Going to the Dark Side: An Interview With Elinor Mills On Becoming a ‘Flack’
My recent interview with Eric Savitz about the growing trend of journalists going to the “dark side” of public relations was illuminating, and I enjoyed hearing his POV on the proverbial light and the dark sides of journalism. But, this is more than one man’s journey – the transition from journalism to PR is a bona fide trend, and DLC was curious to hear from other journalists who’d made the transition.
We were excited for the opportunity to speak with Elinor Mills*, who recently transitioned from CNET journalist to PR pro. She’s a self-proclaimed “flack,” who traded in her press credentials for a position at PR firm, The Bateman Group.
From explaining the intricacies of journalism before the convenience of the Internet, to her advice for PR people on how to best work with journalists, Elinor proved to be a true communications expert.
HS: What did you used to think of PR while working as a journalist?
EM: PR was a tool for getting information – one of many. Being a security reporter focusing on threats and attacks, my stories were ones that companies didn’t want to do proactive pitches on. I often had to rely on own sources and security research. But that doesn’t mean that I never leveraged relationships with PR people; depending on the topic, PR was often a tool for a corporate source on a story.
HS: Because there’s more than one side to any story. What is your take on how PR people think of journalists?
EM: Both sides see the other as being valuable. How useful can you be? From the PR side, there is a lot more emphasis on individual reporters. PR people know what to pitch, who can cover it and who will be interested in what. PR is very targeted in the way they approach journalists, and often know a lot more about the reporters than the reporters think they do.
In fact, sometimes PR people study reporters for months. It makes sense; reporters often don’t realize that they are public figures, especially to PR people. Reporters get contacted so much, and the ratio of reporters to PR people is unbalanced. So, if a PR person establishes a relationship where he or she really knows the reporter, then it’s a job well done.
HS: Do you have any advice for your new peers on how to handle journalists?
EM: Many PR people don’t understand that journalists can’t possibly return every message, and email is way better. It’s so important to break above the noise level and stand out by making messages short and sweet. It’s always good to keep in mind that stress and problems are more interesting to reporters than solutions.
HS: This next question is particularly interesting to me. As a writer who recently entered the public relations world, I am curious about your take on digital journalism, and how it has emerged from traditional practices?
EM: When I started in journalism, we had to check facts. You couldn’t pull up a browser; you had to make calls, speak to libraries and reference record books at the Associated Press, almanacs and books of records. Librarians would call back with research.
This isn’t news, but things are faster with the Internet. With a newspaper you had all day to write a piece. The news cycle is so fast now; every second is a new cycle, and everyone is competing to break news or write the freshest angle. Another new addition is Twitter, which is now a viable source for getting tips. These leads can be good if they are confirmed, but bad if false because facts are checked after the stories run.
Another shift is sharing. Everyone is afforded a voice that becomes part of the news or discussion. As a result, you can’t trust everything you read.
The Internet is a forum for everyone, and everyone is an information generator. I don’t think journalism school is even necessary anymore; you just need to know how to write. In the 1990s when blogging came about, anyone with an Internet connection could provide analysis. Journalist is such a loose term now.
HS: That’s interesting. So do you agree that digital writing is basically a new form of writing that has evolved?
EM: I agree; I do think there is a new form of writing. It’s because there’s so much information, journalists don’t have until tomorrow morning to process and digest it. People have shorter attention spans because there’s so much to consume.
As a digital writer, you have to be able to get your message across quickly. People are becoming increasingly inundated with info, which is why blogging became so popular. It made content more digestible and easier to consume information.
The trend is moving away from long profiles, where you really get a sense of a person, and fewer analysis pieces on what’s happening in the world and what it means. There’s far less investigative material because journalists just aren’t taking the time overturn the stone. There is less gratification because the audience for that type of piece is much smaller.
HS: It’s clear that you’re very happy in your new role, but are there aspects of reporting that you miss?
EM: I really liked writing and covering the different beats. I loved learning about new topics, and talking to people. I wasn’t in it for the glory. I was in it for the reporting, being able to pick up the phone and having someone talk to me about a topic.
Now in PR, I can’t really do that. People don’t talk to me the same way, because I don’t have the same access, and I’m no longer public interfacing. But, I enjoy being the unsung hero for clients. I have a deep appreciation for how much thought goes into the work. In fact, I think that plenty of people who work in PR would make excellent journalists.
I remember the speech given at my freshman year orientation at USC ten years ago. The speaker addressed a somewhat new idea at the time — that we would all have more than one career in our lifetimes and education should be focused accordingly. It is only now that I am older and have work experience under my belt that I realize the truth in this commentary.
Even without considering the rapid advancement in technology, the world moves quickly. As industries evolve, so must job descriptions. The careers we enter into after graduation might not look the same in twenty years. As Elinor has proven, journalism is one industry that looks dramatically different from her first day on a news desk. With the title “journalist” becoming increasingly loose in definition, it’s no wonder so many journalists are hanging up their press passes for a PR firms.