As Holly Mercer’s three year PR degree draws to an end and the student loan looms large, she asks: Was it really worth it?
Ultimately only time will tell (although I would
like to think YES) as I am yet to graduate and secure a job in the industry.
However, I can still look back on my time studying PR at UAL and pick out the positves and negatives.
Sam Howard dispenses some sage advoce to would-be freelancers. Or, how to pitch a pitcher…
The Comms Crowd has been growing recently our little team had just about hit double figures and what a fab little team we are. I knew from the get go when each person got in touch that they would be a great fit for us, our culture and our clients.
But over the years I have been contacted by quite a few individuals hoping to join the gang and not all of them made such a brilliant first impression.
Here’s my top five mistakes to avoid when pitching your freelance services:
1) Telling me (in some detail) how much you hate your 9 – 5. Firstly I don’t care, secondly we don’t do negativity in pitches EVER, thirdly it demonstrates no commitment to freelance.
2) Telling me how (in more detail) you can’t get any work and you’re dying of starvation. Firstly I still don’t care, secondly one can only assume you are crap at what you do.
3) Clearly not understanding what we do, who we are and who we work for. We are B2B tech ergo if you are not B2B tech it’s not a good fit, honestly. Sending me some vanilla pitch about my ‘organisation’ has me lost at organistation.
4) Not demonstrating you have the four core skills: client management, content production, media relations, social media management. The rest is neither here nor there. And by demonstrating I mean send me a link to something you’ve written, send me coverage, show me a channel that you run…
5) Taking too long to tell me anything at all – this is a pitch right?
Truly if you can’t pitch yourself, how in the hell you gonna pitch our clients? (Can I get an Amen?)
Meanwhile, succinct, compelling and personable pitches that demonstrate your commitment to the freelance faith, map well to the Comms Crowd and showcase your in demand skills will just have me dashing for that welcome mat.
Holly Mercer, our new Comms Crowd junior looks at how PR translates from the lecture halls to a busy tech PR agency.
As a PR student I feel as though you are taught an incredible amount of theory while doing very little practical PR tasks throughout the duration of the course. Ultimately the University leaves it to the student to gain the necessary experience and insights into the working world of PR. I am actually incredibly grateful for this, as this independent approach has really allowed me to be proactive in gaining necessary experience and insight into the PR industry and ultimately allowed me to be where I am today!
Admittedly before April this year I had very little idea what sector of the PR industry I wanted to go into when I graduate, which to be fair isn’t surprising. Although I have been exposed to guest lectures at Uni, until you experience them for yourself how on earth are you meant to know if that sector is right for you?! So my only strategy was to get as many different work placements as possible in 3 months. I carried out placements in tech and consumer PR agencies and also a communications agency specialising in sport and music.
After finishing my first placement in the tech PR agency, I knew from the beginning it was exactly what I wanted to do. Not having a clue what you want to do can be a very daunting feeling, so to finally realise what it is – it is the BEST feeling! So from there that opened a door for me with Sam and the Comms Crowd. Sam was actually my guest lecturer at Uni for a couple of months. So to be interviewed on skype by the same person who TAUGHT you how to do skype interviews, was quite frankly a very daunting scenario!
So getting to the meat of the question, what have I learnt since becoming a member of the Comms Crowd? In all honesty this question has been a struggle for me to answer, because truthfully the answer is most definitely A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT.
Being completely honest, this experience has been a challenge. But I do love a challenge, so this has been a great test for me. As well as working for the Comms Crowd, I have two-part time waitressing jobs and uni work so the key skills that I have learnt so far are time management and multi tasking. Both of these skills are a necessity for anybody working in PR where you have to be able to mange your time between client deadlines and meetings, while still making time for managing twitter feeds and other social media channels.I think the one tip that I would give to anyone in my position, or any student carrying out work placements or junior roles is to ask questions! I know this is such a cliché thing to say because everyone says it, but it is so true and so important. Even still I start emails saying “sorry if this is a stupid question” but truthfully I have come to understand that no question is a stupid question. And it is most definitely better to ask a potentially obvious question and then get something right, as opposed to not ask and then get something wrong!
I was recently interviewed for MK’s award winning PR blog. I taught Marcle at Westminster Uni where Ihe graduated with a distinction and he was also our junior for a year. In his #4PRQs series he asks a range of industry types the same four questions. The one I found most interesting was:
What is the biggest mistake of junior people you employ, and how can it be fixed?
And this is my expanded answer:The biggest mistake even the best junior makes, is trying to appear you are on it when you are not… saying you understand what you are doing when you don’t, not quite. I get the motivation – need to look like you are on it, don’t want to ask daft questions.
But we know coming into an agency life from an academic background is a huge shock: not least the speed in which things move:
- Agencies are always very fast, very busy and er slightly stressed and everyone apart from the new junior knows exactly what they are doing.
- The level of multi-tasking expected is unprecedented, it’s not unusual for a junior to sit across five or six accounts or even more.
- Being cc’d on every mail on every account sounds great right? you finally get to see what’s really going on. But believe me. it’s a high price to pay for wading through 200 mails a day, and where are you supposed to put them when you’ve read them? Are they all important??
So it’s no wonder juniors are over-whelmed from day one. But without complete understanding of what you are doing and why, even ‘simple’ tasks like updating media lists, or sourcing twitter feed content goes awry as the junior lacks the confidence to speak up and clarify any questions, resulting in frustration and lack of faith all around.Much better to fess up at the beginning and claim ignorance, especially in my sector where the subject matter is deep. I mean how is a junior supposed to be all over AI, blockchain, machine learning, crypto currencies – etc? We really don’t expect you to get it straight away anyway, so you just speak up and ask those ‘stupid questions’.
Sam Howard survives another year of crash-course interviews.
In addition to tending the Comms Crowd, I have an enjoyable side hustle working as associate lecturer leading the Professional Employability module for Westminster Uni. Recently we conducted externally-invigilated panel interviews with every student for a hypothetical intern or junior role depending on their experience in PR, advertising, marketing events etc. There were two panels each panel interviewed 30 students in a day – intense. So you get a very succinct view of qualities that work in interview: Here were the ones that worked best for me:
IMMERSED – Those that could clearly demonstrate a calling for the industry, enjoyed discussing campaigns and liked watching how stories played out in the media. These candidates were able to demonstrate a very proactive choice of careers, almost a vocation and we loved talking to these guys, they were one of us already.
ENGAGED – Those that liked engaging with us were open and seemed to enjoy the process, This really stands you in good stead when so many candidates seem reluctant to even be in the room and the interviewer feels more like a dentist trying desperately to extract information, than a would be employer, .
TUNED IN – Finally those that demonstrated a (quiet) resolve, an innate understanding they had this one moment to convince us that they had the attitude, the attributes, the experience and skills to easily fit in a team and capably do a good job. Those that were successful substantiated passion with knowledge, balanced confidence with credibility, openness with professionalism and demonstrated a positive rationale.They did not get distracted by their nerves, let the occasion overwhelm them, nor lose their way in an effort to become our NBFs, but just resolved to take that opportunity to show us the best of themselves with every answer. In short they had FOCUS.
But if these are not key qualities for you the great comfort of course is most all PR firms don’t rely on interview alone and applicants are given the opportunity to match the talk with the walk, demonstrating their skills and abilities in a variety of tests from proof-reading, pitching, aptitude tests, copy writing etc – and then it of course becomes a very level playing field. Hurrah!
Sam Howard interviewed 40 PR undergrads in a day, heres her top tips for standing out form the crowd.
This is what got me, it’s not until you interview 40 potential interns back to back do you realise how important it is to make a mark and stand out, for the right reasons.
Below my top ten tips for delivering a compelling interview:
1) Dress up not down. You’re a student, I know what students look like, show me what you look like as a young professional, help me imagine you in my world. Lads put on a suit, girls tie back the hair, easy on the make-up, everybody make sure the shoes compliment the look and are clean, Oh and take your coat off!
2) Bring in a portfolio and refer to it.Clips, references, college work, certificates etc.
3) Don’t be worried about nerves. We expect you to be nervous and can see through them, just focus on coherent answers that stack up.
4) Be able to answer the question ‘what do we get if we hire you?’ In three words that are true to the core of you. Even if you’re not asked it, have a handle on your personal brand, what it is, what you stand for.
5) If you are studying PR be able to talk about the industry, our issues, our successes, where we are heading, your PR super hero etc.
6) Don’t offer up a single adjective unless you have a story that backs it up. Don’t feel obliged to provide us with skills or qualities that you are unlikely to have at this early stage of your career. If we’re looking for a new CEO we would have advertised for one.
7) Be comfortable with your more humble achievements. The most convincing candidates where those that talked about everyday PR duties, how tricky it was to get coverage when there was no news, to create 10 tweets a day for a fish and chip shop, to get journalists to talk to you – at least that way we know you know what you are letting yourself in for.
8) Don’t be too eager to please, ‘I don’t care where I work who I work for what I do’ isn’t actually that compelling. Moderate your desire to learn with a view of where you’d like to end up.
9) The ability to demonstrate you can own and learn from mistakes is a key character strength not weakness.Be able to be reflective, think about things that have not gone well that were actually down to you not someone else. Why was that, and what did you learn from it?
10) Have a story lined up that lets us see the passion in you the one that lights you up! It doesn’t have to be work related, just something where we can see your natural energy and pride. Good luck, and enjoy the experience!
As a mother of a 15 year old boy who is smart, outgoing, focused, funny and almost hard working – Sam Howard assumed she had a one-in-a-million kid, and was suitably grateful. But having recently attended his school’s work experience review evening, it turns out, he is not a rare beastie at all, just one among many young people today who understand what it takes to get on in this world.
|Hanging out with the Youth of Today…|
Elliot’s school is Ark Academy in Wembley, According to Ofsted the proportion of pupils from minority ethnic groups/ whose first language is not English/ who have special educational or physical needs – are all above average – ie your typical London urban state school. In their GCSE year the students have the opportunity to take advantage of a week’s work experience. So last month saw over 180 Ark students dispatched to work in local firms as diverse as car repairs, nursing homes, shops, banks, professional consultancies, trades, education, transport, etc. Elliot had a memorable week with a team of financial advisors, who gave him a fantastic learning experience.
On the review evening it turned out that Elliot was nominated for an award for being such a great little worker – wohoo. But here’s the thing, over 90 children i.e half the work experience kids had also been nominated for awards by their companies for being exceptional, for being made of the ‘right stuff’ – with many being also offered ongoing paid work or apprenticeships.It was an extremely heart-warming evening hearing accolade after accolade being read out as the boys and girls were praised for their hard work, initiative, curiosity, enthusiasm, common sense, thoughtfulness, maturity, great personalities and respectful attitude.
We always hear such damning things about the youth of today: lazy, socially inept, deluded, disengaged… We blame social media, gaming, the teachers, the parents, and x factor in our determination to harken back to the good old days when we were all computer illiterate and crippled with low self-esteem.
Seems to me the good new days are just around the corner and I for one could not be more proud of the youth who are set to make it happen.
Want to work in PR? Better start working then…
Latest UK government research, showed that the number of students with Saturday jobs/part-time work is somewhere around half of what it was just ten years ago. In 1997, 42% of 16-17 year old students were working, in 2014 it’s down to 18%.
This is why: “When asked about the main reason for not combining work and study, the results of the survey indicated that personal preferences and the desire to focus on study was the dominant reason (55%), while the previous concerns relating to local labour market issues and the lack of flexibility from educational providers appear less influential (16% and 9% respectively). Thus, although there was a general prevalence of potential work opportunities available to young people, the overwhelming desire to do well in their studies was the main reason for not combining earning and learning.”This was also my experience as the ‘resident’ visiting lecturer at Westminster University for its BA in PR and Advertising, where very few of the first year students were combining part time work with their studies.To my mind if this is down to personal preference, then this is a mistake. If you want to work in the industry, you need to get an internship or two; if you want to get an internship or two you need to prove you already have a work ethic, and know what it means to work pretty hard doing rather dull stuff for not very much money at all. Those students that can already demonstrate this, by doing whatever it is: stacking shelves, cleaning cars, wondering out loud if you’d like fries with that – have already proved they can get up to an alarm, park the ego, roll up the sleeves and get the job done – which at this stage in a young person’s career is way more important than being able to wax lyrical on the theory of… well anything at all really.
I believe, those that are choosing the linear approach, to study first and intern after are missing a trick, while those that still believe they can walk straight out of uni into a permanent PR role will be able to reflect on that notion at their protracted leisure.
On the other hand, those students that are pushing themselves already, taking on Saturday jobs or part time work and applying for internships, even in their first year of study are giving themselves every advantage. Not only are they becoming more employable by the day, but their PR studies are going to make a whole lot more sense, once they have seen theory applied in practice.
So for me, working with the first year Westminster students was a fantastic opportunity to provide them with the basic skills they need to understand what a PR internship entails. By working on key requirements, from monitoring media, to building press lists; undertaking research to basic writing skills, we focused on how best to prepare and execute an internship role with professionalism and maturity.
Can’t tell you how proud I was to hear back from some of the students already, who not only have got out there and secured PR internships but have been asked to stay on for the summer in a paid capacity.
PR is a great career choice for those that are prepared to work for it – and a Saturday job could be just the place to start.
So the PR industry is hiring again, hurrah, but who exactly is going to manage this new wave of talent and teach them our ways, and do we even want to?
Just looking at the last few copywriting jobs we’ve had come in: a complete re-write of a careers’ website and a brochure to attract the best young talent – it’s clear things are on the up for our clients and finally for interns, with graduate recruitment in the UK at its highest since 2007.
For the past four years, I’ve run a London PR internship programme for a US university. In the past, it has often taken around six months to secure suitable internships for 15 or so MA students. But 2014 saw a marked increase in demand and they were snapped up in around three months, in fact I unearthed more great opportunities than I had interns. Hurrah!
But it occurred to me, who exactly is going to manage these bright young things and what will happen if we don’t?
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The present generation of account directors (ADs) grew up in the equivalent of war-time rationing, working with reduced client budgets, non-existent internal budgets and being forced to adopt a recession-based management style: cautious, risk averse and desperate to keep the account at all costs. Sounds like fun don’t it? Is it any wonder that agency ADs are moving in-house, looking for a saner, more stable environment, one that’s more conducive to seeing let alone raising a family? And with today’s trend for bulking up the corporate comms team set to continue in-house is only too glad to hire them.So not the ADs then.
We all know ‘a good account manager is hard to find,’ as Fergal Sharkey once meant to say, but these days they are rare beasties indeed. In fact anyone with two to five years’ experience is hard to find in any industry. Thanks to the recession we have skipped a hiring generation. Not only that, but for many years, training, development and general people investment have all been corners that were first to be cut. So those few who were recruited and managed to survive and thrive, were tough self-starters. Not necessarily the types to want to micro-manage or molly-coddle junior talent, they are much more likely to have their eyes on the prize of filling in an AD role.
So not the AMs then.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope
MEANWHILE: The PR business contributes £9.62bn to the UK economy, with agency revenues doubling in the last ten years – but what about the profits? It’s generally recognised that a healthy agency wants to be looking at a 15 – 20% margin, but the last figure I saw said in 2013, agencies was averaging around 10.6%. The cause was due to our fear of putting up our rates, and over-servicing reaching an industry average of 20%. In an effort to hang on to the account at all costs, over-worked and over-wrought ADs and thinly spread AMs have been giving away one hour in every five, just to keep everyone (apart from the CFO) ‘happy’.So do we want to pass this working model to the newbies, now the dark days are receding?
So could this be a recipe for Change?
· A thin upper and middle management layer with little time for micro management, structure and process.
· A business model that’s been coerced into giving it away.
· An influx of Generation Y emerging like butterflies into a boom time eco-climate, where risk is rewarded and disruption applauded. Recognised as the natural collaborators, masters of abstract and conceptual thinking. theis new genre of talent are highly ambitious, socially confident, relational, and the girls at least, highly organised – could this tech-savvy, upbeat, civic-minded, confident generation be the ones to reinvent us, rejuvenate us?
All The Young Punks
With a coincidental lack of hands on management, and so ample opportunity to enjoy the natural freedom they need to experiment and take a few risks, will this new wave of PR Punks be the ones to make us proud, a bt loud and profitable once more?
A modified version of this article and without all The Clash references, first appeared in PR Moment on 9th September 2014.
What’s it like being a freelance PR when you’ve only got a few years’ experience under your belt? Our first freeelance account exec, Hiwot Wolde-Senbet, weighs in on the perils and perks.
Freelancing was the last thing I thought I would be doing at this early stage in my career. But, as a natural risk taker, this opportunity came with perks that I could have only dreamed of, so I grabbed it without hesitation.I figured, I had participated in enough weekly meetings; done a few new business brainstorming and planning sessions; pitched in plenty of stories; not to forget the never ending reporting; to give me a rounded view of the PR life. But let’s face it, I may have spent a few years as a junior in a few agencies, but there aren’t enough clippings in all the world to prepare me to fly on my own.
This is why being a part of The Comms Crowd works for me, as it’s made up of senior freelance PR and marcomms people, with loads of experience. So I get to work on what I really enjoy while they shoulder the responsibility, they even look after my training and devlopment too. And just because I’m the ‘junior’ doesn’t mean I get to miss the hunt, in fact, in less than three months of being a part of The Crowd, I found myself sitting in front of a possible client sharing my ‘out of the box’ thinking – way out of the typical junior’s comfort zone. As Sam says, “Well… you’re a freelancer now, no one to hide behind, so get on with it.” So you do just that and learn from your experience.
As a freelancer, I get to work from home so, I make my own hours. It sounds fantastic right? You would assume so when you are on the ‘nine to five‘ schedule and wish you could skip the rush hour. But freelancing comes with its own set of issues, not least isolation, turns out you really miss the mini chit chats and light hearted banter that gets your day going in an office.
And there are times when life as a junior freelancer can make you feel like pulling your hair out (the occasional side effect to Excel drama). And you really miss the days that you used to ask your colleagues to help you with those unsolvable IT problems (which you probably took an hour to deal with) and then they come and sort you out in a click, leaving you feeling inept but ready to roll. When you are a freelancer, your time is money and just that fact alone makes you become very aware and conscious of your time. So you can’t afford to spend an hour on some stupid Excel issue, yet you have no choice. Not having a colleague that sits next to you means are a bit at the mercy of email response and there are the inevitable, albeit occasional, misunderstandings that you get from working remotely. So everyone really has to work at overcoming the ‘cloud barriers’, but we’re getting there.
But then the niggles just melt away, when you look through your window and see that it is sunny and bright outside. It feels like it’s calling you to come and enjoy it, feel the sun touch your skin. Living in London, I already know sunny days don’t come by often, so I pick up my sunglasses and iPad and move to the café nearby with an outdoor space. I get my to-go cappuccino and lay on the grass to draft an artcicle. That’s when I realise that I am living the dream I never had, as a real life Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and The City. Except I don’t do my research in nightclubs.
When you live and work in the same place, life can truly get tangled up. Becoming a freelancer will really test and challenge your organisational skills. However, with clear objectives, support and training; the cloud-based agency model can help you release your inner Carrie and achieve a fair work life balance. Until then, be prepared to, learn fast and be out of your comfort zone.