Three months from now, members of the class of 2013 will walk across the stage to collect their diplomas and immediately suffer a panic attack when they realize it’s time to look for that first job out of college.
First, here’s a piece of advice—you have the rest of your life to work, take the summer and explore the world if you have that luxury. That’s something I wish I had done; I started my first job the day after graduation.
For those of you that need to get a job—you know, like, yesterday—here are the skills most employers are looking for in a PR hire. The reality is, if you’re a recent grad and don’t have these skills, you’ll have a harder time finding that first job. If you’re an undergraduate, learn from this post so you’ll be in a better place two, three, or four years from now.
1. Writing skills
No matter what you’ve heard about all that sexy social media stuff, you still need to know how to write in PR. Ideally, you majored in journalism (or English) or your PR or communications program had a heavy concentration of writing-related courses. You should be able to walk into your first job interview with any (or all) of the following:
• Sample articles you wrote (bonus points if you had them published). The best examples are newspaper articles (online or print) and magazine articles (again, bonus points if you have both consumer and business examples).
• A variety of writing samples. This includes articles on a wide-range of subjects, press release samples, blog posts, and perhaps entire press kits.
• New-media writing samples. Blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts are great—not your personal ones, but those you wrote on behalf of an organization.
• Long-form writing examples. This might include research reports or in-depth public relations plans.
If you don’t have writing samples like those referenced above, consider seeking out internships this summer and volunteering to write anything you can to build up your portfolio. You may want to take on a client of your own to start gathering work examples—consider helping a family member or friend with his or her business, or volunteering for a local non-profit organization or church.
Bonus tip: Keep in mind that most prospective employers will give you a writing test or have you write something on the spot during the screening process. Writing proficiency will be the difference between getting a second interview and a rejection letter.
2. Internship experience
You should have experiences across a couple of different internships, ideally with agencies or larger organizations. You should show examples of stories you pitched and placed, or campaigns for which you worked and generated results.
Demonstrating that you can work in the communications department or on an account team and contribute on day-one is a huge plus for prospective employers.
The more “real” work you can show, the better.
Bonus tip: Sure you can talk about your internship experience, but if you prepare a case study or presentation on the work you did, you would make a stronger impression. Talking about the results you generated and the impact they had is more impressive than showing a press release you wrote. Focus on the results.
3. Social media experience
Social media experience is No. 3 on this list for a reason. It’s less important than the first two examples. That said, this experience will put you ahead of candidates who are your equal when it comes to writing and internship experience.
Developing your own presence in social media throughout college—for instance, writing a blog, or building a following on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media—is particularly relevant for getting your first job.
You must demonstrate that you are proficient in using these tools, because clients and organizations are looking for employees who can help manage their brand voices across these channels. Bonus points if you’re using emerging channels such as Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr, or SnapChat, which are a few of particular importance at the moment.
With this set of skills, it’s more important that you understand how to use the tools than the content you’ve shared on them. Demonstrate that you understand the fundamental differences in how these tools work. For instance, explaining how you’re using Pinterest images on a blog and driving traffic back and forth to the blog and the Pinterest page in some unique way would impress most interviewers. If you used these social platforms to build an audience for a client during an internship or coursework, even better.
Finally, if you know how to use analytics tools—either those built into the platforms, or third-party apps for reporting on audience growth, community activity, or traffic generated from these platforms—even better.
Bonus tip: Most employers will check you out on social media. Make sure your accounts are up-to-date before you apply for a job. It wouldn’t hurt to have a LinkedIn profile, a Twitter account, and a Facebook profile for starters. You might want to “check-in” on Foursquare or tweet when you arrive for your interview. I’m surprised by how few people I’ve interviewed for social media jobs do this. We want to see that you know how to use these tools, and that you’ve done your legwork to check us out before you show up.
4. Multimedia experience
I don’t expect most students to have the following skills out of college. If they have all the skills mentioned above, but also bring these unique ones to the table, it’s hard to pass up on the hire. So what are these skills? Here are a few that stand out:
• You have a blog you’re managing that generates revenue—that is, you have ads on your blog or use AdWords to generate money from your blog. This shows you know how to not only produce content that attracts and audience, but also that you’re able to setup and customize a blog. These are advanced skills.
• You know how to use Photoshop or the equivalent to alter images. This can be as simple as putting words over a funny cat picture or graphic, or something more advanced like creating your own infographics. If you know how to use image editing software, this is an incredibly relevant skill for public relations and content marketing today.
• You know how to shoot, edit, and post video to platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, etc. If you are skilled with video and can show a video you produced and generated views on, this will make you stand out. Most people with whom I work are still learning how to do this.
• You know something about search engine optimization (SEO). For instance, you understand how the Google Panda update changes the game for the way content is ranked on Google. You know how to conduct keyword research and leverage SEO tactics to help people discover your content on blogs and websites. Typically, if you have a blog, you have some of these skills already.
I’m not saying you need these multimedia skills to get your first job, but if you do have them, your job search will be a short one.
The more skills from this list you have, the better your chances of getting a job in PR or marketing. The PR industry has changed dramatically in the 15 years since I graduated. At the time, if you had a couple of internships and a strong writing portfolio, you were a shoe-in at most agencies. Nowadays, there are far more graduates out there, and fewer jobs to go around. There’s a supply and demand problem in the market today. You can increase your odds of success by adding more to your résumé before you hit the job hunt trail.
Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics. By day, Porter leads the Unified Communications practice for Definition 6, helping clients align social media and content marketing programs for more effective brand storytelling. Follow Porter on Twitter at @jeremyporter or @journalistics.