need us, but they need us on their terms and within their timelines. Sometimes the window is very small. The game is played by their rules, not ours, and understanding the playing field and personnel will always give you a leg up on the competition. By spending some time in a reporter’s shoes, you can have a better understanding of what they need, want, and will write about when approached the right way.

If you can manage to get some exposure to journalism before embarking on your public relations career, even in a small capacity, I would highly recommend it. It will certainly serve you well.

About the Author

Jason Keith is the senior public relations manager at VistaPrint (, a leading online supplier of high-quality graphic design services and customized printed products to small businesses and consumers. 

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