Advice for PR and communications graduates

Persistence, forethought, and a little gratitude will take you a long way in your career to come.

I received this tweet last week from @AntoineSarpong in the PR program at Centennial College.

Getting that first job in your chosen profession can be a big source of anxiety. I wanted to reply with something a bit longer than 140 characters. So here, in good old long form, is my advice for the PR and corporate communications grads of 2013:

Become a great writer.

If your PR/communications career were a house, writing would be its foundation.

There isn’t any aspect of your PR/communications career that won’t benefit from stronger writing skills. Whether you’re creating a media pitch, news release, communications plan, key message, matte story, speech, Web copy, Facebook update, or blog post, strong writing skills will help set you apart from the crowd. If your writing skills are weak, you risk losing projects, clients, and maybe even your job.

There are only two ways to get better at writing.

1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot.

Have you read a well-written article? Save it in a “great writing” folder for future inspiration. Make sure your copy is crisp, compelling, and mistake-free. Proofread multiple times. Have a friend or co-worker critique it before you submit it. Be your own ruthless editor.

Purchase the style guide your agency or employer recommends. Refer to it often. Learn the difference between you’re and your; they’re, their, and there, etc. Steer clear of buzzwords and jargon. Spell out acronyms.

Write copy that a 12-year-old or a grandmother can understand. If NASA can do it about a Mars rover mission, you can do it about your client’s new household cleaning product. Becoming an exceptional writer is a long, hard process, but the time you invest in this pursuit today will pay dividends for decades to come.

Work at an agency.

If you have the chance, work at a PR or communications agency. It’s the fastest way to learn about many aspects of the business in a short period of time. You’ll be able to work with clients in a broad range of industries. You’ll also have a chance to learn about different aspects of communications, including media relations, crisis communications, internal communications, social media, event planning, and more.

Working for one year in an agency is like working for three years on the client side. Nothing compares to the fast-paced environment of an agency when it comes to learning opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to work for free.

I know this is a controversial topic these days, and I’m probably going to take some heat on this one. I also know that when you’re graduating, money is tight. But ask yourself: Would you rather spend your job-hunting time sitting around your apartment waiting for the phone to ring? Or getting some valuable experience, testimonials, references, and connections while providing your services on a volunteer basis?

Working for free should never be Plan A, but if you’re getting frustrated with the job hunt, what do you have to lose?

There are a few benefits to working for free for a limited period of time:

• You may have a chance to work for a company that otherwise might not have considered you.

• The experience you get will look impressive to potential employers, perhaps giving you an edge over the competition.

• And if you work your face off and make a great impression, they may hire you.

I did the work for free thing when I graduated in the early 1990s. The job market was terrible. I was looking to land a communications job with a professional sports team. I eventually talked my way into an interview with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The president of the team offered me the job but said he couldn’t pay me. (The team was on the brink of bankruptcy.)

Instead of a salary, he offered to provide me with a parking pass, two tickets to every home game, access to a wide variety of projects, and weekly mentoring sessions with him.

Cash was tight that summer. I stayed at a friend’s house. I paid my bills with a Visa card. But I was working in the front office of a sports team. I got some great experience writing executive correspondence, news releases, and speeches for the president. At the end of each week, this incredibly busy guy would also set aside half an hour to mentor me.

After two months, with my credit card maxed out, I interviewed for a communications position in Toronto. The woman who hired me said my stint with the football team was the main reason she hired me. She said that if I was willing to work that hard for free, she wanted to see what I could do in a paying position.

That job was my entry into the world of corporate communications. It might not have happened if I hadn’t worked for a football team all summer for free.

Be persistent.

It took seven years to get the first project from a woman who is now one of my best clients. Every six months, I would send a brief, polite pitch email. I refused to be discouraged when she didn’t reply or when she said she wasn’t looking for new writers. I would simply mark a new date in my calendar six months down the road to touch base with her again. Years later, she told me she didn’t even remember all those emails. She had even asked me after one project, “Where have you been all these years when we could have used you?” Half-jokingly, I said, “Check your deleted emails folder.”

If I had stopped approaching her after five or six years, I would have missed out on a great client relationship.

Buy thank-you cards. Lots of them.

To many, the idea of sending a note or card is as antiquated as the rotary phone. A handwritten thank-you card can be a powerful thing. Go to a decent stationery store and invest in a few dozen high-quality thank-you cards. Then, look for opportunities to send them out.

• Just had a job interview? Send thank-you cards to the members of the interviewing panel.

• Your college professor wrote a testimonial on your LinkedIn page? Thank-you card.

• Someone in the industry took half an hour to have a coffee with you to give you some career tips? Thank-you card.

• The doorman in your building helped you carry that heavy package? Thank-you card.

A thank-you card conveys gratitude—and so much more. So few people (other than Jimmy Fallon, of course) are sending them these days that it’s a really effective way to set yourself apart.

Give your social media accounts a career-minded checkup.

I get a few dozen emails each year from people looking for jobs or internships. Invariably (after scanning their email for spelling mistakes), I will check out their social accounts. I’m not looking for numbers of followers. I’m looking for how they present themselves online.

A few years ago, I received an email from someone looking for a job. They described their education and work experience in a concise, engaging way. This individual sounded smart, energetic, and motivated. Their LinkedIn page was decent; Twitter profile, too. It was the Facebook page that killed the deal. The cover photo was this person at an outdoor concert, covered in tattoos and chugging a beer while someone was riding on their back.

I realize Facebook is a personal platform, and I enjoy fun as much as the next person. I don’t have anything against music, tattoos, beer, or piggyback rides. But as a prospective employer, how can I not have some reservations about someone who is looking to represent my company and clients and doesn’t have the presence of mind to adjust their privacy settings on their social accounts?

Is that fair? Maybe not. Employers are often looking for a reason to hit the delete key; don’t give it to them. First impressions are important, and today those first impressions almost always come via social media. So, do an audit of your social accounts. Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I could write on this topic for days.

If I could add to this list, I would include things like: Demand excellence in your own work, make your resume and cover letter stand out, don’t be afraid to put in long days at the office (especially early in your career), be a team player, always give clients a bit more than they’re expecting, take deadlines seriously, the one person you need to please is your boss/manager/client, don’t be afraid to change jobs every two years or so (until you find one that truly fulfills you), and don’t change jobs for less than a 10 percent increase in salary.

To the grads of 2013, congratulations. I hope this list is of some use. If anyone else has tips they’d like to share, please include them in the comments below.

Warren Weeks sold his first newspaper to his grandmother when he was five, was Wayne Gretzky’s PR handler for a day and does not count Rob Ford among his clients. He is the principal of a Toronto-based media and presentation training firm and blogs at The Art of the Great Media Interview, where a version of this story originally appeared.

Topics: PR

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