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How to get into PR and stay in it: luck, sweat and tears March 20, 2012

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR.
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It’s the time of year when those young enough fortunate to have a future ahead of them ponder the big decisions in life such as what university course to take or, approaching graduation, what career to opt for – and whether this should be PR. Last Friday I got two emails at work out of the blue concerning both matters.

It’s important to offer whatever help or insight is useful to someone finding their way if others more able don’t have the time. Leon is just about to graduate with a finance degree and wanted to know how to get into PR and make a success of it; Natalie had a number of questions what degree to choose for a career in PR.

Apparently my replies were useful (no other agency director replied to Leon) and Natalie has kindly allowed me to reproduce our exchange – which included a big crib from my response to Leon – so if it’s of any further use I’ll share  some advice from the experienced but the unwise on what may help get you a future in public relations.

It’s fifteen years since I saw my first piece of coverage (in Forecourt Trader) working in-house for a retail wholesaler to a Director of Cow today. It also forced me to recall my first ever interview with a major London agency (Red) where I was close to being escorted off the premises but still got the job.

Since then I’ve seen my fair share of award winning campaigns, front-page splashes, frustration, jubilation and disaster. Nothing here is set in stone and other PRs may have their own take but if someone can learn from my mistakes they will go far:

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To whom this may concern,
In the future I would like to work in PR, and I love the work your company has done and achieved. I was wondering if you would be able to help me choosing the right studying/career path in order for me to make it successful in the PR industry. I have four university offers ˆ Bournemouth (PR), City (Cass business school ˆ Business Studies), Durham (Marketing) and Lancaster (Marketing Management).

Do you think studying a solely PR degree would be an advantage or does it not matter which degree you study as long as you gain valuable work experience? Would studying in London be more beneficial? Does university reputation and degree matter to you when you employ new staff and what do you look for when employing someone to work for your company?
May I ask how you entered the PR industry?
Sorry about all of the questions, I have wanted to go into PR for a while and am trying to gather professional advice so I can make the right decision to ensure I am going on the right path.
Thank you for your time, I hope to hear from you in the future.
Yours faithfully,
Natalie Hopkins

Hi Natalie,

Like a lot of people around my age (late-30’s) I came into PR by accident. The original intention was to be a journalist. I’d done work experience at The Sun and The Guardian, had a decent prose style and wanted ultimately to be the Washington correspondent of the BBC. I ended up shadowing someone in wholesaling trade PR (exciting stuff – key magazine contacts included Convenience Store, Retail Newsagent, Frozen Food Weekly and Asian Trader) specifically because he’d been a journo. He pointed out to me that PR utilised basic journalism skills, but paid better. I was sold.

After a year of working with him in a box office in Croydon, learning the craft, listening to endless monologues about his failed marriage and building up a portfolio of coverage I’d generated I applied for a job at the lowest rung on the UK’s then most successful, award winning agency at Red.

I did a unspeakably bad interview and was rejected without hesitation. Not having a clue about agency culture and following my father’s advice I turned up in a three-piece suit when everyone else was wearing combat trousers and trainers. I was so nervous I asked the MD in mid-stumbling interview if he minded if I smoked and to this day can still see his lower jaw trembling in shock.

Instead of returning back to frozen food chiller press releases in Croydon I decided to show that I could actually manage a crisis, apply creativity and turn a negative situation into a positive outcome. This was done by writing a letter, an assessment of my interview performance by means of parody that was brutal, damning and completely accurate. I got the job. A week later my clients included Microsoft, Guinness and Prudential. I was up and running.

Times have changed. I’m not entirely sure there were PR degrees in place when I first started thinking about a career. Then it was mostly press releases, phones, faxes, the occasional event or photocall. Now it’s all about engagement, particularly with social media as a priority channel.

But you still need content, an original idea / narrative to create impact. That’s a rule that hasn’t changed since the day the printing press was invented and it’s no different with Twitter or Facebook. The medium is not the message, but just another channel of delivery.

Degrees

If you want to work in PR these days a PR degree helps. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll also get a placement. You’ll also learn a lot of irrelevant stuff.

Doing a dissertation on how to handle to BP oil spillage is great in theory, but the reality is often disillusioning for a many PRs who start thinking they are going to be dealing with a global crisis and then find themselves on the phone to Take a Break pleading with them to feature a toilet wipe or packet soup in their next issue. It’s a long way to the top (but if a person can’t get a new packet soup in a women’s weekly that writes features about quick lunch solutions can they be trusted with a client’s oil slick? I doubt it.)

While it will give you excellent grounding, you’ll probably learn more about PR if you are lucky enough to have a good agency in your first job to teach you the basics.

Truthfully, getting your foot in the door for the first job is not about the three-year degree but how you cut it in a 40 minute interview: confidence, understanding of brands, how media works and what motivates different consumer audiences or stakeholders. An employer isn’t actually considering what you did in the past, but what you can do in the future.

Do whatever course appeals to you. We have people here who did English, History, Photography and Journalism, Marine Biology, Sociology (that one must’ve slipped through the net in retrospect).

Make sure it is going to be something that you will most enjoy and find fulfilling now, rather than solely something that may benefit you in a few years time.

For the record, all the offers you’ve got are great options. Our last three grad appointments all went to Bournemouth, had a whale of a time, know how to work but enhanced the social mix (an off the record tip is being sociable and going to the bar with colleagues never did anyone’s career any harm). It’s maybe coincidence they went to Bournemouth, but they tapped me up on Twitter at times we highlighted vacancies and did the best interviews. They’ve been brilliant since.

Studying in London

It shouldn’t make a difference to getting a career. It’s bloody expensive for starters, but choose your Uni for the course and the other opportunities it offers. I went to Reading and did American Studies, liked the look of the campus and had a phenomenal social life to treasure to this day. I also thought I worked hard at the time, but it compared to nothing than when I actually started work.

Your email comes at a good time. On Friday a graduate asked me for advice how to get a job in PR and what it took to make it a success. Life can be hectic, but I was feeling philanthropic  and thought about it in detail to reply. Here’s a crib from what I wrote to him (below) and may be useful now, but possibly more so in three or four years from now when you’ve got your First.

I’ll sign off from here. Hope it helps and feel free to email me if you have any more questions.

Mark
Director
Cow PR

Decide why you want to be in PR

Some come into it thinking it will be parties, events, canapes, celebrities and networking are rapidly disillusioned. Yes, they may be AT the parties but chances are there will be an Account Director or a client screaming at them for most of the night, blaming them for anything that goes wrong. The celebrites, if they bother to turn up on time or at all, invariably turn out to be ‘challenging’ and the PR will still be there cleaning up the debris when the last guests to leave are in bed or at Boujis.

The people I know who have made a success of it came into it because they had a good work ethic, liked a challenge and, when the opportunity arose, to do work that actually has an impact, makes a difference, gets talked about and wins awards and makes their clients happy. They understand brands, media and most importantly the basic psychology of what motivates different consumer groups.

Most client or new business briefs when deciphered represent a problem or a riddle that has to be solved, a muddied landscape that needs sorting (sales are down; the competition has a superior, cheaper product; we’ve hired a celebrity that no one cares about etc etc). One is rarely in the privileged position of being handed a task of a campaign or launch for something that will make instant news, already has excitement building up around it, massive brand loyalty or has the endorsement of an A-list star whom you have at your disposal to do whatever you want. It’s about using your wits in most instances, adapting to the challenges because the textbook formula on how to be successful doesn’t exist.

This is no bad thing. The best work is when you are working with the underdog, the challenger, the unknown, the brand that isn’t so entrenched in heritage or it’s code of behaviour that you actually can’t do very much creative with it.

Know what PR is

This seems like me being patronising, but it’s a true reflection of many people who we meet at interview stage. In other words, familiarise yourself with the PR work other brands are doing. Typically when asked about PR campaigns they admire a candidate who isn’t up the grade will ring the alarm bell.

It’s remarkable how many people will do one of the following things:

  • Tell me about one our own campaigns – showing the  extent of their research (let alone understanding of the industry) is whatever  they saw on the home page of our website
  • Give a flawless description of an advertising campaign
  • Respond with a blank

Know your media and brands
This is obvious but not always applied – even by senior practitioners who can go stale. Read newspapers, online news, marketing, trends and innovation sites and blogs, follow agencies on Twitter, but most importantly look at agencies websites where their best work is showcased.  The older one gets the more one can learn from junior colleagues. The same follows for brands. It’s likely to come up in interviews about brands that you’d like to work for and why.

Decide what type of agency you want to work for

Consumer or corporate? Global, small, start-up, in-house? Fashion, FMCG or tech clients? There’s also agency culture to factor in and the sort of career you want. A lot of agencies do conventional work and that pays just as well, if not better, has less risk. They get third parties to do their news generation, broadcast, social media and they handle the client and do the planning. However, some of us like to wake up in the morning and hear an idea we scribbled down on a torn piece of paper on the bus a week ago talked about on TV after a bad night’s sleep wondering whether their creative hunch has paid off. That’s where the buzz is.

The most important thing is to take any job and acquire any experience you can. Get a foundation, learn the basics and plan your next move from there.

How to get in

Build relationships on Twitter
I’m the worst networker in the world. I like to get on with my work, hang out with my colleagues and then go home to my friends. However, Twitter has been a saving grace to build relationships, exchange thoughts, sick jokes and a rapport with people in PR and other creative fields without having to set a date and a venue agreeable to both (as used to be the case). Get a presence on Twitter, follow like-minded people. It would’ve been inconceivable five years ago a 21 year old aspirant who is trying to get a job in PR could exchange views on football, fashion, food, trends or bitch about a celebrity with someone who might run an agency that employs hundreds of people. Now you can.

We don’t use recruitment agencies at entry / executive level. If a recruiter contacts me and says ‘I’ve got a creative, dynamic person with lots of initiative who is desperate to work at Cow’ I ask ‘Well why didn’t they contact us then?’.

PR’ing yourself
If you were your own client, how would you approach the brief of getting a job in a creative business that sees CVs every day (and very few that say or do anything different or new). Think what is actually going to  make you stand out and appeal to an employer. Be different to stand out, but be subtle – ambition is a splendid, but there’s nothing more annoying than someone thinking that work is a game of The Apprentice. Overconfidence or being ’IN YOUR FACE’ is probably rightly interpreted as arrogance. Humility, nuanced subtly and understatement is a wonderful thing.  An employer is looking for someone with potential and the desire to learn, they aren’t expecting the complete package. However, different approaches though will appeal to different employers with different agency cultures.

The important thing is: don’t say it, show it – Most CVs say “I’m passionate, I live and breathe brands, I’m creative, I’m dynamic, have a great visual eye and understanding of media”. An approach to an agency is an opportunity to bring those words to life.Give an employer a reason they want to know more or, even better, can’t turn you down.

That bit is up to you. Good luck.

Comments»

1. Laura Eardley - March 21, 2012

I graduate from a PR degree next year and have found this so useful! A really great read – thank you!

2. Matt G-Freebody - March 21, 2012

It was worth the long wait for this blog post. Fascinating insight.

3. Recommended reading for graduates job hunting in PR | Sarah Stimson - March 21, 2012

[…] How to get in PR and stay in it  […]

4. Neil Boom (@MrBoom) - March 21, 2012

What a decent chap. Honest, valuable opinions from someone who made it the hard way. I’d work him in a flash…

5. Sara - March 25, 2012

Really enjoyed reading this article although (I don’t mean to be contentious here) I am wondering why you say that a Sociology degree ‘must have slipped through the net?

normanmonkey - July 20, 2012

If you’d met our Account Director with a degree in Sociology you may understand the reference. She’s lovely really.

6. clairethomas07 - March 28, 2012

Love this post – especially the smoking bit!

I highly recommend a PR degree, particularly Leeds Met where you are treated as a professional and nurtured by experts from the start. I don’t think anything you learn on a PR degree is irrelevant. It all makes sense and gels together in some way – just some parts are less useful in the ‘real working world’ than others.

7. Vishal - March 15, 2013

excellent! just what the PRoctor ordered!! thank you for this post, helpful, will help me in few decisions for the future that lies ahead \,,/


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