Advice for Graduating PR Students

@UCSantaBarbara reached out asking what advice I’d have for graduating seniors. I don’t want to repeat the same things everyone else says — Make sure and network! Attention to Detail! – so I thought about what I would say to a student if they were sitting in front of me. This is what came to mind…Congratulations! The knowledge you learned in school will serve as an excellent starting point for you as you enter the workforce, which will be wholly different than what you were taught in school. My bet is that you are totally unprepared to approach your new craft with a holistic business perspective that is going to help add integrity toward our industry.

It’s not your fault, you most likely weren’t instructed to approach the art of Communications from that kind of perspective. Those were two different schools on your campus (business vs. communication/journalism) and rarely do the two intersect, which is sad. But fear not, it’s definitely not too late to set yourself on the right path to becoming a professional who uses communications (or public relations, whichever you prefer) to impact the bottom line of a business, not just as an awareness tool.

1. Read Brian Solis’ book. The theory taught in most colleges is outdated. Brian is one of the foremost thinkers in our field and he is helping lead the charge to change our industry for the better. This book will give you insights into how you should start processing PR’s impact on a business and its audiences.

2. Follow-through. Yeah, yeah. This is one of those what-everyone-else-says points but, it is crucial. I meet a lot of students that are smart and want to learn but their follow-thru sucks. You’re graduating and entering the work force. It’s time to start acting like a professional and not like a college student, bending the rules with their professor when turning in a paper a day late. Understand that the second you start interviewing and, once you land your first full-time job is the second your professional reputation begins. Unless, it’s preceded by…

3. Your Digital profile. You should watch it. I’m all for loose language and presenting myself authentically but pay attention to what you say and what’s posted. Whenever I meet a potential candidate I get my Google on – and I’ll dig deep. Because what’s out there about you presents a profile when looked at in it’s entirety. And it gives me a good sense of what kind of contribution, or distraction, you might bring to my office.

4. Read. A lot. Read everything you can and I don’t mean PR Week. I mean, keep up on the news that is relevant to an industry you are interested in. For me, it’s technology and business, so I am constantly reading magazines and websites to look for: reporting trends; industry concerns that I can turn into proactive communications to the market, customers or partners; journalists or industry pundits I’d like to know. I read anything and everything that’s going to feed my role as the communicator for my company and the bridge to the outside. I read a lot of books too. Books about interactive, experiential and guerilla marketing; public relations; leadership; customer service – you name it. You are entering a creative industry, you need to constantly be fueling it.

5. Don’t get impatient. OK, you may have two internships under your belt and have run a “PR program” for some company but it doesn’t make you equipped to do my job. I see a lot of impatience in the industry with people entering the work force. There’s a reason that the 10,000 hour rule is valid. Practice makes perfect and you’re just getting started. Despite the outward appearance that Public Relations is easy and even-a-monkey-can-do-it, PR is an art and there are nuances to the craft that will take you years and years to learn. So focus on learning, listen to your managers because they really want to help you, and be a sponge. Which means…

6. Try out other departments. The practice of public relations/communications touches all aspects of the company. I never understood this as completely until I worked in house. Go spend some time in the customer service department and learn how to apply common complaints, or praise, into communications strategies to help retain and acquire customers. Hang out with the sales team and learn how they competitively position the company and sell the products; all knowledge that will feed the ideas of how to communicate value through various outlets (collateral, the blog, etc.) You can work in virtually any department at a company and walk away with the information you gained to become a smarter public relations professional.

7. The PR world is tiny. This is the most important rule you can learn. I will illustrate with three examples:

1. My first job was at a PR agency in Silicon Valley during the boom. There I met Josh Morgan, a young manager at the time. I left the agency and went to another a year later to run software PR for Apple. A year after starting, I heard that a guy named Josh Morgan was joining Apple in-house to run their Education PR. Josh stayed there for awhile and we got to work together and get to know one another better. While I was still at the agency, Josh left and started a PR firm and went to a start-up. A year after I had left the agency I received a call from the HR person in the Sacramento office doing a reference check on Josh. He’d left the start-up and the Bay Area and was now applying to work at said agency. I gave a positive endorsement because my experience with Josh and his professionalism had always been just that. Eventually I started my own PR shop based out of NY and by then Josh had left the agency and started his own. I turned to him often for help as I figured out the whole freelance thing. To this day he’s still a support, a mentor, contributes to my blog and is also a advocate for change in the industry. He’s seen me grow from a total PR noob into the professional I am today.
(I had forgotten about Josh going to work at the second agency I reference above. I was reminded of it when he wrote this great companion piece to this post. Only illustrates my point more.)

2. When I was working at the agency on Apple, I encountered a woman named Colette Ballou. She worked at our office for a hot minute before moving to France and getting married. She stayed in touch with one of the guys on my team and he would occasionally update me on her whereabouts. Two years later I had moved to NY and one of my best friends had moved to Paris. We were IM’ing one day and she told me about this new PR agency in France she was hoping to work for part-time to help start their blogger relations program. She told me the owner was an American who’d fallen in love and moved to Paris (much like my friend.) The agency she’d started was
Ballou PR. My friend went to work with her and loved every minute of it and spoke highly of Colette’s skill as a PR professional. Cut to three years later and I am now in house at my company. We’re expanding internationally. Our new GM of International, who joined us from leading the International charge at a massive social network, tells me there’s a PR agency he’d like to hire to handle our PanEuro PR efforts. The agency is Ballou PR.

3. While working at Apple’s PR agency I worked directly with the company’s head of product PR. He left after a year and went to Sony and then later to MTV. Separately, while at the agency, MTV called one day about a position in NY. I went through a gauntlet of interviews and made it to the final round but the other guy won (which worked out for the best.) I stayed in touch with the recruiter in the two years that followed because I thought there might be another opp in the future. On a visit to NY for a client, I went to MTV to touch base with the recruiter about other possible positions. He mentioned that they’d just hired a new VP of Communications. Turns out it was the head of product PR I’d worked with in SV years before. He’d just left Sony. The recruiter and I called him on the spot and my old Apple pal and me were re-connected.

Cut to one year later when I’ve now moved to NY and am trying my hand at running a freelance shop out of my house (a new experience.) I receive an email from my Apple pal. “I’ve got a friend at MTV who is looking for a PR person for a start-up in LA. I figured you’re from California and that’s close enough. Interested?” I was and it resulted in a well-paying retainer client for almost two years, and a source for more business based on my work and the positive word of mouth from my reputation.

What do these three stories illustrate? Your reputation is crucial and it will follow you everywhere because the PR world is a tiny, tiny, incestuous thing. Always strive to do your job with integrity. If you find you have no passion for PR or what you are doing it will show and people will remember it. And they will judge you later for it. Your reputation is your strongest currency. Don’t waste it.

…And that’s my quick hit list for advice to graduating seniors. If you have specific questions, go ahead and leave them in the comments section so everyone can get in on the reply.

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