Class of 2011: Nothing You Learned Will Help You in PR.

April 6, 2011

It’s that time of year again. You can feel it in the air. No…not Spring and not the start of baseball season; it’s resume time. This time every year my inbox is flooded with emails and resumes from soon to be graduates looking to get into an industry they know almost nothing about. Sure, they wrote practice press releases full of adjectives and flowery prose, and likely did an internship for a non-profit near their school. They studied theory and learned about the birth of the industry including the marvelous invention by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 – the printing press. Remind me though, how much time did they spend on managing client expectations, dealing with mean spirited reporters, and pitching – on the phone? So armed with a backpack full of theory, allegedly honed writing skills, and a few samples of research papers, how prepared is the class of 2011 to work in the PR industry? Not at all.

Okay so I’m being a bit dramatic, but generally speaking most college grads, majoring in Communications, are not well prepared for the challenge that lies ahead. It’s certainly not like Law School or Medical School where students are put through rigorous training and certification before they can practice the craft. Unfortunately, in PR schooling there is no class on Client Cadavers where students can participate in an autopsy to determine what killed the client relationship (although the likely cause of death was lack of coverage) or participate in strategy “rounds.” There are no mock-trials, no precedent setting cases to study, no Bar to pass. All they have is a year or so of lectures given by someone who hasn’t practiced PR in years, decades maybe, and the desire to make-it in the glamorous world of PR. Well friends, this ain’t no Sex in the City. It is a tough, professional service business that regularly occupies a spot in the top 10 most stressful jobs in America.

It’s a hard job that will eat away at your soul and slowly turn you into a person different than the one you saw in the mirror this morning. You’ll need whale-thick skin and the patience of a Tibetan Monk. Most of you will not succeed and after 18 months will seek a different career. For those of you who stay in the field, or are not tossed from the field, will love it. It’ll becoming addicting – a thrill. Securing a story will be your “high.” And just like other drugs, you’ll want more. The chase is addictive, and you’ll want to raise the stakes soon after your first taste of success. To be good, really good, you can’t turn it off. You’ll laugh at the idea of work/life balance. WiFi becomes your oxygen. If you’re good, Saturday and Sunday mean nothing different than Mon-Fri. You’ll always be thinking about your clients; what can you be doing better, how can you help them beat their competition, what are you going to do tomorrow to get that elusive reporter to take your call? The PR industry is Darwinism; it is survival of the fittest. Does any of this sound like what you learned in school? Didn’t think so.

One day I’m going to teach the best PR course at the University of Washington; a veritable cornucopia of public relations’ do’s and don’ts – including time spent exposing the ugly underbelly and the dark side of this calling. But until then…all I can offer is this, to you, 2011 grads:

Be a Squeaky Wheel, dammit. Look, if the best you got is an email with lightweight thoughts, don’t even bother. Seriously why would I, or even those big, slow, expensive, bureaucratic firms like Weber or Edelman care about meeting you? You must do more than send an email saying “Hi my name is Trixie Johnson. I’m a Senior who will graduate in June from (insert name of school) and I’m looking to get into a (insert adjective here) firm like (insert name of firm) and I’m wondering if you have any entry level positions.”  Trixie, you’ll never get a job that way. There are a million of you out there. If you can’t sell yourself, how are you going to sell your client to a reporter? Through an email? Well that actually will work if you work on the Microsoft account. But if not, you’re going to have to get creative, squeaky.

Think. If you’re going to succeed in PR you must be smart and you must always be thinking 10 steps ahead (unless you work at a big agency – no forward thinking required). You should demonstrate in your first contact with an agency that you’ve taken the time to THINK about why you’d be an asset, what challenges you believe the firm has (even if you’re wrong, take a risk, show you can think) and your ideas of how you can make things better.

Tell me Something I Don’t Know. Trixie, please be interesting. Even if all you have to say is you think I’m full of shit, say something meaningful and explain your thoughts. One of the big problems with PR people is they like to be safe, and in most cases safe = boring. Being safe is a yawner and press won’t see you or hear you. Be different, be interesting, be controversial, be something.

Trixie Who? Good PR people understand how to differentiate their clients. They know that to get 30 seconds of a reporters time they need to “come out swinging” and demonstrate quickly why their client’s product/service is the “fastest, best, most affordable, only, etc” available. But before you can do this on behalf of a client, you need to master doing this for yourself. I need to know why you’re awesome Trix. I need to know why out of the 772 students graduating from the School of Communications at your university I’d be a fool to hire anyone but you. And please don’t bore me with the PRSSA stuff – everyone’s done it and it doesn’t make you any different. Â Show me you know you and you know our agency, and explain why we should be together.

You’ve worked really hard to get where you are, and as one chapter ends in your story another one is about to begin. Work your ass off to make sure this chapter is the best yet. Be a squeaky wheel – go the distance – think. If there was a ever a time to do it, it’s now. Blink and you’ll wake up 40.

Cheers.

Howie

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