Five lessons that transcend the journalism — PR divide

In 2022, I joined Broadreach Public Relations after nearly 30 years in journalism, writing for newspapers, magazines, and digital channels. Among journalists, the move is known as “going to the dark side.” But the move has turned out to be a lot more organic than I expected. It turns out that a lot of the most valuable lessons I learned as a reporter have come in handy in my new role helping organizations build their reputational capital. Here are a few:

  1. Get to the point. In The Elements of Style, the veritable writer’s bible, E.B. White recalls how his professor William Strunk would stand at the front of the classroom and implore his students to “Omit needless words!” The dictum rings in my ears all the time. In an age when most people’s attention spans have narrowed to the size of a tweet, brevity has never been more important. The fewer words you use, the higher the chances that your readers will absorb them. After you finish whatever you have drafted, print it out, read it out loud, pretend you’re being charged $100 a word, and whittle, whittle, whittle your piece down to its bare essentials.
  2. Master the cold call. Picking up the phone and calling a stranger to ask for something — whether it’s traction for a story pitch or a source for a story — feels uncomfortable, especially at a time when texting and emailing reign supreme. Any time you are calling someone out of the blue, after you introduce yourself, always ask “do you have a minute?” This tiny acknowledgement of the interruption dramatically increases your chances of success. Whether the person you’re calling responds “yes,” or “no,” that person feels as if their time and sizeable to-do list has been respected. If you just plow right into your request, you’re likely to encounter a lot more resistance.
  3. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I’m a firm believer in this wisdom, attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Working the phones is a reality of any job, whether you’re a journalist looking for sources to sound in on your story, or you’re a PR pro pitching stories to media outlets. It can be unpleasant and discouraging, but persistence is a big part of what you get paid for. Even when you do everything in your power and try your very hardest, you may not be successful. But if you give up, you will most definitely fail.  
  4. There are very few writing problems that a little more reporting can’t get you out of. This is advice I heard New Yorker editor David Remnick give at a conference back in 2008, and it has helped me break through writer’s block countless times. If you run into a brick wall when you’re writing, there’s a very good chance that there’s some fact you need to find, some research you need to do, or some questions you still need to ask. When you have all the information you need, the story, press release, or pitch should flow easily.
  5. Integrity matters.  As a journalist and as a PR pro, I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been thrown under the bus, and I’ve been on the receiving end of outbursts that had nothing to do with me. This is never fun, but it is a reality of working in the world of human beings. When it does happen, empathy does wonders to diffuse my own upset. Remember that 99 percent of the time, when a person behaves badly, fear is driving the bus. That person is afraid of losing their job and livelihood, and that person feels vulnerable. We can all relate to that fear. In these situations, it’s best to remember that the only thing you can control is your own behavior and your own professionalism and integrity.  You will never regret taking the high road and treating another person with respect and humanity even when they’re not giving you the same courtesy. Maine is small. Memories are long. Relationships make this community go round. Be a good person. It matters a lot. In fact, it’s everything.

Jen Van Allen is the Associate Director of Client Services for Broadreach Public Relations.