From hack to flack

I’ ve lost count of the number of times my journalist friends have told me they’d like to move into communications but don’t think they’ve got the  right skills. I had the same concerns when I first started to consider making the move a couple of years ago.  So here’s some news for all those newspaper hacks and broadcasters struggling with the decision: your skills are directly transferable, and they will become even more so if current  trends continue. One of the greatest barriers to crossing the great divide is that it can be genuinely difficult to explain what someone working in communications does. When I was broadcasting every day on BBC Radio 2, it was obvious what I did (mostly) because people could literally hear it on the radio. Even my children had a pretty good idea. 

But explaining to a journalist what a job in communications involves is far less straightforward. Sure, we can all just about get our heads around what media training is or how to write a press release and get a story into a newspaper or onto the airwaves. But – as any comms professional will know - communications has many different sides to it that are just too subtle to explain.

How do you describe what a company narrative is, or why it’s important to ensure that the messaging coming from internal and external comms is aligned? How do you quantify the importance of judgment, or gut feeling, in a meaningful way? These are some of reasons I love working in communications, because it uses different parts of my brain.

Journalism, on the other hand, was pretty one-dimensional, the main skill set being an ability to quickly ingest complex information and regurgitate it in an accessible way. But I only really appreciate this now that I have made the move. It’s been a far greater challenge trying to put it into words for someone who hasn’t done it yet.

The good news is that the growing use of digital media by companies wanting to tell their story is bridging that gulf in understanding – and making the journalist’s skill set more relevant than it has ever been. Think about the ways in which companies are telling their stories these days. Where previously it might have been by sending a press release to a group of favoured journalists in the hope that they might publish it, now most companies have their own channels through which to communicate. Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, YouTube – even Snapchat – are all rapidly taking over as the main ways to communicate. And think about the type of content that populates these channels: pithy headlines and summaries, short videos, videographics, pictures with captions. All content that will be bread and butter to any journalist.

One of the things that surprised me the most when joining Liberty Global as head of digital media was the way in which my years as a TV producer at the BBC equipped me with the right skills. Corporations love films, and if someone in your comms team understands how to make them you’re at a huge advantage because you understand how to get complex messages across and you know what works and what doesn’t. And talking of getting complex issues across in an easilydigestible way: if you’ve ever created a graphic for the TV news, you’ll be able to do it standing on your head. We’ve even bought a video camera, microphone, tripod and lights so we don’t have to pay expensive agencies to film straightforward stuff. Everyone in my team can use a camera, edit pictures and create simple graphics – all perfect for social media.

And the growing use of live-streaming on Facebook and Twitter is perfect for anyone used to dealing with live press conferences. Live-tweeting an event is an identical skill to reporting from magistrates’ court or a press conference. The surprising proof of this is that I still use my shorthand every week. This changing culture has led many comms teams to transform the way they work. When I first joined Liberty just over a year ago, we didn’t regard ourselves as producers of news. Now we have daily ‘editorial’ meetings, we have a planning grid similar to what we used at the BBC – and our open-plan office is even being built into a ‘newsroom’ to get us into the right mindset.

Half of our team is charged with gathering news from the various parts of our vast, global organisation – for both internal and external consumption – and the other half, including me, play the role of editor and headline writers for our various digital channels. And there will be even more scope for that once we launch our new corporate website – a shop window for all the great things we are doing as a company – which we will run a bit like an online magazine. All familiar territory and something to be positive about for journalists wanting a second career.

What is perhaps not such good news for journalists wanting to stay put is that corporations like ours need them less and less. Of course, there will always be room for a handful of publications and programmes – the Gold Standards such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. But for the rest of the news media I’m not so sure. It might be time or more journalists to consider crossing the great divide.