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 Marcel 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.
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.
Sam Howard lives to regret and for that at least she is grateful…
In its latest initiative to bridge the diversity gap, the CIPR is to go into secondary schools to explain what a career in PR entails. On the back of my work with The Taylor Bennett Foundation, and USC Annenberg, I’ll be looking to lend a hand. Odd how things turn out – given that my first ever careers’ talk was possibly a tad off message…
Admittedly the weekend before the gig, it did occur to me that possibly the standard company creds deck, designed to impress your most hard bitten city type, didn’t have quite the right content nor tone for a ten year old from an underprivileged, wildly diverse school in Neasden. But either I built a deck from scratch which would take a couple of days and I would never use it again, or I could just make it up as I went along, after all, what would they know? My talk was scheduled for Thursday.Although not entirely sure of my proffesion, my son’s primary school knew I rushed around a lot, shouted into my phone, and muttered darkly about jet lag. And so the headmistress made inquiries as to what it was that was so important, I had yet to attend a single cake sale. On discovering it was comms, she offered me a slot on careers’ week, saying it would, ‘make a nice change’. I love public speaking me, so penciled it in without a thought.
On Monday, Elliot was, buzzin’. A midwife had kept them enthralled with heart-warming tales of delivering babies, saving lives and what not. “How super!” I said, though this midwife person sounded like bit of a show off to me.On Tuesday, when I picked him up, he was equally full of it. The local policemen had visited with his dog, Blaze, who by all accounts was a magnificent beastie. “Hasn’t he got better things to do?” I miffed, as Elliot noted I was doing 35 in a 30 and that technically he should make a citizen’s arrest right there and then.
On Wednesday, a bloody bastard fireman rocked up.
“Perhaps I should bring in my awards,” I wondered out loud.
“He parked his fire engine in the playground,” said Elli cheerfully, “Let us climb all over it.”
“That’s cheating!” I howled in dismay.
My boy looked at me levelly. “Yep. You’re really up against it now Mum.”
Now, I know at this point, I could have built a deck that talked earnestly about reputation management and CSR. But people, my back was against the wall here and besides my kid was in the audience. That night I dug deep for inspiration and the shiny new deck, was unlike any other deck I have ever built before or after, and ready in the early hours of Thursday morning.
And so it was that I sashayed into that classroom dressed for a full on six-way City pitch. I cast a disdainful eye over my charges.
“So, I hear you’ve met a mid-wife, a policemen and a fireman already. Was it just great hearing about how all those clever, kind and brave people have dedicated their lives to helping others?” And they chorused that it was, it really really was.
“Well I can tell you now,” I said fixing them with a steely gaze.
“I don’t do anything like that at all.” An attentive hush seeped through the room.
“What I do, is a very, very TERRIBLE thing.” There was a collective intake of breath.
“You see,” I said archly as I span neatly on my highest heels and began to pace the room. “I work for the dark side.”
I had them.
“What I do is make MONEY – by helping other people make MONEY. Lots AND lots of it.” The headmistress actually seemed to be sliding down the wall, but the kids, they were on the edge of their seats…An adrenalin-fueled hour later, sharing a celebratory MacDonald’s with the boy, he passed his judgment.
“I liked the bit when you talked about trainers and celebrity endorsement and brand advocacy. Like, who knew there was no such thing as free will.” And he munched on his onion rings reflectively.Looking at me with a sly pride he pronounced, “You did good mum, you did good.”
Though strangely I was never invited back…
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.