How To Break Into PR: Advice For New Graduates

This graduation season, I’m more aware than ever of the legions of freshly degreed young people hoping to break into PR or another communications field. This is due to the economic climate, but it’s also because of my recent experience with the New York Women in Communications Foundation. The Foundation distributes scholarship monies to deserving young women who plan a career in communications.

I was part of the group whose job it was to winnow the number of entries to the select few who would receive financial aid. Because there were so many outstanding and high-achieving applicants, the process was far more difficult than I dreamed it would be. And it made me think about what sets a candidate apart, especially in our business.

My conversations with a handful of the young women and my study of their entries and school records was a real lesson in what it takes to rise to the top in a very competitive year. Here are a few of the learnings that I feel also apply to landing that first job in public relations.

Stand out. Even if you have an excellent GPA, internships, and track record of accomplishments, you need to differentiate yourself. And if, like most students, you don’t have a perfect record, then display your creativity or initiative in other ways. Think about these and other attributes essential to success in communications and show how they apply to you.

Tell your story. PR is in many ways about storytelling. What influences shaped your outlook? What challenges have you met, and how did you deal with them? There was one candidate for the NYWICI scholarship whose application was very borderline on the GPA and other objective criteria, but her personal story was so impressive, and so well-articulated, that she made it through. A compelling narrative will take you far.

Be visual. This is about differentiating yourself within a sea of similar resumes, but it also fits with where PR is going, in its increasing use of multimedia to communicate a message or tell a story. Think about using video, infographics, or other means to express your personality and creativity.

Be entrepreneurial. Today’s crop of graduates are far more enterprising and risk-taking  than in the past, and I think this appeals to creative services businesses like mine. Show how you organized the basketball halftime fundraiser, or created a PR campaign for your a capella group, or helped start a social movement on campus. It can make a difference.

Be social. Clearly, the digital natives have a leg up when it comes to understanding the power and uses of social media. But that’s not enough. Be a content creator and curator. Develop your own point of view about social media and where it’s going. You need to not only walk the walk, but understand the role of social media and how it fits into the communications mix.

Understand business. As a literature major, I was at a real disadvantage when I entered the business world, but I was lucky enough to be mentored by an agency owner who taught me the importance of knowing  business fundamentals. Even in the creative services world, it’s crucial to understand how products get to market, how broader economic trends affect individual companies, and how communications is tied to business goals.

Be curious. When the competition is so close, curiosity can make the difference. Try to look at every interview or interaction in your job search as an opportunity to learn something. Never, ever sit down for an interview without a list of questions, and learn to think on your feet.

Be relentless. Success is often about timing. You can increase your odds of cracking an opportunity by making a spreadsheet of all your contacts and reaching out regularly – with a relevant tidbit, an update, or a simple question. People want to help, but you have to make it easy for them. And, showing determination always impresses a prospective employer, particularly one in the media relations business, where perseverance rules.

Be brief. Three brief updates beat one long-winded note that may never be read. Some of the most accomplished people in our business have perfected the art of being persistent without being annoying. You can showcase your writing skills and demonstrate your respect for an employer’s time with well-crafted communications that get to the point.

Ten Lessons Of A PR Entrepreneur

Last weekend I had the honor of being part of an entrepreneurship panel at the annual Student Career Conference hosted by the New York Women in Communications Foundation. Some 300 students of media, PR, and communications gathered to network, learn, and be inspired by women who’ve made careers in the field. My panel featured an amazing lineup – life stylist and author Harriette Cole, beauty and style expert Jenn Falik, and Techlicious founder Suzanne Kantra. It was a terrific discussion and a good time.

The conference also forced me to think about what I’ve learned in 15 years running my own firms, both with a partner, and, most recently as a sole owner. Here’s my list:

Know your business before you start it. Particularly in a creative service like PR, experience really counts. It pays to put in time at similar firms to gain experience and build contacts before starting your own. And why not learn on someone else’s dime?

All you really need is a client. I’ve talked to aspiring business-builders in PR and media who are very hung up on their own branding and marketing. Those things are important, and they’re fun. But in the beginning, you’re selling yourself. Just concentrate on getting one client to start.

Learn the business of business. As in, how companies make a profit. How products get to market, how a website is monetized, and, for PR, how brands are built and marketed. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand your clients’ business. In fact, it’s all the more reason.

Ask for what you’re worth. It doesn’t pay to be shy about fees, or shrink from conversations around budget matters. Ironically, it’s often easier to stick to your fee levels when it’s not your own business, since the decision is out of your hands. But it’s even more important when building your own business.

Hire up. Never be afraid of hiring people smarter, better, or more talented than you. This is one thing I learned when at Edelman, which is today the largest independent PR firm. At times, it felt like they hired some individuals based purely on talent, then figured out later what to do with them. The point is not to be overly impulsive in hiring, but to look at talent as a long-term investment.

Take the long view. And not just when hiring. I used to gnash my teeth about losing a big pitch. But I can’t tell you how often a client who didn’t hire us has called back within the year to say things hadn’t worked out as they expected, and could we talk about working together? Try to learn something from every setback, and, above all, never burn bridges.

Manage your own reputation like you do your clients’. In the agency business we often become aligned with our clients. That’s why a sketchy company, or one who truly doesn’t understand your services, is nearly always a bad bet.

Ask for help. When I founded my second firm, I realized just how willing people are to help. The trick is in being specific about your needs (“could I ask for an introduction at X company?”) , and in doing so with the spirit of reciprocity.

Do it wrong (maybe), but do it quicklyMike Moran‘s famous call to action (Do It Wrong Quickly) is about experimentation and risk-taking. But, it’s become a mantra for me on prompt and proactive decision-making. Generally, it’s better to commit to something and regret it later than to never try something new, or worse, let key issues drift. And, after sharing responsibility with someone who had a painfully deliberate style on high-priority matters, I learned that a non-decision is a decision in itself. Usually a poor one.

“Fake it ’til you make it.” This was uttered by Jenn Falik and reiterated by nearly every panel member at the NYWICI Student Conference. The point is not that new business owners should be false or  misleading. It’s that when an opportunity comes, we should grab it, especially if it can push us to a new level of skill, challenge, and visibility. If the prospect scares you a little, maybe that’s a good sign.