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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:


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.


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.

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.


The Filth and the Fury April 11, 2010

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, Media.
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Pottering about online this Sunday afternoon in my kitchen I inadvertently lit the touchpaper for a revolutionary movement. Given plans for the afternoon were no more ambitious than cooking a scampi provencal and trying to find my wallet, that’s not pretty bad going.

Reposting an old blog (‘PR’s Weak’) caused others like me to rise up with their fists in the air rushing toward the barricades, or at the very least tweet, that something must be by those of us in the PR industry with a different outlook. This was prompted by a few events in the past working week.

Someone at Cow showed me a picture this week of the PR Power Book gang bang that had prompted my ire. It was a black tie and twinsets affair and the sound of industry backs being slapped could be heard all the way to Primrose Hill.

This is also the same week that Malcolm McClaren died and there’s been ongoing interviews for hungry, young grads,execs and managers at Cow.

From a personal point of view I didn’t get into PR nor stay in it to meet celebrities, have a flashy job title or attend industry soirees where I could get the tux out. I did so because of the thrill of seeing an idea get in the news, provoke a reaction and a knowing nod and wink that the truth shouldn’t always get in the way of a good story. That point was underlined by doing work experience at The Sun as a runner for Kelvin McKenzie (I was his email on legs before email was invented).

I have never once read about McClaren in industry publications or heard discussed at soirees. There’s more to be learned about PR from about McClaren and the Sex Pistols rise and legend than there is in reading our trade publication or a three-year degree course. You can spell out the three years in three words: man bites dog. If you want to make news and create impact it really is as simple as that. Now go forth and prosper, young Pip!

Our interviews are very informal. We’ve got something special at Cow, we’re a gang, a family (though more of the Manson variety than the Waltons) and not to be messed with. Our thoughts and ideals chime – we want to know the person joining us has the character, as well as the ability, to fit in. Lovers of hierarchies, rules, status and process wouldn’t. If some agencies are run like the Royal Navy, we’re more like a pirate ship. Yo ho ho and a bottle of Havana Club 7 year.

Yet, we will ask about brand campaigns. The number of candidates who’ve spoken about their passion for PR and are yet unable to name a single campaign they admire is staggering. So many are stumped and resort to naming an ad that was on television 18 months ago. It would be nice if someone came in one day and said ‘I want to make news people talk about!’

Since 1996 I’ve worked on some of the biggest brands in the world, across number of award winning campaigns, addressed serious issues, all challenging and rewarding, but the thing I treasure most was causing consternation and outrage across the news pages and the airwaves with a story for a Power Rangers space guide for youngsters that said ‘One in three British kids think Winston Churchill was the first man on the moon’.

Interviews are also an insight into how other agencies operate. One Account Manager at an agency was advised early on that she was being too friendly and familiar with the Execs. Socialising was not advised as they ‘are not the same level’ as she. They wouldn’t respect her otherwise. Respect her for what? Detachment? Aloofness? Ability to reinforce a sterile working atmosphere? This sort of stuff all belongs with another age, if not the Gestapo.

Colleagues will respect you if you treat them as a human being, not an operative, and that means you can lower yourself to go for a bloody mary or a knees up with them and know what motivates and interests them. Professionally they will respect you if you know what you are doing and devote time to help them develop. That creates a system of mutual support and respect.

This same agency also frowned upon people chatting, laughing, not working. The result is that people work in silence and there is very little bond between colleagues.

This is, of course, missing the point by a country mile. This agency is can’t see the blindingly obvious paradox that they are supposed to be creating conversations yet are stamping it out in their own workplace. We’re an ideas business and there are no rules for creativity. Some agencies have a point-by-point template approach to being creative that must be adhered to and would make me howl if it weren’t in my own industry. Perhaps Picasso used this approach: Step 1- pick up brush; Step Two – think of the bombing of Guernica in an progressively abstract manner; Step Three – paint?

Some of the best ideas had at Cow have come not from a brainstorm, poring over consumer trends or staring in isolated silence at a screen, but over a shared pot of tea, a fag break, an afternoon tipple in the Woolpack or sat in the park. Why sit in an office on a sunny day apart from to justify the rent?

The other day my Dad watched BBC breakfast and a news item on DeBretts and Vauxhall Astra producing a ‘Thoroughly Modern Guide to Motoring Etiquette’. Steps included music play list etiquette, conduct toward other motorists and appropriate conversation with fellow passengers. ‘Now someone’s telling me the correct way to get out of a car? What bloody idiot thought of that?’ he asked as we drove to the airport. That would be me, I replied. Job done.

Consumer PR at is best is playful, irreverent, challenging, entertaining and we should be heard. Our peers shouldn’t be forced suffer in silence.

And no, I didn’t find my wallet.

Destiny’s Child October 29, 2009

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, Friends, In the news, Media.
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There’s a headline the papers missed covering the news that Sagittarians are more likely to be child stars due to their star sign.

A lot of right-minded people whose opinions I’d normally respect would dismiss astrology as having absolutely no value.  I disagree. For this PR creative, it’s the third time it has got me out of the shit when there’s absolutely no budget  to bump up client coverage and the eyes of expectancy are upon you.

Four pieces of national news coverage, all weighty, and even an endorsement of the ‘findings’ from the resident Daily Mail astronomer. Which says all you need to know about the thorough, academic rigour of astronomy.

I was tremendously flattered that Dan Glover of Mischief PR, who I know reads this blog, correctly guessed this was a Mark Perkins story upon reading it splashed across the morning papers. It had all the usual hallmarks: desperation, artistic license, a sole reliance on Wikipedia and as many celebrities who can be thrown into a press release as possible.

One hundred to be precise –  some of whom not even their own parents could say why they were famous – as it got a bit desperate to find 100 child stars toward the end. Needing numbers we were very nearly on the verge of putting Madeline McCann in which, in retrospect, would’ve increased our chances of getting in the Daily Express.

Were people actually talking about the story? I hear Johnny Vaughan was talking about it, but that’s hardly an endorsement. Johnny Vaughan hasn’t said anything intelligent thing since he woke up in a cold sweat about a dozen years ago and mouthed the words ‘Even I hate myself’ before going back to sleep and his reality resumed as normal .

Agencies have their evaluation systems and I have mine. He’s a publican called Lee and is one of my best and most trusted friends. He could recite the story perfectly and I consider that impressive as he once thought Shakespeare wrote Oliver Twist. When Lee accompanied recently me to a contemporary furniture shop he managed to openly mistake, in the presence of aloof shop assistant, the nest of tables I was looking at for a chair  (and even then he refused to back down, maintaining they still could be sat on – prompting the withering response ‘So could a fucking cactus’).

So yesterday was a good one. The papers got an excuse to run pics of Britney, Christina, Miley and Scarlett; Lee and millions like him got to look at them over his cornflakes and the shit sword of Damocles, for a brief moment of time, deigned not to dangle over my head.

And I thanked my lucky stars.