How to get started in PR

How do you get started in public relations? Recently the blog has come across a couple of perspectives on possible answers from two former colleagues who prompted him to think about what advice he would offer to potential PR people.

One, Roger Haywood, has recently published Getting Started in Public Relations (available as an e-book on Amazon). The second, someone who moved from working with the blog at Turnbull Fox Phillips to starting  a company which was later acquired and then becoming a senior executive in the acquiring business.

Roger is a larger than life character who has had a long PR career mainly in the UK so his book partly reflects that market although many of the suggestions are pretty universal. The best thing about the book are checklists, lists of questions and scorecards which you can use to prepare for interviews, self-assess progress and think about your skills and career development.  “This is not an academic tome but a practical guide based on my own experience, including interviewing countless young and not so young would–be PR professionals.  Too many, whether talented and suitable or not, do not have the understanding of the business, the abilities and the attitudes that a potential employer seeks,” he says. The book stresses the importance of writing skills, networking and the all-important need to know more than just PR and to think about the context in which it operates.

It was the last advice which the blog’s second colleague stressed over lunch earlier in the week. The lunch conversation was partly reminiscences about the TFP culture, how people were trained and encouraged and partly about the success factors in a PR career. Much of that was about how people need to be pushed to understand the broader context of business, management, politics, government, sociology, economics and even films, literature and supposedly non-core expertise and interests. Indeed, this process started with initial job interviews and whenever a candidate listed in their CV interests such as books, films or something similar the blog’s first questions were always which books, which films which outside interests. Frequently the answers were stumbling efforts to explain why they couldn’t remember. Not an encouraging way to start an interview.  So, given the prompts from Roger’s book, the TFP experience and the lunch with the former colleague what would the blog’s advice be to anyone wanting to start off in the industry?

First, nepotism is sometimes a useful starting point. Many jobs go to people the employer knows or has some connection with. If your parent is, for instance, a client of a consultancy the chance of getting an internship or a starting position is increased significantly. So asking: who do I know, or who does someone I know know? is the best start.  Don’t despair if you haven’t got a connection because there are other ways to get in and get on because it’s an industry that does have a good record in recognising and rewarding talent. Second, don’t even think of getting into PR because some careers counsellor said you might be good at PR because you ‘were good with people’. Some of the best PR people the blog knows are mildly or even magnificently misanthropic. Third, do a PR course at an undergraduate level or another degree course and follow it up with a post-grad qualification in PR. Fourth, think about how everything you do during this phase – from the jobs you take to finance your study and life to the things you do in the community – can be used to reinforce your career and perceptions of your competence. Roger’s book has an excellent section on this.

From then on different things come into play. The first priority is to make sure that the basic PR skills are there although any employer worth working for should understand that someone starting out is not going to be advising top 10 company CEOs even if in certain circumstances, for example insights into youth culture, that can happen. But you have to constantly work at making them better and better through practice and more study (informal or formal). The second is to recognise that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to be successful – just the best informed. You need to read constantly and widely to acquire knowledge. Talking to a senior government public affairs manager a while ago the blog was impressed that the manager was keeping abreast of the Harvard Business Review, New Scientist, a variety of books on marketing, communication and politics and the literature on the behavioural sciences. It was exactly the way the blog would recommend that practitioners build their careers. One of the corollaries of this is that the more you know the more creative you become because creativity is a process not just some sudden inexplicable inspiration. You can’t understand Picasso’s development as a painter without understanding the time he spent looking at, and thinking about, El Greco and what was then called ‘primitive’ art. Third, recognise the differences between being a technician (nothing wrong with that by the way) and being a trusted counsellor to senior management. Those differences are basically about strategic planning capacity and the capacity to link that planning to your organisation’s goals, structure and the environment in which it operates. They also make the difference between earning a good salary and making a lot of money.

Most people in the industry think that getting the first job in the industry is often the hardest, particularly when there could be scores of applicants. But, after you get it – and work at your career systematically and intelligently – you start to find that you don’t need to apply for jobs at all. They come to you.