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!
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.
Sam Howard On how the right career will find you, regardless of how hard you try to cram you curves into that square box.
I’ve been to a couple of reunions recently. The first, a writers’ group that we formed about fifteen years ago when I was still collecting my boss’s dry cleaning. The second, a work reunion of some five years’ back when I was a programme director and about to hurtle through several glass ceilings.
What hit me at both events was the way we had all progressed or should that be digressed…E.g. Writer mate 15 years ago – working for the council, now runs his own charity helping other charities set up social enterprises. Another writer mate 15 years ago – a highly ambitious, bright young thing, already head of comms for a funky major brand. Now a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University. On the work front, a smart account manager I once hired who went on to head up a division at a rival agency, now follows the sun around the globe, to practice yoga on mountain tops. While my boss at that time, now writes tech copy from a caravan in his back garden and is very much in demand…
In my tiny survey of ten friends, 20% were pretty much where we had left them, having accumulated mortgages, pets, partners and babies along the way, 20% had straight-arrowed in terms of career path and were kindly paying for more than their fair share of the drinks, but a whopping 60% had done some weird tangential or perverse U-turn in terms of their career. What did we have in common? We were all pretty pleased with our lot.
So what can I conclude from my poll? That I am and always have been attracted to eccentrics? True. But also, in time you’ll end up where you are supposed to be, no matter how much you conform to someone else’s or even your own image of what you should be ‘doing with your life’.
Our brains are muscles and we can train them to do anything if we have to, if we want it badly enough. But at the same time we all have some natural talents and some natural aversions. So is it any surprise, that among my reunited friends the cool tech heads are now suited and booted swanning round The City; us big risk takers are all working for ourselves careening form one inspired moment to one unmitigated disaster; the expressives are now pursuing harmonious lives that makes ethical sense; and the structured organisers are going about their lives in some semblance of order, focused on the job in hand and taking no small satisfaction in that.
It seems eventually you do gravitate to roles that tap into your natural talents and spare you the pain of shining a high beam on your weak spots. Very few of us seem lucky enough to land in the right place, right away. But take heart in knowing, that unlike the quest for a soul mate, your ‘soul role’ actually is out there somewhere, and it will find you.
Going for goals is great, but investing in experience is not to be sniffed at. Fast track, meandering, or blind leaps of faith, which career path is the one for you?
When I was a child in the 70’s, I had one ambition, to be on The Michael Parkinson Show. I saw myself, sitting in that chair regaling Michael with my stories, taking the occasional sip of water allowing for the audience laughter to die down, as Michael crinkled his twinkly eyes in appreciation of my charm and self depreciating wit.Why I would be on Michael Parkinson in the first place, I was less sure. All my little friends at that time wanted to be ballerinas, since I wasn’t even little, let alone attending dance classes, I wasn’t sure that was my ticket. A vet? I had a love of all things furry and school was easy. But would Michael want to talk to a vet? Didn’t James Herriot have the celebrity vet market all sewn up? An artist then? I was ever so arty by nature, my father despaired of me. But wouldn’t I only be interview-worthy after I was dead? Or at least on a nodding acquaintance with heroin? Seemed like a high price to pay. A model, then, I was long enough and who knew what I might look like once I got rid of the brace, the glasses, the knock knees? Even at my tender age, it seemed like a bit of an outside bet…
As it was, I tumbled through my education and my career. Sometimes landing on the balls of my feet like a magician’s assistant with a wide, star-struck smile, making the most of the opportunities that came my way. Other times I landed on my backside accompanied by my own howls of dismay as I blundered my way through roles that were clearly designed with someone/anyone else in mind. By the time I’d ‘arrived’in the world of comms, Michael had left the building.
But now bright young things have a Masters in PR by the time they are 24, they already know their preferred sector, and whether to go agency of in-house. Many have immovable career markers to hit every couple of years that usually include being an account director before they are 27 and they work with an unholy commitment to make sure that is so. Having worked with a number of such focused individuals I can testify that they share a drive which is genuine. They are still prepared to work hard from the bottom up, but in a very straight line. No tangential wondering for this next generation communicators.
Not that I can complain really, having an open, ‘how hard can it be?’ attitude to my career fared me well enough, I took the scenic route leaving home when i was 17, finding a live in job as a nanny, then answering an add in the classifieds to wrap presents all day, which lead to being a merchandiser, which lead to an exec training scheme which lead to retail management in a very posh shop, which lead to becoming a flower buyer, and then a hamper buyer. Then I took some time off and became a market stall holder and a volunteer. Then I ran out of money and went into project management which evolved into PR – my forever role.
In PR the pace is fast and the situation changes every day, which matches my attention span perfectly. It appears that I thrive on change. The subject matter ( B2B tech/financial services) is challenging and difficult, the people are whip smart and grounded, the projects demand strategic thinking and creative implementation. I fared well, ended up fronting a big PR division in London and New York, lots of clients, big team, lots of money, fancy job title. So yes I got’ there’ in the end. Meanwhile a friend and a straight shooter kind guys having hit all his career markers through to his mid 30’s, then chucked the whole lot in to go and be a janitor in an ashram.
I reckon we’d both have Michael wiping away the tears from his mirthful eyes.
PRs invented hype, they don’t need to read it in your CV.
When I was in LA, I fell into conversation with a stranger who by way of asking me the New York question, “So, what do you do?” instead asked, “So, are you an artist?”
Isn’t that great? His take was to assume I was somebody until I proved I wasn’t. How very LA. Here I think it’s safer to assume the opposite, especially in PR.
PRs by nature have to be among the most cynical, of course they don’t believe the hype – they wrote it. So maybe a more grounded approach to your PR CV might cut through the traffic.I read about an experiment ages ago, two identical CVs were circulated. The only difference being that one CV had a flaw, can’t remember what the flaw was now, maybe the person had been fired out of a job or something. Anyway the result was startling; the CV with the flaw was called up for way more interviews than its perfect counterpart. Reasons being:
FLAWS = TRUTH
PERFECTION = LIES
To me a strong CV, like any good narrative ‘shows’ not ‘tells’. I read a LinkedIn profile the other day that began, ‘I am an exceptionally talented leader…” I can’t tell you any more I hit the back button.
God-like statements of self-belief are great for The Apprentice but seem to resonate less well when the cameras aren’t running. I mean for all your fabulous attributes, clearly humility isn’t in your chemical mix. Besides you sound like a knob and who wants to work with one of those?
Author, broadcaster and businesswoman, Muriel Grey at the beginning of her career in fashion was advised, “You’ll have to embroider your CV.”
Her response was, “But that will take ages!”
Indeed, but at least it would have been more compelling than your standard puff piece that so many feel compelled to write.
Sam Howard asked a question of the UK Technology Journalists and PR Group on LinkedIn – what makes a great PR? One word answers only.
At the time I wrote this I’d had 41 answers from presumably a random selection of PRs. Having turned freelance only weeks ago I have some time on my hands so I tidied it up a bit and here’s a word cloud of how it looked…
If you add to ‘determined’ ‘resilient’ and ‘resourceful’ you’re looking at about a third of the vote. Seems we are just as well-suited to being long distance runners, a mountain climbers, swimming the channel or something else equally draining. ‘Strategic’ always a good one, gets a double name check, as does ‘personable’ and ‘creativity’, my own guilty pleasure.
Not sure about ‘magical’ myself, but I guess if you are the rest of it is easy.
But the one for me is ‘credible’. To be credible in front of your clients, your journalists, your team and your management generates trust, mutual respect and a sustainable reputation. After 16 years in this industry, my integrity, if not my ego is just about intact. Doesn’t mean I was ever the most popular girl in the room, and I was certainly an acquired taste among our clients, some of which we thought it best if I never met. But, as I used to whimper when I’d lock myself in the bathroom, “I’m not paid to be popular”.
Actually once you let go of the vague hope of ever being popular, it is quite liberating. Give it a go if you haven’t already.