Futuristic digital man, recovering PR guy, magic beansman, aspiring know-it-all. Chief Strategy Officer at Northern Army. More...

Starting out in PR

Last week, I spent a few hours talking to the students of the faculty of communications at Carleton University about public relations, web strategy and getting a job.  The night was segmented into six half-hour round tables, so while most of what I said started to blur together by hour two, I found myself answering a lot of the same questions.  So, in the interest of helping out those just embarking on their career in PR, I thought I’d summarize what I said, in a much less rambling fashion.

  • Right out of university, think “career” not “job.” You’ll be tempted to go for the highest paying job right out of school, but look farther than salary when you’re considering where to work.  Your first few years out of school is a time to invest in your experience.  You can come out of it with a few bucks more, or you can come out of it with a marketable skill set that can ultimately earn you more.  If it’s between a job that doesn’t pay well but offers a lot of experience and a job that pays more but makes you a glorified file clerk, take the lower pay.  It doesn’t seem like it, but you’ll be that much closer to that big paycheque.
  • Experience trumps education. Almost everyone that night asked me if they should take a PR certificate.  My answer?  Those programs are often very good, but they’ll set you back two to three years, and ten to fifteen grand without guaranteeing you anything.  Education is important, but if you already have a degree, commit to learning on your own.  Read voraciously, and do everything you can to get more experience – volunteer, intern, or start something of your own.  Personally, I would hire someone who has actual experience over someone with a few more years of college any day.
  • If you can’t write, you’re useless to me. Blunt, perhaps, but it’s the truth.  If you’re starting out in PR, you should be writing as much as you possibly can, whether it’s in a personal journal, a novel or a blog.  You need to learn how to write like a journalist, like an advertiser, like a CEO and like an engineer.  A good PR writer has no writing style – he or she can adapt to the situation seamlessly.  The only way to get there is through practice.  As my thesis advisor was fond of saying “the first million words is the hardest.”
  • Network. Find out the events that are going on and go to them.  Find out who’s an expert on what you’re interested in and follow them.  Meet people, but don’t do it looking for a job – do it to learn.
  • Don’t stop learning. 90% of the job of working at an agency is the ability to learn.  When I was starting out, I had to go from being an expert on export tariffs to hospital staffing to carpet off-gassing emissions in a single day.  You need to take subjects you know nothing about and become an expert on them quickly, and the only way to do that is to be good at learning.

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  1. Well said, Ryan. I'd add a bit to the network thing though and say network but don't try to grow your network for the sake of growing it. Learning is important, as you said, but so is patience. A lot of people want to get hundreds of followers and LinkedIn connections right way. That's time better spent building the body of experience that you referred to.

  2. I agree completely. Though, the nice thing about Twitter is you can network passively – connect with people you're interested in and follow what they're doing, and reactivate the connection later when you're at the same conference, etc. Again, patience is key.

  3. Great tips Ryan, I want to comment on two of your points:

    1. Low paying exp. vs high paying irrelevance. Yes! Agreed completely and walking proof: I was pretty humbled to graduate top of my class but get one of the lowest paying jobs (of the people I spoke to at least) However, my first month at that job I planned and executed a customer appreciation event start to finish. I also got into social media before most of my colleagues knew what it was and was allowed to write under my own name which helped me get it out there. I'm tremendously thankful that I took that job and still miss it dearly (the company was acquired)

    2. Experience vs. Education: I want to plug the Algonquin PR program here because while it covered all the necessary theoretical and skills development side of PR, the focus on the program is hands-on, practical experience. It also strongly encourages students to build a network, volunteer and launch into their careers with a lot of experience under the belt. Again I'm super grateful that I took it and (as you may have noticed) have become a huge advocate for it.

    • 2; I agree that the PR Program at Algonquin is the best course I’ve ever enrolled in. Upon graduation, I found a wonderful and rewarding communication’s job in the environmental field where I practiced PR for twenty years.

  4. Totally agree, we’ve put together a quick “test” to see if people are right for a career in PR. It’s more a bit of fun that anything, but it might help… http://blog.prmoment.com/am-i-right-for-pr/