Making the Transition from Reporter to PIO

Image: Fran Gambín,

When I was a reporter, I never thought I’d become a flack, or public information officer (PIO). But I did. A lot of the skills I developed as a reporter served me well after making the transition to the “dark side.” How common were my experiences?

To get more information on making the shift from journalist to PIO, I decided to pick the brains of two well-regarded reporters who have gone on to become well-regarded PIOs.

Mark Henderson served as science editor of The Times from 2006 to 2011, when he became head of communications for the Wellcome Trust. B.D. Colen covered medicine and health care for more than 20 years, including lengthy stints at the Washington Post and Newsday, before leaving to become a PIO for Harvard Medical School. He then worked for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as well as private pharmaceutical companies, before returning to Harvard University.

I asked them both the exact same questions, and was interested by the similarities and differences in their responses. In all honesty, I agree with both of them – even when their perspectives seem somewhat contradictory. (That’s the human experience for you.)

Communication Breakdown: In the transition from reporter to PIO, what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to?

Mark Henderson: The working culture. Most journalists – even those who work in newsrooms rather than as freelancers – are in essence lone wolves. You initiate and deliver your projects yourself, with only a modicum of input from others to whom you delegate tasks, or go to for sign-off. That’s completely different to most communications work – almost everything you do has several internal and external stakeholders, who need to be squared properly. It takes some getting used to – as do the greater number of meetings, and the thicker layers of management.

B.D. Colen: The only thing that was difficult for me was just understanding the politics of an academic environment. Going from journalism to the PIO side was not hard for me at all. Both my parents were in P.R., so I grew up with P.R. dinner table conversation. I knew what it was and what to expect. I didn’t suffer from the usual, “Oh my God, what is this” shock. I didn’t make the mistake of thinking I was still a reporter, just working somewhere else.

CB: When you were a reporter, I’m sure you worked with PIOs. After switching careers, was there anything you found particularly surprising about being a PIO?

How many people view reporters who become PIOs. (Image via ThinkGeek)

Henderson: I wouldn’t say I was especially surprised by much, as I knew many outstanding PIOs and how they worked already. But I guess one thing that many people aren’t aware of is how similar the basic roles are, and how much they are blurring. Both roles involve communicating often complex ideas to audiences who are less specialist than you are. And increasingly, digital technology means that communications professionals at companies, charities and universities are engaging these audiences directly, as well as via the media. [Note: I didn’t ask this question of Colen, since he answered it in the previous question.]

CB: How does your experience as a reporter affect the way you do your job as a PIO?

Henderson: It is hugely valuable. What you learn as a reporter is that sixth sense for what a story is. It’s not easy to define, but as Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” This is useful in two directions – identifying the hook that might draw people into a story and encourage them to read or cover it, and identifying angles that might well cause you trouble, and for which you need to have a good prepared response.

I also try to put myself in the shoes of the reporter who is receiving information from a media officer. Does [the information we’re providing] cover what’s really needed?

Colen: Obviously, the skills one hopefully acquires as a reporter are necessary to doing the PIO job well. Asking tough questions, knowing what it is that you’re promoting. It’s just that as a PIO, you’re a representative of an organization. Internally, you’re still a reporter. Externally, you’re certainly not a journalist. I’d ask, “Is this a story I would want to cover?”

I have the incredible luxury, at this point, of working for a university where pitching is rarely necessary. In terms of what I do, I rarely send out a release on something I wouldn’t have covered when I was a reporter.

CB: Do you have any advice for reporters who are considering making the transition?

Henderson: Recognize that the roles are different, but that they’re more similar than they’ve ever been. As a skilled reporter, you may find that your words actually inspire a greater degree of trust if you’re working for a charity or university than they did when you worked for a newspaper. So make that part of your pitch for the job you want – persuade your prospective employer that by hiring you, they’ll be able to reach key audiences directly, as well as through the traditional media.

Colen: Recognize that what you’ll be doing, if you’re going to be an effective PIO, is very different from being a reporter. You’re telling an organization’s story. That’s an extraordinary difference from being a reporter. I think a mistake some people make is that they think what they’re doing is a form of journalism, and it’s not.

CB: Any advice for PIOs in general?

Henderson: Take a user-centered approach. Yes, there may be things that you are required to say to keep your institution happy, but so far as you can, put them at the end and not front-and-center. Try to give reporters what they are likely to use, rather than what you would like them to use.

Colen: Remember that you were once on the other side of that phone call or email. Treat reporters as you would have wanted to be treated when you were in the business. The main watchword: no bullshit. I want people to at least look at what I’m sending. And I know if I push out stuff in volume [without regard to quality] they won’t pay any attention to it.

[Closing note: If you take only two things away from this Q&A, please make them these two – “give reporters what they are likely to use, rather than what you would like them to use” and “no bullshit.”]


3 thoughts on “Making the Transition from Reporter to PIO

  1. Hi, Matt! Thank you for writing this!
    I found this article helpful and enlightening. It reminded me that I was once offered to contribute some articles to the official magazine of my university. Was contributor for university’s media/publications considered as PIO too? I’m still an undergraduate right now and the offer’s still available. Will that be good for my future career (I want to be a science journalist like Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer, hehehe) or my CV if I accept the offer?

    IMO, I get the sense that being a PIO is like being a writer/reporter for a certain magazine/mass media corporate. In my country, Indonesia, some stakeholders or mass media corporates were businessman linked to political parties. Each mass media is different in reporting news because there are ‘internal rules’, especially when it comes to political news/news about presidential election.

    Thanks again!


  2. Hi Sheyka,
    any opportunity to get writing experience — and to work with an editor — is probably worth pursuing. Since you would be working on a freelance basis for a publication, I wouldn’t call you a PIO. But since it’s for an outlet that that represents the research institution you’re covering, there is a conflict of interest that means it’s not really “journalism” either. Let’s just call it freelance science writing for higher ed. 🙂 Good luck!


  3. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] A Gap in the Market for Science — an Interview with Mark Henderson about Launching Mosaic › Communication Breakdown

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