As the owner of a successful public relations agency, I’m sometimes approached by new graduates or career-changers interested in PR or communications. Most are looking for that first job, of course, but the more savvy couch their approach in a request for advice. How can I position myself to succeed in PR, they ask? My response is rooted in an agency career, but even if your goal is to work on the client side, agency experience is very, very valuable. Here is my best advice, informed by experience.
Hone your content skills. Most aspiring PR stars know that content is increasingly important in the agency business, but they may not be aware of the breadth of skills required of PR practitioners today. Excellent journalistic writing, regular blogging, video storytelling, and, most importantly, the strategy behind a content recommendation, no matter what the medium – are backbone PR skills today.
Learn the business of your clients. A common failing of up-and-coming PRs is the thought that they need only master the content and media relations skills necessary to support a client’s business. But it is only in learning the fundamentals of that business that you can maximize the value of the PR investment for the organization. That means knowing how to interpret a balance sheet, knowing about product distribution, and understanding revenue models.
Learn the business of PR. Similarly, it pays to understand how agencies make a profit, because that model is the roadmap for success in the agency environment. Profitability isn’t a dirty word, and it should never be a mystery.
Be curious. In my book, intellectual curiosity is one of the single greatest assets in a potential new hire. It makes understanding a client’s business more organic and it separates the truly great practitioners from the merely competent.
Learn to speak in front of strangers. Yes, you will have to stand up in front of a group of prospective clients or colleagues and run through a presentation, and the more compelling and persuasive it is, the more successful you will be. Some people are born presenters, but most fake it until they make it. Bear in mind that sharp presentation skills also include advocating for your position in a senior-level meeting, and, above all, in knowing how to be persuasive, yet succinct.
Get diverse experience. I feel fortunate because I started in consumer marketing PR and then had the opportunity to apply that experience to technology clients. In my case, it was a happy accident. But a sampling of different sector experience early on helps inform a career focus, and the cross-pollination will make anyone a stronger practitioner.
Have grit. Like any service business, the agency life has extreme ups and downs. There are exhilarating new client wins, as well as bitter losses, and they don’t always follow a logical pattern. Those who persevere during tough times will be far more successful in the long run.
Go the extra distance. The additional hour spent researching a story idea, an extra-thorough response to a client question, or that last creative session in search of the winning concept make all the difference in the agency business.
Network within your agency. The people you meet and work with on your way up can play huge roles in your career. Some will go to the client side, others will be agency principals, and still others will be content or media personalities. Make sure they see the best in you.
Understand strategy. PR is not only about creating publicity or distributing content. It will pay to be familiar with the practices that inform public relations, including brand marketing and reputation. Only with a background in each can you call yourself a true PR strategist.