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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.
Tags: , , , , ,
8 comments

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.

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The Fry’s the Limit November 4, 2009

Posted by normanmonkey in Blogging and social media, In the news, Media.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

Newspapers are in decline. I’ve had that particular finger wagged at me by the digital arm of Cow PR for the last 18 months and yes, I know sales and therefore advertising revenues are plummeting, but it’s become patently obvious with it that journalism – or lack of it – is in freefall.

Having read newspapers avidly since I was a child and lapped up headlines like ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’, the papers were always a source of joy, fascination, titillation, tits, oh and an open door to events and commentaries on what shaped the world. Now they just leave me cold. Even the tits.

I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard the other day and flicked through it in several minutes. As a free sheet it is still shamefully overpriced. The problem is there simply isn’t anything in there I didn’t already know and much more I didn’t care about.

I start each day with a double espresso and an undemanding two minute digest of weather and footballing events with Rocco at his Italian deli in West Byfleet. That’s a relatively new experience for me and one I am sure won’t wear thin too soon. The constant in my commute has always been The Sun and The Guardian on the way to work and these were always eagerly anticipated.

Of late I’ve noticed that it’s not long before I’ve worked my way through the papers with impassive immunity to their wares and found myself staring out at the backyards of suburbia that stare gloomily back at you from the edge of the railway sidings (why is there always a child’s toy tricycle and discarded paint pots in every back yard – don’t these people tidy?).

This staring out of the window despite papers being merely skimmed is indicative of one or two things. Either the papers are genuinely boring or I’ve become a manic depressive. Having, until fairly recently, gone out with the latter for almost a year, I’m certain I do not fall into that category. It was pointed out to me that my happiness was intolerable and I found that a bit hard to stomach considering I’m hardly Coco the Clown at the best of times.

No, I can justifiably say it’s the media’s fault, but it’s not just the papers, its all news media. And maybe that is what depresses me. There’s genuinely little – apart from world events – that I genuinely care about or touches me in anyway and that’s because I’m not part of a mass demographic.

Most TV news is rendered unwatchable because there is the earnest belief that events can’t be relayed, but explained with the need for whizzy graphics and an agenda that is all about infotainment, assuming the audience is comprised of idiots. A possible consequence of this approach is that it creates idiots who need to be spoonfed. There are a few quality exceptions – Newsnight, The Today Programme, QPR.co.uk (and that’s hardly a barrel of laughs the way things are going there).

The real problem began when the media was opened up to the public or ‘democratised’ to comment on events. It’s near impossible to listen to a radio phone-in without wanting to pour boiling oil into one’s ears and hope it scalds the brain to see if it can still feel, yet this has become the adopted approach of producers. We let the people eat cake and they chose Mr Kipling.

This cheap, lazy, witless approach can also be found on the likes of BBC Breakfast and Sky News (GMTV, if it were a person would be wrestled to the floor and strangled slowly by any feeling, sentient being) where we have to endure the emails or tweets from Lindsay in Dagenham or Darren in Dudley, rendering it unwatchable.

The worst words in the English language that have permeated into news media is ‘We want you to have your say’. This ghastly phrase to signal the opening of the floodgates is usually uttered by some vapid young Shaz with perfect teeth who is otherwise only fit for the escort industry to gentlemen in the Heathrow area.

Imagine how intolerable life would be if you couldn’t go more than a few yards, even undercover, for every tosspot on the street approaching and tugging on your sleeve to give you their ill-informed opinion on paedophiles, Peter Andre, the exit strategy from Kabul, their theory on the afterlife or the price of a leg of lamb. Well, it’s happening and it’s happening every time you turn on the TV and radio or open a newspaper.

For those of us whose prime goal in life is to avoid stupid people this is the pits. In the words of Sid Vicious ‘I’ve met the man on the street and he’s a cunt’. I concur. So what of social media – perhaps this is the solution, the refuge of the bright young things building a better future.

I inadvertently, yet subconsciously, neglected Facebook recently having been a fairly avid participant for some 18 months where I’d been connected to many old friends from life and exchanged in gamely banter and Wildean witticisms.

I figured that as we’re all now reconnected and such great chums it would only be a matter of time before I heard from someone, potentially to carry on the conversation in the real world over cold drinks, but not a bleedin’ sausage and that’s all quite distressing for those of us who live alone in a five bedroom house in West Byfleet.

Essentially, the merry-go-round carried on without me and not one fucker called. Except for the one or two who normally do and that’s most commonly on a Friday around closing time with an opening that begins with ‘WAHEEY!’ and ends with the sound of a phone being dropped in a gutter soon after.

So what of Twitter? I must admit I’m in my second spell and this time I ‘get it’. I enjoy the twittering banter with colleagues (though I inifintely prefer their company in Village East of a Friday) and turning on Tweetdeck is the first thing I do when I get home after dropping the coat.

None of my oldest friends are on it (Wiggy only went online at home two months ago and is now lost in a digital fleshpot of filth). Yet the Stephen Fry quitting incident sent me into a catatonic fit of exasperation as I followed it in real time on Saturday afternoon with baited hangover.

The outcome was easy to predict. He throws a hissy, signs off and hand-wringing hysteria breaks out like a virus. It was like Madeline McCann all over again, but something much more trivial (not even a Cuddle Cat to throw into the narrative).

It is a worry how thousands people felt their lives and self-worth had somehow been disrupted or severely dented because they may lose contact not only with someone famous they felt connected to, but because it gave them a sense of collective belonging. Dare I even say it, a cause. Bloody hell.

The fervour grew as tweeters realised they were becoming part of the story. Papers ran it as a story, proving the symbiotic relationship between the two to create a mountain out of a dung hill. People have such little style these days. Lives should not be led vicariously.

When I started following Stephen Fry I think I was about number 3,600 and it was a bit of a novelty, a quirk of the information age. His tweets are innocuous, harmless, pseudo Noel Coward fare but there is a stalkerish element of his followers and their hopes he might read, or heaven forfend even reply to their tweets, like receiving a locket of hair, to feeling robbed upon being deprived of updates on his movements and schedule around the globe.

The distressed individuals formed a crowd and the crowd turned nasty. What is a crowd, afterall, without heroes and villains.

This was a tipping point for twitter, its Diana moment. and made it fair game for risible comment and analysis. There’s nothing wrong with Twitter – it’s the people who consume it who will eventually fuck it up and reduce all to mush (in less than 140 characters).

In the last week I’ve ditched the papers and started reading books on the train. P.G Wodehouse is funnier than a funny pet photo in The Sun; Francis Wheen has a more incisive, acerbic take on the issues of the day than Brenda from Basingstoke and ‘Hellraisers’, an account of the exploits and of the Reed, Burton, Harris and O’Toole is far more fascinating than Fry.

I can’t Tweet back to Richard Burton or Ollie Reed to fawningly ask them what they had for lunch or how the weather is in L.A and if I could they would quite rightly tell me to fuck off. I prefer it that way.

As for the real world Wiggy just called me to discuss what went on in Whisky Mist. Oh, and to ask what the hell my blog is ‘It’s just lots of paragraphs!’. Hardly a compliment. But I prefer it that way as well.