PR Tips for Interview Prep

A former colleague once told me that she “interviews recreationally” – that is, she actually enjoys going on job interviews even if she isn’t actually looking to make a jump.  She interviews for sport – to see what else is out there, remain savvy about the PR marketplace, and stay competitive within the field.

Assuming you’re in the majority who don’t rank interviewing among your top hobbies, you probably get apprehensive the night before an interview.  The what-ifs can be killer, especially if you’re new to the interviewing scene.  Below are key tips borrowed from PR media training as well as life experience, to help you prepare for, and ace, your interview.

Nail the “tell me about yourself” question. Set yourself up for a successful meeting by “wowing” your interviewer when asked an open-ended question about yourself. Think of three major points you’d like to convey about yourself and your background and memorize them. Then supplement each with anecdotes or supporting points that you can use throughout the session. If you’re a publicist like me, you might list media relations as one of your greatest strengths, but take it a step further by sharing an example of heroic work.

Anticipate difficult questions. You’ve agency-hopped three times in the last year?  There’s a mysterious time gap on your resume?  Know how you’ll tackle these questions, because they will be asked.  For tough queries, honesty and brevity are always best – if the company wasn’t a good fit, say so.  Follow your response with a genuine reason why you’re interested in this company.

Practice out loud. What sounds good in your head might not sound as compelling out loud, and the last place you want to learn that is during your interview.  Sure, you’ll want to talk about brilliant accomplishments or ideas, but delivery is the differentiator between confidence and arrogance.  Practice reading in front of a mirror, or better yet, in front of an audience. If all else fails, call your mom, whose unconditional love for you will force her to oblige.

Like the company. On Facebook, that is. And follow them on Twitter.  And Pinterest.  Many companies have a newsletter and/or blog – sign up for it.  Social media is a great way to obtain information that can’t always be found on the company website, including icebreakers like hometowns or sports team favorites.

Prepare intelligent questions:  Always have questions.  I once met with someone who rocked the interview until I asked “Do you have any questions?” and the candidate said, “No.”  Really, nothing?  So you’re telling me you know EVERYTHING about this agency and this position?  This was a red flag that may have signaled a lack of interest. To play it safe, prepare roughly ten thoughtful questions (in case some are answered during the interview).  Don’t ask about salary or benefits until later in the game.

And finally, remember that it’s just an interview: Think back to a time you were mortified beyond belief.  Chances are this interview pales in comparison.  Even if this is your dream job, the worst thing that can happen is you bomb the interview, learn from it, and move on.  And, you’ll have a funny happy-hour story.

Don’t Say This In A (PR Agency) Interview

In the PR agency world, as in other industries, it’s tough to secure an interview for that first job or next best career step. So when you do nail it, you want to make the most of it. Employers differ, but I have a mental list of “red-flag” responses that make me wonder if the candidate is a fit for my firm, or even for public relations overall. After a straw poll of other employers in PR, I’ve come up with a short, and subjective, list of things not to say in a PR firm interview.

“I’m a people person.” It may be a personal quirk, but this one is the most cringeworthy in my book. Yes, relationship-building is important in our business, but “I’m a people person” is facile, smacks of naievete and does nothing to differentiate. It might make sense in an interview in hospitality or customer service, but I think it’s better unsaid.

“I’m the most qualified person you’ll meet!” This and similar proclamations could suggest an arrogance that isn’t appealing. It’s better to offer specific anecdotes that illustrate why you’re qualified, motivated, or dedicated. Sweeping statements, in general, are weaker than examples.

“How quickly can I be promoted?” Ambition is a good thing, as is having set goals. But the timing is wrong here. Save it for after you’ve proven your skills and work ethic. Talking about advancement prematurely, or in the wrong way, can make you look superficial or overly title-conscious.

“What kind of ads do you create?” You must ask questions, but make sure that they don’t betray a lack of knowledge about the industry or company.

“I wasn’t being given enough independence and creative freedom in my last job.” For some employers, this translates as, “I’m hard to manage.” While it may be important to offer reasons for your planned move, be careful to speak in positive terms, and whatever you do, be respectful of your current boss and company.

“I have lots of ideas for your clients X and Y.” This one depends on timing and approach. It’s wise to be ready with thoughts about the company, and, in the case of an agency, its key clients, but feel out the interviewer with some general questions (“What are your key initiatives for client X?) before you share your ideas.

“My last boss and I had a personality conflict.” This is a cliche, and it sounds hollow. You may be better off explaining a poor fit by saying something like, “I discovered that I work best as part of a team, but the agency structure wasn’t developed for that.”

“We just got an RFP from client X.” I can’t count how many times a junior staffer from another agency has volunteered information that shouldn’t be shared in a routine interview. If you’re working at an agency and interviewing at a competitor, take care not to divulge anything proprietary or inappropriate, including new business pending, confidential client insights, or office gossip.

You covered everything so thoroughly that I don’t have any questions. You must have questions. Even if this is your umpteenth interview at the company, have a question in your back pocket, or ask the interviewer to elaborate on something she said. It’s not fair, but having no questions can make you look incurious, passive, or disengaged.