Do You Want to be a Flack or a Hack?
Freelance writing, like nursing, has its own jargon. My headline facetiously employs unflattering terms for two traditionally separate types of writing: public relations and journalism. Let’s look at these two basic types of freelance writing — and why you need to be careful if you decide to tackle both.
Are you a flack?
I started my career as a flack. I handled public relations for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. I loved that job. By connecting journalists with feel-good stories about our members and programs, I was performing a true community service.
Public relations and marketing, while two distinct disciplines have become a bit blended over the years. First, they melded in the corporate world into ‘marketing communications’ or ‘marcom(m)’ writing (there never was a consensus on spelling), and today those functions have further morphed into ‘content creation.’ Whatever you call promotional storytelling, it’s a great option for nurse writers to pursue.
As a content writer, you’ll produce a wide variety of materials for a corporate client or marketing agency. Some types of deliverables a freelance marketing content writer might produce are:
- Website copy
- Blog posts
- Electronic newsletters
- Sponsored content or native advertising
- Web-based slideshows
- Video scripts
- Special reports
- Case studies
- White papers
That’s a short list, of the top of my head. And who will you be writing this material for? Assuming you’ll want to stay in the healthcare vertical, you’ll want to target a variety of healthcare companies and organizations:
- Medical groups
- Medical product/device manufacturers
- Health/medical/nursing associations and organizations
- Non-profit groups
- Healthcare marketing agencies
- Insurance companies
Again, a short list off the top of my head.
Because of my personal bias in favor of healthcare content marketing writing, I highly recommend it as a career for other nurses. That’s not to say I don’t set foot on the journalism side, however. Which brings me to my next point.
Or are you a hack?
‘Hack’ is an old-school term for a newspaper writer. Specifically, the term was used (mainly by flacks) to disparage journalists for having little skill or flair in reporting. When I use the term ‘hack,’ I mean it in a self-deprecating sense: I have no journalism school degree, so I feel less qualified (and possibly less accomplished) as a journalist than someone who has worked as a full-time newspaper reporter or magazine editor.
Nonetheless, you don’t need a journalism degree to be a reporter. I’ve written many reported pieces. But I think because I started my career in PR, I feel more comfortable on the other side of the border.
If you like the idea of interviewing sources and filing stories that run under your byline, then journalism is for you! As a health journalist, you might write on many subjects, such as:
- Health and fitness trends and news
- Healthcare policy
- Research findings
- Human interest stories
The key difference between being a hack and being a flack lies in your objectivity. A journalist always should include the many facets or viewpoints of a given story. Journalism is not promotional in any way. Reported stories must be factually accurate and unbiased. If you’re interested in learning more about journalistic standards for healthcare reporting, I strongly recommend you bookmark HealthNewsReview.org, which lays out the criteria to judge your reporting against.
So who buys these stories I’m talking about? In health journalism, you might report stories for a number of outlets, including:
- Women’s magazines
- Lifestyle magazines
- Publications produced by various associations
- Trade magazines
- Industry journals
You get the idea. Most freelance journalists sell stories to a magazine or website of some kind or another.
Separation of church and state
As a freelance nurse-writer, you need to be aware of (and understand) the important journalistic concept of ‘separation of church and state.’ This terminology came about in the heyday of newspapers and refers to the editorial independence of the newsroom as distinct from the advertising department. In other words, any newspaper worth its salt would run a story unflattering to an advertiser if the story were accurate and newsworthy, even if it meant losing that advertiser’s revenue. No newspaper (or magazine) with journalistic integrity would assign reporters to cover stories about advertisers strictly because of the financial relationship between the publishing company and the advertiser.
Why is this concept important to you, as a freelancer?
Simply put: You cannot maintain journalistic integrity if you graze on both sides of the fence. In other words, you cannot put on your reporter hat, write a story about an innovative new healthcare technology, and then turn around and solicit that company as a client for marketing writing. Conversely, if you produce marketing content for a company, you cannot then pitch the company as a source or focus of a story reported by you. It’s incredibly important you never mingle your clients and your sources if you decide to work both the flack and the hack sides.
Many of my writer friends function as both reporters and as marketing writers. They maintain their ethics by working in completely separate verticals. For example, they may be reporters in the healthcare realm and do marketing writing for the tire industry. By maintaining this strict separation, there’s no possible way their journalism could be tainted.
As a newbie freelance writer, you would be well-served to pick one hat or the other and stay solely in that arena at first. As you become more experienced, you can consider expanding into both flackdom and hackdom if you desire.
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Wishing you well!
Image via Tab Arief Purwanto