Let us begin with full disclosure: for more than 30 years I was a reporter.
A few weeks ago I became an independent communications consultant.
As a result, I bring a certain bias to the debate.
I covered election campaigns and disasters, great moments in world history and local stories about clogged traffic. It was invigorating, fascinating and educational. I got to see the world and interview important people on important issues, all on the company’s dime.
But having decided I was ready for a change, I spent more than a year reaching out to people I know in public relations, many of them ex-reporters, asking for counsel on moving over to their side.
The advice was almost universal: you can do this; you have the skills and knowledge and will certainly excel. There were a few agency executives who sounded a note of caution, warning that some journalists do not make the transition well, never warm to the concept of consultancy and are uneasy with the challenge of pitching for business.
But are we not as reporters pitching every day? Pitching stories to our producers and editors, pitching ourselves as the person to do those stories? And what is public relations at its essence, other than telling stories?
I love telling stories, whether it be translating complex issues into understandable language for a broad audience or finding the words to adequately convey the drama and significance of great events, heartbreaking tragedy and extraordinary people.
In my former job, I met countless press secretaries, public relations people and communications consultants. Large numbers of them were top professionals, who understood a reporter’s job and needs. There were however, many who showed a stunning ignorance, which poorly served both their clients and the news media.
There was the press secretary for a public health official who sent out an explosive news release about an outbreak of a disease and then seemed puzzled and obstructive when I asked for an interview with her boss.
A reporter knows: if you alert the media to a newsworthy happening, you had better be ready to answer them, and promptly.
Then there are the politicians and public figures I interviewed who could not seem to give a straight answer, who in private life were warm and witty but who turned into automatons when facing the camera, who did not know when or how to say sorry, who in times of crisis were paralyzed into silence when they needed to be speaking out.
Many of these people paid large amounts of money to be “media trained”, but I wonder about the qualifications of the erstwhile trainers—have they ever been reporters or senior political aides?
I did the math and estimated that I have done something on the order of 10,000 interviews, give or take a couple of thousand, experience that infuses my advice on how to speak effectively to journalists.
I have, by the way, titled my media-training package 10,000 Interviews.
Untold numbers of news releases have passed through my hands and far too many were turgid and impenetrable, with the most newsworthy elements buried. The best ones read like news stories and were written either by former reporters or by communications people who understand the importance of clarity, conciseness and compelling language.
The most essential rule for any reporter is simply to get your facts correct. Ernest Hemingway rightly advised that you also need a “built-in bullshit detector”. You have to tell the truth.
It seems to me that truth telling is also essential on what we jokingly call “the dark side”. It has been proven repeatedly that in times of crisis the most effective approach is to be transparent, prompt in admitting mistakes and genuine in promising to do better.
My consultancy is in its infancy, but already people who knew me as a journalist have been kind enough to call for assistance in my new capacity.
This blog makes the unofficial launch of the new career as the website seanmallencommunications.com goes online.
Time to prove the truth of my headline.