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Freelancing and university – it’s a balancing act

11/03/2019

Stellar junior PR, Katya Hamilton-Smith writes on how she has managed her third year at uni and working with us at the same time.

When I was given the opportunity to be a junior at The Comms Crowd last year my answer was of course, “Yes please!” At the same time I started a 10-week internship in the Corporate Communications department at Visa and soon returned back to university for my third and final year. I have always enjoyed having a packed schedule but balancing a freelance PR role with the pressures of the final year of university was certainly a challenge. It has been a great challenge though and I have learnt so much.

The final year of university is a busy one, full of assignments, graduate-scheme applications and the dreaded dissertation. In addition, I have been monitoring client social media channels, drafting pitches and briefings and getting to know a rapidly evolving industry and honestly just trying to keep up! While my time as a junior has been amazing, it hasn’t been without its challenges. People might assume that freelancing would work really well alongside a university schedule, and for the most part that’s true, but one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is prioritising tasks when there is no set working timetable. How long do you spend working on a pitch when you also have a dissertation literature review due? How long do you spend writing an essay when a client’s twitter needs content? Prioritising these tasks has been one of the biggest difficulties and when you’re not prepared to let either one be less than your best it is definitely a struggle.

Another thing that I have had to learn is the ability to change focus quickly between work and university assignments. Writing a 10,000 word dissertation and writing a less-than-240-character tweet are very different things, and being able to switch between these different written styles was something that I had to pick up quickly. I guess the more you practise something, the easier it gets and this was certainly the case for me in learning how to manage the different writing styles needed for both a career and a degree in PR.

The best way that I have found to manage my busy schedule is a great deal of planning. As an avid list-maker anyway this was fairly natural but I still found it difficult. Self-organisation is key and the ability to prioritise the right tasks at the right time is essential. I won’t pretend that I have always got this right – far from it! I have sometimes found myself panicking over university deadlines late at night or planning pitches in my pyjamas but as the year has progressed I have certainly learnt how to master this prioritisation much better. I don’t think that there’s any set way to do this and something different will work for everyone, but the easiest way that I’ve found to manage my different activities is to divide my days up into different sections, tackling Comms Crowd work and university assignments in different blocks. With this distinction it is much easier to manage my time and I work as if I were going into a physical office. Obviously this doesn’t always work but generally planning and scheduling time for each commitment was the only way that I was able to keep on top of everything and not let either activity down.

Since June I have certainly learnt the importance of effective time management, an incredibly useful skill as I prepare to leave university and fully enter a professional environment. I have also had the chance to learn about some of the most interesting fintech companies while learning the ropes of the PR industry from a super supportive team.

Balancing the most important year of education and keeping my grades up while freelancing alongside certainly presented many challenges, but the amount that I have learnt and accomplished over the past nine months has far outweighed any difficulties that I have faced. As Sam would say, Onwards!


A PR degree – is it REALLY worth it?

21/01/2018

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.


PR – from the classroom into the office

09/09/2017

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!

ONWARDS!


What makes a standout PR candidate?

04/01/2017

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!


Multi-tasking for juniors: what I’ve learned so far

22/06/2016

From our latest recruit, Marcel Klebba, social media activist and occasional junior.On gaining an essential PR skill – you’re never to young to start with the multi-tasking…

It’s 5PM. I am drinking my Earl Grey with (skimmed) milk, while writing this post. Playing in the background I have Radio 4’s Today Programme podcast from this morning that I didn’t manage to listen to till the end. As the Polish team is playing some decent football in Euro 2016, I am also following the score on my phone, while at the same time I am on my second screen monitoring multiple tweets and twitter feeds on TweetDeck.

This is taking multitasking to a whole new level, even for me!I multitask all the time. I have to. My life is quite busy so learning how to multi-task is a must for me. I am a PR student, part of the virtual Comms Crowd, while also making beautiful coffees on weekends at my local coffee shop. Whenever I have a bit of spare time from uni I try to get as much work experience as I can which is often hard. Once back home, after a full day of work or lessons or meetings, I still find myself having to to write an essay for the course or do prepare some posts for our clients’ twitter feeds. As I am a good son, who is living away from home, I can’t forget about face-timing my Mum, as well.

Multi-tasking is the skill that nowadays really pays off and that can give you a massive advantage, especially in PR where you need to be able to manage your schedule, meet clients’ deadlines, attend meetings while at the same time carrying on with your routine comms work .

Apart from its numerous advantages, multitasking has some drawbacks. Obviously, when doing too many things at once you run the risk of not doing any of them right Therefore, something tells me that I now need to pause the radio in the background in order to focus on my writing. Knowing when and what to prioritise is essential as well: keeping track of the football score, even though it’s super important for me,is not as time-sensitive and paramount as the work that I need to deliver for the clients. Juggling everything isn’t impossible and is extremely rewarding. Being praised for good work by Sam, is a superb feeling and keeps me motivated.

Talking of Sam and the Comms Crowd, I would not be able to do social media without the agency being, as we like to call it, cloud-based. It gives me the opportunity to work anywhere and anytime… within deadlines, not to upset Sam!

Comms Crowd’s approach is really innovative. Communication between all the members is being done via email and we share all our work on drop box we are all in our own offices, in some cases – living rooms. Comms Crowd gives us all flexibility and the chance to nurture not only startups, but also our kids, our hobbies, or, in my case, get the top mark for my Online PR module at uni. That’s The beauty of freelancing, as Sam has said, the beauty of multi-tasking I say!


Tips for PR Internship Interviews

17/01/2016

Sam Howard interviewed 40 PR undergrads in a day, heres her top tips for standing out form the crowd.

pick me! oh please pick me!

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!


Work Experience Kids, sign up for your 15 year old today…

19/10/2015

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.


A Saturday job – the perfect way to kick off your PR career

06/07/2015

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.

 

 


15 and working that CV

26/06/2013

As part of a wider CIPR initative, I spent yesterday in a London secondary school helping students with their interview skills.

are kids supposed to look this good in a suit?

I was blown away (almost disturbed) by how ‘on it’ some of my ‘candidates’ were: rocking up in business dress, with a firm handshake, beautifully presented CVs, charming covering letters, chatting away with confidence about their career aspirations and extra-curricular achievements, including, mentoring, team coaching and fundraising. And of course they followed up with a great email afterwards. BUT they were only 15!

When I was 15 I’m sure CVs hadn’t been created then and all I could mumble about was The Clash, The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees. My extra-curricular activities comprised entirely of locking myself away in my bedroom to listen to John Peel, write angsty poetry and draw dead-looking people. If sat on, I’d say I might write a column for Face Magazine when I grew up, but that was like, ages away, right? (or as it turned out never).

So while yesterday I was dazzled by the students that made Hermione Granger look rather shabby and ill-prepared for life’s eventualities, I did feel  a common bond with those students who were a bit more ‘Ron Weasley’ in their approach and were a little less thunk through.

But actually the reality is being career-aware at such a young age is probably a necessity now. Latest stats show just under million young people are registered unemployed, that’s around 20% with 56 applicants chasing every graduate job.

In response to these long term depressing stats (at one point it was 89 grads chasing every opportunity) we’ve invented a whole new layer of employment culture (much like serums have been surreptitiously slipped into my skin care regime) with most young people recognising they needed to serve possibly several (often unpaid) internships now. Recent research from the PRCA showed that 81% of those questions had done one – three internships, before landing a ‘real job’.

One of my ‘real jobs’ is finding such internships, in media, PR and public affairs for The USC Annenberg. I’ve been doing it for three years now and even with 50+ placements under my belt, it’s extraordinarily difficult. This time round it took six months of talking to more than 100 companies just to secure 15 unpaid summer internships. It’s really tough out there for young people, so if you can help them, please do!

We had the best of it, no career pressures when we were young and serums now we are old.


Enough already with the PR career planning!

21/11/2012

When it comes to getiing into PR Sam Howard proposes you stop dwelling and start selling…

“when i grow up I’m gonna be the lone ranger.”

One of the best parts of my working life is mentoring young graduates keen to break into media and PR. But so many of those I meet, have put themselves under enormous pressure by attempting to define exactly what it is they are going to do for the rest of their lives.

Not just, ‘Oh I think I’d like to be in PR cos I quite like writing and engaging people’; but, ‘I want to be in PR, I want to work in an international agency for two years, on blue chip brands, and then go in house, for a FTSE 100. I want to work in corporate and probably focus on CSR although I think crisis comms may offer good opportunities for rapid progression…’

I’ve said this before, but how can you possibly know? I don’t even know what I want for Christmas, though if someone gave me such a career plan I might try and swap of for something more useful – like a biro.

It’s not just the rigidity of the approach which is alarming, I mean look at all those X Factor contestants, ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, sing.’ I mean it doesn’t pan out so well for many of them does it?

It means that talented, young people, who are naturally full of get up and go, find themselves stuck at home, living with their parents (which, along with the student debt, probably contributes to the pressure to get it ‘right’) plotting and scheming how to break into their particular niche rather than just taking a job, rocking up with a big smile, rolling up their sleeves and becoming indispensable by the end of week one.

When I look at my own comms career and all the very successful people I get to work with, I don’t see that many of us ever had a career strategy other than ‘this is fun,can I do more?’ or ‘that was crap I’m not doing that again’. Interestingly I was talking to an industry bod the other day, who definitely has always had a game plan and as she proudly talked me through all her clever moves, I asked of each role, ‘So did that make you happy?’ She seemed to think my question an irrelevance and skipped over it. Admittedly she had a Mulberry bag whereas mine came from a street market, so maybe that made her happy. I do hope so.

Possibly the way you find yourself a great comms career is as much down to trial and error as it is to having a plan. Maybe you can just stumble upon the things you love doing and you do them well because they make you happy, you learn from the people you admire, and apply yourself to the mad opportunities that come your way. And instead of focusing on your career success, you focus on the success of your clients and the company that hired you. It’s my belief that loyalty can be spotted above sycophancy, that steadfastness is appreciated more than shrewd cunning, and that just being a great person to be around often gets you further than being the cleverest person in the room. I know this, cos sometimes I was the cleverest person in the room and it didn’t necessarily do me any favours.

The young people with whom I have the privilege to work, are smart, conscientious and ready to give it their best shot. And that’s all our industry needs, let’s just give ‘em permission to take a job, any job, and then step back as we watch them fly – all over the place.