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 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.
As part of a wider CIPR initative, I spent yesterday in a London secondary school helping students with their interview skills.
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.
When it comes to getiing into PR Sam Howard proposes you stop dwelling and start selling…
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.
When it comms to forging a career in comms, Sam Howard suggests mixing it up a little can be as valid as going all out for a pure malt career.
With employees now trusted more than CEOs, the end user increasingly seen as the key influencer and media channels publishing every type of content to every type of platform, being good, even very good at just PR isn’t necessarily going to get you very far.When you look at the people behind the current brand success stories, there is increasingly more evidence to substantiate my long held belief that being a Jack of many trades, is the surest way to become Master of your own career.
Talk to industry recruiters and the dream hires are those that that have deep dive domain expertise (hopefully that will never go out of fashion) but combined with wide ranging skills across a full range of comms channels. This means for those starting out, any work experience that gives exposure to any one of the multitude of disciplines you need to affect behavioral change – is one worth having. It matters not whether marketing or PR, social or traditional, event or content – you will gain invaluable experience and become more valuable as a result.
Not convinced? Think the straight arrow approach is still the best way to go? Following the logic that if you intern at Webber you could become its CEO by the time you’re 27 and ¾? Well I guess you could, but think of it this way – if your dream job is to be head of PR for at Giorgio Armani do you actually want to intern there? Really?
Surely you’d not prefer to wobble off on your tender Bambi career legs to a few other pastures first and having journalists throw the phone down on you for being base incompetent when Giorgio isn’t watching? ie somewhere, anywhere else?
My advice is to learn your skills and make your mistakes elsewhere. For example say you want to be in fashion PR: Work on a shop floor, work in customer service, set up a fashion savvy blog , throw a charity catwalk show, do PR for a local store, then go agency side work on some high street and online brands, go in house see what couture looks like from the inside and then knock on his villa door when you know the industry inside and out and back to front, know the people in it, how to create the advocates, silence the competitors and convert the detractors, how to get them talking, and most importantly – shopping.
Then knock on Mr Armani’s door then, and say, “Well I doubt if you can afford me, but if you wan to take your PR to the next level, here I am.”
No learning experience is wasted, get out there, get learning.
Sam Howard proposes you stop dwellling on what you can’t do and make sure you tap into what you can…
The most perplexing thing about writing this blog, is not coming up with the ideas or the opinions, or creating the content and making it interesting and engaging – but noticing days after I’ve posted something, that it’s full of typos. A recent blog post saw me pen the phrase, ‘pig picture thinker’ for heaven’s sake!
I really struggle with the detail, to be honest I don’t even see the detail. Does this make me stupid? I’d like to reassure you it doesn’t it’s just my brain works very differently to your brain and your brain works very differently to the person you sit next to, or at least we should hope it does.
In the words of Groove Armada: “If everybody looked the same, We’d get tired looking at each other.” Usually in team of people you get a great mixture or analytics, inventors, empathisers and doers so why not just let each person do what they like doing best and stop bemoaning that the most organised person in the room is not so hot at brainstorming or your most creative copy writer can never get to a meeting on time. Let people be what they want to be and great things can happen.
The trick is to understand how your brain ticks and how to get the best out of it and then surround yourself with people that tick to different rhythms so between you you have the surround sound sorted.Nicky Imrie, co-founder of the PR Network explains a recent profiling session we did together…Are you playing to your strengths?
Sam Howard on one of her pet subjects:I nternships are a contentious issue. Pay them? We are getting better at this but if the intern’s work isn’t billable, then where does the funding come from? Don’t pay them and risk being branded as a slave trader? Auction them? Surely not, but they do go for £3k a pop at a Tory Fundraiser. That can’t be right can it, jobs for the boys and all that?
Over the years I’ve hired my fair share of interns. I like to do it, feels good to give someone a break, they seem to enjoy it, and it gives me so much genuine pleasure to watch my protégés go on to bigger and better things. Now, I work with the Taylor Bennett Foundation coaching its interns and also with USC Annenberg, where I head up the post grad London internship programme. This batch of placements began about a month ago and I’m happy to report that without exception the students are delighted with their learning experience and thriving under the guardianship and care of their sponsoring companies.So in this post I’m steering clear of the politics and just passing on my advice for getting on that first rung of the PR ladder, I hope it’s helpful.
1) CV building: It seems in the US there is a strong culture for CV building which I’m not sure we’ve quite caught up with here. Most of my US group’s CVs already boasted not one but several unpaid relevant internships as well as 100s of hours of community service. This demonstrated not only a basic understanding of what PR is in practice but a really strong work ethic. Doing something looks a lot better than doing nothing and doing something for somebody else for free is even better.
2) CV cleaning: This goes for any CV, not just when you are starting out, so do avoid the marketing schpeak there is no need to ‘big up’ achievements. Explain what your actual role was, rather than align your glory to the company as a whole, we don’t really expect juniors to have created global brands, but it’s a real bonus if we know you know how to put a tracker report together. Be bold, brave and honest in your CV. Us PRs do not believe the hype.
3) CV polishing: We want our interns to be able to read, write, spell, have great attention to detail and a good eye for presentation. Use your two page CV to show you are a master of all those trades. Make it work hard for you, put in hyperlinks to your work, your references, your social media profiles.
4) Sort out your social media presence: to me this is more important than the CV. The CV you crafted in isolation, the social media profile is a living breathing organism. Get yourself on LinkedIn build your connections and join your groups and get some recommendations up there as soon as you are able. As for Twitter, follow your favourite bloggers, journalists, brands and companies you would like to work for. Use Twitter to pass on latest trends and tips from the professionals retweet and reply. Same goes for Facebook, but make sure your privacy settings are where you want them.
5) Sector specific: Most of my US group not only knew that they wanted to make a career out of PR but also what sector they wanted and already had some industry grounding to underscore that. On the whole this seemed to work very well. If you are starting out, look to build your experience in pieces, want to work in fashion PR? Get a Saturday job in a high street store, organize a charity cat walk show in your college, represent a local independent store for free, don’t be despondent that you can’t get an internship at Gucci from day one, lead up to it. Therefore the flip side is if you have little or no relevant experience just yet, then you should keep your remit wide open, see each opportunity as one to learn.
6) Agency v in-house: Most of my group wanted to work agency side as they believed the faster pace would give them a more intense exposure. Again I would agree with this, although I would say the mid size and smaller agencies are often much more receptive to giving an intern a good home. Going in house seems to take longer to clear, and also you need to be sure that there is enough actual PR work for you to do, so be clear on the job description if it’s a start up or a few man crew. Be objective, a great brand name might have global recognition, but a smaller agency might give you more responsibility. Do your research, find your specialists, PRWeek can be a good place to start.
7) Timescales: Even with high calibre students and a decent address book it took some time to secure good opportunities. About half the opportunities were secured through some, albeit tenuous, link with the company. I found one internship through a friend’s wife’s bridesmaid’s then boyfriend, who didn’t even work there anymore! But actually it isn’t a case of jobs for the boys here, use social media as your slave to form connections. LinkedIn became my new best friend. While Twitter and Facebook both elicited responses in minutes when email and phone did not. Be prepared to approach at least 10 maybe 20 agencies depending on sector (and certainly not the ten biggest) before you can get to interview stage. I would also look to secure your internship a good six to eight weeks before you actually want to start. An ideal internship should be between one to three months. Anything less and I’m not sure you can learn that much, anything more should at least be paid.
8) Who to send the CV to? Whoever it is you ’know’ is the best answer, they at least will tell you who it should really go to or better still forward it for you, make sure your accompanying mail is intelligent relevant and polite. Don’t be afraid to phone up to find out who to send it to and if it’s a smaller agency do be prepared to really pitch yourself on the phone, you never know who is on the other end.
9) Payment: I’m not getting into this one but it seems the norm is to reimburse travel and lunch expenses. Some agencies do pay a minimum wage but they seem to be in a minority.
10) Interviews: Do take ‘em seriously, if you don’t want this job there are plenty of others that do. Now, I know I sound like your mum here but bear with me, dress the part, clean your shoes, wash your hair and arrive on time. It’s absolutely fine to be nervous but try and be positive too. Bring proof of your skills, written work, clips, references. Demonstrate company, sector and issue knowledge, show you are passionate about our world, prepared to do the admin but hungry for more responsibility. Answer questions honestly and ask strong questions. Enthuse and smile, the person interviewing you may well be the one who will be mentoring you so let them know up front it’s going to be a rewarding experience.