Robyn Chalmers knew from childhood that she wanted to be a journalist, and the decision to move from journalism to the corporate world wasn’t an easy one to make, she writes in a story first published in The Media magazine.
I was 21 and fresh out of university when I joined the Sunday Times Business Times as a junior reporter, spending the better part of two decades immersed in financial journalism. I loved every minute of it: the intellectual stimulation, the relative freedom, the excitement – even the deadlines were compelling.
After working on several newspapers, I joined Business Day in the early 1990s and this became my home for well over a decade. Reporting on companies – including construction, property, financial services and parastatals – I eventually moved from daily reporting into management, where I served as deputy editor for about four years. This was an important growth experience.
My decision to leave journalism was therefore met with some surprise, yet while it was not necessarily an easy one to make, it seemed entirely logical. I needed a new challenge, and the corporate world I had been writing about for so long offered an entirely new experience.
Moving into a company as ‘management’ was a real eye-opener. I began to appreciate just how complex organisations can be; how challenging it can be to communicate what they do; and how incredibly nimble one has to be in order to manage the multitude of requests for information received daily – and, in some cases, hourly – from the media.
The key to managing the communications of any entity is to ensure you know as much as possible about the workings of the organisation; and that you identify and communicate regularly with a solid core of good, knowledgeable journalists who report regularly on the company.
The need to know
Knowledge is vital. It can be challenging when there is controversy surrounding an organisation, simply because you spend most of your time putting out fires rather than proactively talking about the work that the organisation is doing. But crisis communication is a critical element of any communications post – one which I suspect most good journalists are well suited to, given the swift turnaround of news in any newsroom.
Working on the other side of the media fence is enlightening. One of the biggest challenges of any communications person is to try to instil respect for news deadlines. For most corporate managers, the need to respond speedily to a media query is not top of mind, and it is critical to educate the business about the importance of responding swiftly and thoughtfully to every single media query, no matter how unimportant it may seem. Equally, the communications team has to be close enough to the business to have an idea of what the response should be, or to know who should supply it.
Another challenge is to engender an understanding within the business of how the news media works, and what is newsworthy. This can be an alien concept for organisations. Many understandably believe that, because the work they are doing and the initiatives they have embarked on are important, they are also of interest to media consumers. This may not necessarily be the case.
The challenge is to recognise the newsworthy items and then communicate them in a way that is clear and which links back to the overarching strategy of the business. Careful management and education is needed to ensure that the way news works is fully understood.
From the media perspective, those journalists who work hard to understand the organisation on which they are reporting, and who approach issues in a balanced way, are a dream to work with, engendering confidence within the organisation that the business is understood and will be treated fairly, which in turn allows for greater interaction.
Given the shortages of resources in many newsrooms, this is not always possible, and managing complex issues in these circumstances can be daunting. Nevertheless, I believe that it is up to the communications team to pull out all the stops to ensure that the issue is contextualised and managed as clearly as possible.
I am often asked whether I miss journalism. The answer is an unequivocal “yes”. The camaraderie of a newsroom, the excitement of being part of a breaking story and the ability to use your creative instincts to analyse and write about complex situations are all highly compelling.
But what I have learned by being part of the corporate world, and the mentoring I have received at the hands of truly remarkable people, is invaluable. It’s daunting, challenging and incredibly hard work but it is also rewarding, invigorating and, ultimately, a whole lot of fun.