Like many seasoned practitioners, I’ve often been approached by individuals seeking advice as they begin a career in the field of corporate communications and public relations (PR). Usually, they ask for my opinion on what it’s really like to work in this profession day-to-day or the best way to build a successful and fulfilling career.
There are loads of advice and numerous suggestions out there which are generally spot on. However, I always offer the caveat that there are certain factors making each experience unique. Things like geographic location, corporate culture, business or industry focus, company size, and executive leadership are just a few circumstances that can individualize an experience, for better or for worse.
For me, I came into the field in a non-traditional manner versus a more direct route. I didn’t set out to be here, but this is where I ended up. I actually prefer that this was an evolution for me as I think that brought me greater insights into people, the role, and the clients I serve.
Based on my personal experiences, as well as those I know in the industry and the paths they forged, I’ve compiled my best advice for anyone wanting to launch a career in corporate communications and PR.
Get agency experience first. While I never had this experience myself, I’ve worked with many agencies and observed the career opportunities of the teams. I also know what many hiring managers are looking for and agency experience usually hits the top of the list. It’s a fantastic way to work with a variety of organizations and industries as you feel your way into your own niche. You have access to seasoned pros and typically a great introduction to tools and technologies in the field. I suggest doing this early in your career to build some great experiences.
If you want to stay in an agency, I suggest working as in-house PR at some point so you have an enriched view of how things work. In-house experience gives you a better idea of how companies truly operate, how to gather information, and how to effectively partner within a business to bring the most for the brand. Having a dual perspective means you can deliver more comprehensive advice.
Learn the business. It is absolutely critical to understand your company or your client’s business and the industries they serve. Having a communications professional that can extract the nuances of an opportunity and what’s important is invaluable. You cannot fully comprehend an opportunity if you don’t know the business, the industry, who the competitors are, and where the market is going. Become an expert.
Keep up with technology. Having good technical skills in today’s communications market is imperative—we leverage technology for just about everything we do. Be sure to have a solid working knowledge of all existing social media platforms, who uses them, how they work, how competitors use them, how best to leverage them, or not leverage them, and how they fit into overall communication strategies. Be diligent about keeping on top of emerging technologies and tools and how they can support business goals. This includes blogging tools, SEO, RSS, analytics tools, mobile technology, content marketing software, video and photography technologies, and even coding which is becoming a game changer for communications superstars.
Write well. Don’t take this skill lightly. If you think your writing needs improvement, invest the time and practice, practice, and practice some more. Develop a keen editorial eye so you can minimize mistakes. Learn the industry style guides such as the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style. There is always a critical eye being cast on communicators in particular, so learn to sharpen this skill for the rest of your career.
Network for value. Building relationships in PR are paramount to the job. From seeking new clients to connecting with journalists, or engaging with your own experts—long-term, meaningful connections are core to a successful communications program. When you’re networking, don’t just hand out business cards, but consciously build thoughtful relationships as you progress in your career. Understand that it’s a two-way street. Build up your karma credits by being of value to others first. Don’t just look for how others can help you right out of the gate. Eventually, you will realize you have something much more valuable than a list of business contacts.
Be curious. As newbies to anything, that is the time to ask lots of questions. It’s expected that you don’t know the answer. Those that have gone before you want to help and are usually eager to share their experience. Now is the time to ask anything. It’s understood you are learning.
And be sure to take copious notes. I always keep a 5×8 Moleskin notebook with me wherever I go. As I take notes or capture thoughts and ideas, I regularly go back through the pages to remember things or think of them in a new way. This is a great way to learn and expand your knowledge and build on ideas.
“Most everything that you want is just outside your comfort zone.” — Jack Canfield
Raise your hand. If a new or challenging project arises, volunteer. Be available. Get out of your comfort zone and take on the challenge. If you work in a particularly risk-averse environment, it’s okay. You can always ask for help or direction. The idea is to not fly below the radar with your head down, but take full advantage of the numerous opportunities that will come your way. This is how we learn. This is how we get noticed. This is how we build exciting careers.
Always think big picture. No matter what the story is, a good communications pro should first look strategically. Before any action can be taken, it’s important to understand how things tie together. The mistake many have made is keeping a narrow view and missing golden opportunities that could have been significant for the business. It ends up being a complete waste of time and resources, not to mention a potential loss in revenue. Learn to think wide first, then go deep or wherever you need to go.
Protect your online image. I’m talking about your personal brand and reputation here. An organization will be paying for your professional expertise, therefore they will look to see what’s being said about you online, or what you’re saying publicly to ensure you can be trusted to manage their reputation. Be smart and filter yourself everywhere. As a guiding principle, ask yourself what an employer or client would say regarding what you’re about to post. Assume everything is permanent. Instances like the Snapchat and Whisper hack proved that point.
Be respectful and be kind. Our profession is all about people. As you progress in your career, you’ll find that it’s a very small world. The people you interact with will cross your path again and again. Even if someone isn’t being professional or kind, take the high ground and don’t burn a bridge. Their own insecurities or personal issues may be causing them to misbehave, so just respond with respect and kindness. It may feel as if someone just walked all over you, but it’s the right thing to do. You never know what issues they are battling at that moment, and you also never know who is watching. Become emotionally intelligent and remember, we are all here just trying to do our best.
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes over the years, and as I compiled my top list I remember failing in several areas more than a few times. But I remind myself that no one is perfect. Do your best, ask other professionals what works for them, surround yourself with smart people, and keep aiming high. It’s such an exciting time to be in this field. I wish those just beginning their journey the very best.
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