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On working with the brains you’ve got

18/11/2011

Sam Howard proposes you stop dwellling on what you can’t do and make sure you tap into what you can…

Tim France

if the suit fits…

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?


Searching for your soul role

21/10/2011

Sam Howard On how the right career will find you, regardless of how hard you try to cram you curves into that square box.

Moby’s just found his soul mate, a boy that spills his food.

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.


Ten tips for securing a PR internship

17/06/2011

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? 

furry hats – hardly ever a good idea

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.


“I coulda been a contender” sooner or later – the merits of a meandering career path

27/03/2011

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? 

tortoise or hare which approach is best? depends heavily on if your a tortoise or a hare I guess

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.


The merits of a grounded CV

28/02/2011

I bring a wealth of leadership experience and I can tie my own tie.

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.


Determined to be in PR? That’s handy

04/02/2011

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.