Setting Yourself Apart: A Job in PR is Possible

It’s scary to be a university senior right now. In just 6 months, the market will flood with recent graduates clamoring for what could be fewer entry level jobs than we saw in the last few years. I don’t think it matters much what your major is, this is likely to be the reality for a lot of folks.

But you’re interested in PR, so does that mean you should forget about working in public relations? After all, the media is dying (say some) and PR departments are downsizing.

Well, if your dream is to do traditional media relations in an old school model of public relations… um, yes. Yes, you should forget about PR.

However, based on my own experience with a wide variety of clients, as well as watching my students’ careers, I say that if you can come to the table prepared for the PR career of the future, you’ll be in demand. That doesn’t mean it won’t take hard work. It will take tons of work. Work beyond your classes. You have to set yourself apart in a sea of recent graduates.

What does that mean?

A “smile and dial” (aka telemarketing) approach to traditional media relations is out. To succeed, it’ll take the ability to be strategic and provide good counsel (even at a junior level), a broad skill set and the ability to measure and show results. Let’s break it down…

Be a Strategic Counselor
I find myself telling students that they need to be “strategic thinkers.” Let me explain.

The are a dizzying array of communication channels available. Being able to do meaningful audience research, think and then make smart recommendations for what tools to use to get the results you seek is crucial. Katie Payne suggested recently that this crush of options means that you need to make decisions based on data. I agree. You can’t just trust your gut instincts. The audiences are too complex, the media too fractured and the landscape changing too quickly.

With some audiences, traditional media is still the gateway to their mind, but for many, that is far from the truth. How will a company, cause or organization know the best strategy? By relying on a smart communication team (and “by relying,” I mean hiring and paying a salary).

Develop Broad Skills
Would YOU hire someone who only brought traditional media relations skills to the table? If that were my own skill set, I’d starve. This is a snapshot of skills that I need to have on any given project:

  • Web sites: navigation and site maps, Web copy, design recommendations, basic HTML and updating (I don’t do the design).
  • Marketing collateral: copywriting for all sorts of things, design & format recommendations
  • Social media: blog writing and editing, blogger outreach, research, social networking
  • Research: focus groups, survey construction
  • Planning
  • New business development & pitches
  • Presentations
  • Media literacy: read, understand, distill information from varied sources
  • Traditional media relations: press releases, media lists, pitching

Traditional media relations is still part of the mix. Most recent graduates work in agencies where they focus on this aspect of public relations. But to be valuable for the long term, you need a broader base. Having even rudimentary design skills, for example, can really save the day.

Measure & Be Accountable
This should probably be first on the list. If you can’t prove that what you’re doing is contributing positively to the organization’s bottom line (either contributing to revenue or saving costs), then you should be worried about your job (your budget, your career, etc.).

There are lots of smart people talking about measurement. I highly recommend reading Katie Payne and Don Bartholomew, for example. Both have blogs. You can also check out the Institute for Public Relations, where you can find lots of research on measurement and evaluation.

What Now?

The job market will probably be tight this year. It may take longer to get a job. You may be slinging lattes for a bit while you find a PR gig. But if you work to set yourself apart from the average graduate, you’ll still be able to find a good job in public relations. It’s just not likely to look like the jobs of the past.

I would love to hear what you think.

Photo via Flickr by AtomicJeep

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  • Amy Ziari

    As a somewhat recent grad (I’m 3 years out) I would highly recommend current students start developing a list of companies/agencies they want to work for and scheduling informational interviews NOW. Yes, NOW.

    Sure, I realize you want to take it easy your last semester of college but I’m afraid that may cost you if you want a good job straight out of college (as many of you will to pay your bills). By getting a head start, you’ll be 10 steps ahead of your fellow peers when you graduate and will be much more likely to stand out to prospective employers (that is, if you demonstrate the skills Kelli mentioned in her post).

  • Kelli Matthews

    I would completely agree with Amy. You have to build your networks – virtual and in person now. Informational interviews are a great way to get face time with companies or agencies you are interesting in working for. Waiting until June will put you six months behind.

  • Scott Lansing

    It’s interesting to be looking for my first career-oriented job right now, especially in a professional sector like public relations. I consider my part-time PR internship with an advertising agency to be a blessing, given the state of the economy. I love the people I work with and the valuable Ad/PR/Interactive principles I’m consistently learning.

    If you’re determined as I am to remain in a professional industry like public relations, it’s important to constantly learn what you can, making yourself more marketable in the process. If that means working part-time in the field then hold onto that position and continue blogging, Tweeting and reading up on advancements in new media.

    Integrate a few different industries and interests into the mix. My personal interests in political strategy, sustainability and corporate social responsibility fuel my online efforts in researching emerging trends in new media. If I can’t figure out what to blog about, I can always resort to writing about these subjects because they’re constantly changing.

    Whether I end up interviewing with an agency or somewhere in-house, I can explicitly list interests pertaining to my abilities, demonstrating to potential employers that I can conduct research and apply it to my work.

  • Amanda Jones

    Great, post Kelli!

    I was lucky enough to find an internship right before graduating, but because of the economy I am only working part time and will be until June.

    I know some other recent graduated who have scored interviews (and a lot of the time that interview turned into a job) through other graduates and peers who were already in the PR job market. Eventually, your peer will be hired on or will move on to another internship or opportunity…that means a job has opened and you will be one of the first to know about it.

    Also, I know everyone hears this over and over but networking really is how you get your foot in the door.

    One other thing that I have learned, from Tom Hagely,, is that you have to tell people that you want to work there. Don’t rely on your attitude or experience to speak for you. If you really want to work for a specific company, tell people, especially those who work for the company.

  • Don Bartholomew

    Hi Kelli,
    Thanks very much for the shout-out and kind words. Your post contains a lot of good advice for newbies. One other item to stress – the value of internships. At more than one agency I have worked for, we essentially would only hire folks that had completed one or more internships. New grads should also keep their options open about accepting a paid internship after graduation. Flexibility is key in a tight job market.

    All the best, Don B

  • Rachel .:. A Step Ahead

    Working on broadening your skills is one of the most important things you can do. Being able to handle a variety of situations will make you a more valuable and flexible employee.

    One PR professional I spoke to suggested I take a feature writing class. She said editors love it when you can write a feature story that they don’t have to touch.

    She also suggested business, marketing and accounting courses to strengthen a resume.

  • zakmo

    I did an interview last week with a local paper in AL about being someone on the verge of graduation. Next December I’ll be taking my last finals.

    At the beginning of the econ crisis I wasn’t afraid. But now I’m starting to feel a strange emotion that makes me uncomfortable.

    I think one way for new grads to make it work is to go the freelance route.


  • Kelli Matthews

    Zack, thanks for the comment.

    I worked in a couple of PR agencies before I went to graduate school and as I transitioned to being an “academic,” freelancing paid the bills and evolved over time into my current agency. I think freelancing can be a great alternate if jobs are scarce. Companies are looking for less expensive ways to get the same things done and a freelancer might be just the ticket.

    The downside to freelancing is that, as a recent grad, you don’t have much depth of experience. So price yourself right and don’t oversell what you can do. Remember, you’re still learning. I have learned many hard lessons as a freelancer and as a small biz owner – most of them in trial by fire. It’s not always an easy road.

    The tips in this post and in the comments will help, for sure.

    Good luck to you!