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Crossing over to the enlightenment side

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BY BILL GRAHAM
Mark Taylor, newspaperman and OWAA first vice president, poked fun at me a bit when he came up with the title for a session I co-hosted at the 2011 OWAA conference: “Crossing Over to The Dark Side.”
I’m now in my second year as a media specialist — which often includes public relations duties — after a quarter century digging facts from public relations folks as a reporter at a major metropolitan daily newspaper.
Mainstream news reporters commonly, if not daily, search desperately for information, quotes and contacts for stories born in the morning and sent through editors to consumers by late afternoon. They often work with bosses breathing down their necks and demanding unique information that can set the story apart from competitors’ news.
Many times I’ve been under pressure and angrily frustrated when a PR spokesman could not or would not help me, or seemed to be desperately trying to spin the story away from the truth with information he did provide.
But there are two sides to this story.
Many times I got excellent and timely information and help from PR professionals at agencies and companies who made it possible for me to make deadline and do so in fine fashion.
Also, many times I wondered, could I do what they do for a living?
Often the answer I told myself was “no.”
I felt too addicted to the swashbuckling reporter ways and the adrenaline rush on the breaking news front lines. I’d miss the quiet satisfaction of having my byline appear before thousands of readers.
Well, I was wrong. I’ve crossed over and survived on the so-called dark side. In fact, when you’re working for a cause you believe in, it’s pretty nice.
My title is now media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. I work a 30-county area in western Missouri from an office in Kansas City. I’m extremely lucky because my entire career I’ve been pointed toward outdoor journalism. For news folks facing layoffs or wishing for a change of pace, I believe you can survive and thrive, too, with a job title such as public relations, media relations, marketing director, spokesman, communications director or outreach coordinator.
Here’s how:

  • Land a job with a company or agency you believe in. It’s refreshing to be an advocate and defender for good products or causes. There’s nothing wrong, either, with taking a PR job of any kind to learn the ropes and keep the financial ship afloat until a job more lucrative to you opens.
  • Be yourself and provide accurate information. Reporters have super sensitive phoniness detectors whether in person, by phone or in digital communications. You’ll have points for the cause that you want noted in a story, but honesty and sincerity are the most effective way to sell those points.
  • Be courteous. Reporters encounter rudeness regularly from the public and fellow staffers. Your courtesy encourages them to listen and use what you’re saying.
  • Keep the information simple. I’ve had the bad habit of being asked a question, on-air or by somebody with a notepad, and I’ve proceeded to utter a lead, lengthy details and a conclusion in a long statement that greatly resembles a finished newspaper story. Not good. Give basics, let them ask for details.
  • Be organized and keep appointment calendars. Reporters can survive by reacting and digging because their specialty is gathering a story quickly and moving on to the next one. A media relations staffer has more complex task list. I’ve written letters and speeches for other staffers, connected radio show hosts with biologists far afield, run down photos, located facts and attended mandatory meetings, all in a day’s time.
  • Be patient with a new office culture. Newsrooms and the people who inhabit them are quite similar in routines and the personalities. Often, it’s the opposite in the business and government agency sectors. Be prepared to check your swashbuckling ways at the door. Don’t be too quick to judge potential friends and enemies among your fellow workers. Evaluations change as you become more familiar.

Crossing over to what I call the enlightenment-provider side can pose challenges such as boggy bureaucracies and unfamiliar pressures as a public or corporate servant.
I’m an agency spokesman, and I felt so strange the first few times I was interviewed by reporters or appeared live on radio and television. I was no longer in control of the story’s
final tone and details. And I have already been burned by bad reporting or editing. There are good reasons why media reps are cautious.
Still, I’ve survived those challenges and I love my job. There are golden days where I’m writing nature stories, taking photos and sending them to media outlets as a journalism product much like my newspaper creations. My audiences for some stories are often far larger than before. And there are also days when I’m able to plug other journalists into stories where my presence is never known to the media consumer, but I know I’ve helped conservation.
I’m grateful for the chance to work on the other side of the fence. In this turbulent journalism era, I encourage reporters and editors not to fear crossing over.♦
—Bill Graham is media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, he is also a freelance writer and photographer covering outdoor sports and natural
science, bluegrass music and acoustic instruments. A member since 1985, Graham can be reached at plattefalls@centurylink.net.

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