When I was a young journalist at The Wall Street Journal, a writing coach leading a clinic for us junior reporters said something that has stuck with me for decades.
Bill Blundell, one of the most artful writers at a newspaper well-stocked with them, said all good stories require a point of view and, if I recall accurately, need to make an argument, even if it’s only implied by the facts and anecdotes the writer chooses.
This statement left an impression on me because it seemed so contrary to what I then understood the prevailing ethic of journalism to be. Until then, I thought stories, at least those by journalists writing for the news pages, weren’t supposed to make arguments, that they should only evenhandedly lay out the facts and let the readers draw conclusions. Making arguments was for opinion-page writers.
But, of course, I was exactly wrong. Good journalistic stories do make an argument. The framing of the argument begins with the selection of the subject and continues through the reporting, writing and editing of the story. Typically within a few sentences or even the headline, you know which side the journalist is on and what he or she would like you, the reader, to think.
All that to say that journalism and marketing aren’t as unrelated as many journalists might believe. At their core, both fields are about telling stories, emphasizing certain aspects, de-emphasizing others, to make the audience see what the writer wants them to see.
That may explain why my transition to public relations from journalism was, on the whole, fairly seamless. It’s all about telling stories that make an argument to readers, after all. True, much of marketing doesn’t carry the public service dimension of the best journalism but neither does much of what has always passed for daily journalism.
With the carrying capacity of the news industry diminished to a fraction of what existed in its golden era during the 1980s and 1990s, former journalists like me were fortunate we could tramp over to the relatively fertile field of public relations, where our skills and experience are valued.
I began my public relations career as the communications director for a non-profit trade association for the nation’s most important public housing authorities, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities or CLPHA. There, as the one-person PR shop, I did the full gamut of communications work, from helping reporters better understand the important role played by our members in providing affordable housing to millions of people, to managing internal and external publications and helping organize the several membership meetings CLPHA holds during the year.
As I was settling into that role, an unexpected opportunity happened, a media relations job for one of the nation’s top law firms, WilmerHale. Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general and one of Washington’s best known lawyers, is a partner. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was a partner, too, before he left to become special counsel.
Public relations work for a law firm like WilmerHale is challenging. So much of the work the lawyers do is, understandably, confidential. But the challenge makes the successes sweeter.
Meanwhile, it’s invigorating to work with lawyers at the top of their profession – smart, logical and skeptical people who maintain a fast pace and expect those in support roles to keep up. And the range of issues, and their attendant stories, is as fascinating as any you would come across in the newsroom of an important media outlet: privacy and cybersecurity, money laundering, sanctions and trade, corporate crises, national security, criminal justice, capital punishment, immigration among others.
There are still so many stories to tell, so many arguments to make.