Transitioning from TV News Reporting to Media Relations

By Sean Hennessey

When I first became a television news reporter, I didn’t like dealing with public relations people. In fact, I thought they were just spinmeisters who were getting in the way and who insisted on controlling things. And I wanted nothing to do with them – I just wanted the story – process be damned. Dealing with them was a necessary evil.

TV News Reporting Anchor

And then I grew up. I began to recognize the symbiotic relationship between PR pros and the media. I also began to take notice of effective public relations people, and those who did their organizations a disservice. And I asked myself if I ever made the change and left the Fourth Estate, how would I do in that industry? After a 24-year TV news career that included 17 years in the major markets of Boston and New York City, I took the plunge into public relations.

Six years in, I’m happy to say my transition to the PR world has gone well. But it didn’t come without its challenges. Here are some lessons learned along the way:

The Non-Media World Rotates a Little Slower – Take Advantage of the Extra Time

Anyone who has worked in a television newsroom knows how fast things move – from turning a story to anchoring breaking news, to being in the edit bay while your story is minutes away from airing. While it was a welcome relief not to be in an edit bay at 4:57 p.m. with my hair on fire, it took some getting used to. Decisions and actions that were made in minutes in the news industry now were taking hours, sometimes days. For someone always on the go and used to quick turns, that was an adjustment.

I learned in the public relations world, there is considerable thought that goes into the media relations aspect, whether it’s responding to a request for comment, having an expert weigh in on the big news story of the day, or writing an op-ed. All kinds of constituencies need to be considered because once a comment or position is out in the public space, it’s out there and there’s no taking it back. So, take advantage of the deliberative process and use the time to your advantage – is this the right move? Is there anything else we ought to be considering? How will this play out? Time can be your friend.

Leveraging Past Lessons into Future Successes

One of the advantages I had when I first entered the PR world is that by being a former reporter, I understood how they think – what they needed, what deadlines meant, what elements would work in a pitch, what kind of expertise would be good on a breaking news story, the need for responsiveness. All of that served me well.

TV news crew

It underscored the importance of thinking like a reporter. Whether you’ve been one or have never stepped a foot in a newsroom in your life, putting yourself in the shoes of the people you’re trying to get the attention of is critical. What are their needs? What might their needs be? How can we help? Thinking like that and then serving up solutions will win points with the media.

Getting What You Get and Not Getting Upset

During my reporter days, I never really gave much thought to the amount of airtime an interview subject who was provided by a PR rep might get. Whether it was 15 seconds, 20 or 30, it didn’t really matter – nor did it matter if that PR rep called after the story wishing we had included a certain message or fact. What did matter was that the story was accurate, and given I typically had a minute and a half to say everything, inevitably something would be left on the cutting room floor.

Now that I’m on the other side, I find myself hoping the reporter I’m working with will include all the points we’re highlighting and give us lots of airtime. But when it doesn’t happen and our allotment is that familiar 15-20 seconds or one quote in the newspaper, I take it in stride because I know the limitations that exist. That reporter can only do so much with the time and space given, and if there is an editor involved, that’s another layer of subjectiveness coming into play. Understanding the process and news parameters can be very helpful when dealing with clients who will have the same questions: How come we received such little airtime? Why didn’t they mention this or that?

Don’t Take it Personally

When I was a reporter, I can’t tell you how many times a PR pitch came to me via my inbox or over the phone or voice mail and I (and my station) did nothing with it. Maybe it was a bad story or maybe it was bad timing. Regardless, I never provided any answer because I was too busy or couldn’t be bothered, and whatever was being pitched didn’t fit with what my news outlet was working on. I never gave any thought to my ignoring these PR people who no doubt, probably put in a lot of time and thought into the pitch only to be rebuffed without so much as a response.

Now that I’m on the other side, I get it, and I don’t always expect a response to my queries. And I don’t take it personally. Of course, it’s nice to get some kind of answer, even if it’s a “We’re going to pass” – at least it’s an answer. Having walked in those reporter shoes, I understand how it works – they’re not interested or don’t have the capacity and they’re moving onto the next thing. But to all those reporters who do take the moment to give a reply – thank you!!

Being a PR pro is challenging, no doubt, but it’s also fulfilling too, especially when you can learn from the past and make better decisions going forward. Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” I’d like to think our clients are getting the best service given all the knowledge we’ve gleaned through the years.

Profile Picture for Author Sean Hennessey at The Castle Group
Written By: Sean Hennessey


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