Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
Theola Labbé-DeBose, Director of Communications at DC Pubic Charter School Board and former Washington Post Reporter, on bad pitches, a blank slate and motherhood.
What lured you to the dark side and DC Public Charter School Board in particular?
I'm still not used to people calling it "the dark side"; it makes PR and communications sound like some evil enterprise. And I've found that working in education is anything but sinister! I had been a full-time reporter for 12 years when I thought about making a transition. In that time I had covered budgets and policy and people and I had learned so much about what works and what doesn't when it comes to government and systems. I just didn't want to observe anymore, I wanted to participate and make a difference. It sounds cheesy but I think after my son was born, (he's now 2), my desire to actively work to make the world a better place to for him to grow up in really tugged at me. I know first-hand the good that journalism does. But I just wanted to do more and do something hands-on. My parents are immigrants from Haiti and stressed education growing up. It was also the beat that I loved covering the most — aside from reporting overseas. I talked about schools even before I had children so if there was one area where I thought I could specialize in, that was it. I chose charters because I loved covering them as a reporter; it is a continually new and evolving movement in education that always feels like you're on the cutting edge of innovation.
Prior to moving into PR, what was your perception of the industry?
That is was easy. Seriously, I didn't understand what a PR job was or what kind of work happened behind the scenes that lead to me getting a press release in my email inbox or setting up an interview with a CEO. I was only interested in information for my story—I had very little interest in who was actually securing it for me, or how.
Who did you learn most from as a journalist?
My colleagues sitting in cubicles next to me. You pick up how to talk to a reluctant source, or great interview questions. The newsroom was like a classroom and everybody was a teacher.
What annoyed you most about PR when you were a journalist?
What is your top tip for PRs when dealing with hacks?
I keep telling people who are not used to or are intimidated by "the media" that it’s actually super easy to deal with a reporter, that everyday they walk into work with a blank slate. New day, new story. You are actually helping them when you call or email and suggest ideas. So there should be no reason why you're ever scared to pick up the phone or follow-up. Reporters will talk to anyone, off-deadline of course. And they're all different. Get to know them—and especially get to know what kind of pressure they're under from their editor. That will be the trick to reporter's heart, if you can help them look good for their editor.
How did your journo colleagues react when you told them you were moving into PR?
When you're at an established, prestigious organization like the Washington Post, it can be hard to even consider leaving. At this point I've joined a large group of Washington Post alumni who have gone on to non-journalism jobs and are really happy. So a lot of my colleagues at the newspaper understood that desire to do something outside of journalism, and know that there's precedent that it's possible. Others hated losing a reporting colleague who came of age in the print era and knew the value of shoe-leather reporting. I remember my early reporting days when I went out on a story with no cell phone. I still remember how exciting it was to cover the Iraq war or the Haiti earthquake, even the quirky stories I wrote as a cub reporter in upstate New York. But the days of using a pay phone to call in quotes are long, long over.
What has been your biggest surprise about PR?
How hard it is. I know I can't say that without every journalist laughing at that statement, but the first time I had to sit down and write out talking points I completely panicked. It was so weird not to have had all this information based on a day's reporting at my fingertips. I had to think about our organization's brand, our position on issues, what we stood for and how to shape our voice. It was an awesome responsibility, especially knowing that a reporter would hang on every word. I got through that and now see it as a fun challenge to come up with the words and phrasing and language that I know others are going to examine and repeat and scrutinize. There are more than 35,000 students in public charter schools in DC -- 43 percent of the public school population — and it's our duty to put out information about our work that is accurate, up-to-date and reliable. I love the job of finding the words to describe our work in our communications with our schools, parents, government officials and the public.
Will there be time for the occasional freelance story?
Ha! When there's no daily deadline, I find that I can just work around the clock. Maybe some personal essay on motherhood — those seem to do well these days, right?
What advice would you give to other journalists considering the change?
Don't be afraid to think of yourself as something other than a reporter. And if you think you want to make a change, think about the stories that you loved to cover — that's probably a hint to the issues that move you the most.
DC Public Charter School Board can be found on Twitter @dcpcsb