Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
Matt Brown, former associate editor of The Recycler, on cursing inept PRs, the value of journalism experience and the reality of life on the lightside.
What lured you to the dark side and Berkeley PR in particular?
The prospect of a fresh challenge was one of my main motivations for crossing to the ‘dark side’. While I was looking for the next step in my career, I realised that all of the journalist offers I was applying for would eventually be more of the same day-to-day routine once I’d got my head round a new field. I’d always heard PR offered a lot of variety with no two days ever being the same, and I liked the idea of using my skills in new ways. I was drawn to Berkeley PR because they were specifically seeking out people with journalistic experience for a “communications journalist” role, and, alongside its technology focus, this seemed like a perfect fit for me.
Prior to moving into PR, what was your perception of the industry?
Like most journalists I tended to switch between cursing inept PRs that bombarded my inbox with irrelevant press releases, and singing their praises when a well written article turned up to fill an editorial gap on deadline day. Overall, I never gave the industry and its inner workings that much thought, and perhaps took it for granted a bit.
Who did you learn most from as a journalist?
I think I should give credit to Tor Clark, principal lecturer in journalism at De Montfort University. He was my main tutor during my journalism undergrad, and while I might have learned a lot since those days, it was his initial guidance that really set me on the right path and made me sure this line of work was for me. He was also the first one to impart the ever useful mantra of “check, double check, and bloody well check again”.
What has been your biggest surprise about PR?
I was quite surprised by the level of planning and preparation that goes into the average press release. Reporters are always working against the clock, especially when it comes to breaking news. On the other hand, there’s no danger of a press release getting scooped by a rival, so the focus shifts to getting it absolutely polished to perfection before it goes public. That’s not to say PRs get to kick back and relax all day of course: there are still strict deadlines, and that same feeling of urgency is definitely present when it comes to drafting a rapid response or securing coverage in a competitive publication.
What annoyed you most about PRs when you were a journalist?
Having my time wasted by lazy PRs who clearly hadn’t taken the time to check if their pitch was the slightest bit relevant for my magazine. The Recycler’s broad title makes it a prime candidate for throwing into a general purpose environmental press list, but five seconds on the website makes it clear how niche the focus actually is.
Some of the most memorably random pitches were a press release on recycling dog waste, and a persistent series of emails inviting us to a conference on plankton. One of my former colleagues took a particular delight in letting these types know just how irrelevant their pitches were.
Berkeley PR stick to an ethos of understanding and respecting journalists. Journalists don’t want to receive emails or calls that have little or nothing to do with their publication, so an element of quality control is essential and Berkeley PR adheres to that.
What is your top tip for PRs when dealing with hacks?
Be prepared. Take the time to learn about the publication’s style and focus, and read up on the journalist’s previous work. Likewise, make sure you know your pitch inside out and cater it to whoever you’re addressing instead of just repeating a general spiel. Most journalists won’t be too impressed by a clearly generic cut-and-paste pitch, and certainly won’t be impressed with having their time wasted with irrelevant rubbish.
How did your journo colleagues react when you told them you were moving into PR?
The reaction to my switch was pretty positive from my former colleagues. I think most people agree the important thing is to use your skills doing something you enjoy, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on.
That’s not to say the word ‘traitor’ wasn’t bandied about a few times of course - it seems to be obligatory! I’m sure I took a similar approach when my former editor moved to PR herself last year, and I think we like to keep the idea of it being taboo going for old times’ sake – this feature is called Moving to the Darkside after all.
What advice would you give to other journalists considering the change?
I’d advise them to have a think about what they most enjoy about journalism and why they got into it in the first place. Those who love the thrill of investigative journalism and signed up for a taste of Woodward and Bernstein-style glory will probably find PR rather unsatisfying, and the same goes for anyone who’s biggest buzz comes from seeing their name on the by-line.
On the other hand if they find those elements aren’t that important, and they really just enjoy communicating with an audience and getting their message across, then a move to PR might well be for them. I think more PR firms are taking the same approach as Berkeley and realising how valuable journalism experience can be.
**You were at The Recycler before you went to Berkeley PR. Are you still holding the baton for environmentalism as a PR?
Well I certainly don’t hold the environmental baton quite as high as I used to, since I would previously be looking for a green angle in almost everything I wrote. I’ve still written a few environmentally focused pieces since joining Berkeley PR, however, and I definitely welcome the chance to do more. I think it’s an increasingly important topic to bring attention to (and the cynical journalist in me would like to add that it always makes for a good story!).