“Well don’t believe in people who say it’s all been done,
They have time to talk because their race is run”
The day after my last college final, I packed up everything I owned, drove a sputtering car six hours and started work doing communications for a state-wide political campaign in Sacramento. That Monday began 22 years of experiences.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many people smarter than me; seen remarkable transformation in how communications is done (my first job was pre-email) and made and learned from thousands of mistakes big and small.
Here’s my scattershot advice for new graduates, anyone else looking enter into the public relations industry or those wanting to change their path from within it:
- Your timing is great. But hurry. Marketing and communications is about to go through its biggest transformation and disruption ever. Walls are going to be broken down between traditional marketing, advertising, and PR as social and digital trends agitate and then force change. Money will shift. New winners will be crowned.
Where to work
- Get your tail to San Francisco. Man, there are so many interesting things happening here right now — from consumer Internet stuff to far, far beyond — and so many of them are looking for communications support. Yes, there will be boom and bust cycles. I’ve worked through several of them. But, out of dynamism comes opportunity who doesn’t get caught up in over-optimism or gloom. Get in at the ground floor and make the most of every second of any chance that you get. It will be a lesson that will pay off for decades to come. If you can’t get in at a company, there are plenty of PR, digital and marketing firms who are looking for help. Worst case scenario is a year in San Francisco.
- Work on a political campaign. Nothing quite focuses you like an election day. And because of this, campaigns are generally fairly innovative and proactive creatures along with being tests of stamina and discipline. You can learn as much on a six-month campaign as you would learn in a few years at a big company.
- Don’t work in a big conglomerate agency. Hey, some of my best friends are in big agencies. But they are mostly old like me and a big agency is the right step in their current career phase. But, in one big over-generalization, if you have a choice, I don’t think it’s the right step for you. Here’s why: Junior folks at big agencies are commoditized profit centers. Their low comp structure combined with their high billablity (the amount of time you spend on client work) and relatively high hourly rates goes a long way in satisfying regional profit and loss statements and, ultimately, shareholder interests. I personally don’t think this creates the optimal environment for professional development. And, despite their sidecar digital and social media efforts, I don’t believe that big agencies are as well-positioned to take advantage of the coming disruptions in the industry as others. Yes, you will learn things from working at a big agency — especially if you are a street-smart type and/or had the opportunity to master the system at a big public university. I, for one, learned that it wasn’t for me.
- Don’t work in PR to eventually work in communications. You can chose a first or new job that covers an important facet of emerging communications and marketing but isn’t at a PR firm or for a corporate comms team at a company. At Twitter we hired a fantastic guy who’s primary experience was working as an intern at an ad agency and who understood how to bring social, video and guerrilla marketing elements to the table.
- Treat your first (or next) job as a step toward your dream job. Along the lines of the above, know what you ultimately want and make it a criteria of your first (or next) job to contain a tangible element that helps you get there. As you make further career steps, build out these experiences until you ultimately have everything needed to get your dream job. Don’t go sideways or backwards but realize that once you get your dream job you many rinse and repeat this process.
Once you get the job
- Trust your instincts and provide succinct recommendations. I once worked with a nationally-known consultant who has been a key player on presidential campaigns. When we were teaming on providing strategy to a client, I would often give long, analytical answers that brilliantly covered every possibly angle of a situation and provided a winding path to success. I would get some positive murmurs and that was about it. This guy would turn my monlogue into a bumper sticker; say it loudly and pound his fist. The room would erupt in agreement. My initial reaction was that my colleague dumbed things down. But, he really didn’t. He took a solid strategy and sold it in the only way that would allow it to move forward. As you move higher up the ladder in working with busy people and places, you, ironically, have less time to provide thoughtful strategy. Learn to be simple, sharp and don’t equivocate. (This is a lesson that I will always continue to work on in my career).
- The easiest advice ever: Tell the truth. Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about PR is that practitioners are professional liars at worse and masters of obfuscation at best. A good comms person knows that truths are the most powerful messaging and doesn’t back down when seeking them within an organization.
- Write well. This takes practice and repeatedly asking for advice and help. Do these things. You will always have a good job if you can apply quality writing to sound strategy.
- Don’t work with assholes. Ever. This is a good rule for any industry and life in general. But, it’s really important in your job. Unlike, say, law or finance, assholes tend not to be good at PR even if they are in a position of power. Working with assholes — be they your boss, clients or peers — twists your perspective on the right thing to do and eventually makes you hate your job. Keep your perspective and deal with the issue quickly and forthrightly. You’ll be respected for it. Even better, you’ll respect yourself for it.
- Relationships are not built on schmoozing. It’s a schmoozy industry but don’t let it pull you in. Spend quality time getting to know an interesting colleague, a reporter or someone you respect and do it with no agenda in mind. Spend very little time glad-handing. You’ll be amazed by the meaningful contacts that you can make when you aren’t keeping score.
- Reporters will complain about what you do. Or, rather, what some of your peers do. These complaints will revolve around two categories: Giving them unwanted information and not giving them (and only them) wanted information. Learn how to not do the former and that you will never be able to fully please on the latter. Even better, challenge old constructs of media relations and begin to adapt them for a more open, transparent, and fast-moving world. Treat discussions of things like “embargoes” and “press releases” as if they were conversations about cigarettes being a wise complement to dieting.
- The industry is insecure. Don’t be. The only thing worse than ad hominem attacks on PR is the cycles of self-hating that come from it. Separate helpful lessons from navel gazing and quickly move on.
- Don’t try to define PR. This is related to the above. Remarkably, there are all many people in the industry who spend a lot of time worrying about the definition of PR and work to come up with something “measurable” and “actionable” that gets them a “seat at the table.” Another great way to get a seat at this proverbial table is to do a really good job and not care about definitions. In fact, the more you set parameters about what you do and can do, the harder it will be to evolve your role as all things marketing change. You are better off not knowing what PR is supposed to be and simply doing whatever needs to be done to be successful.
- You own the future. I don’t. I’m pretty good around The Twitters and other social media whatnots, but I’ll never be a digital native. (I used something called “microfiche” to research my college papers). Don’t take this standing for granted. You need to aggressively keep aware of both technological and marketing trends that impact communications, teach yourself about new tools and techniques and, most importantly, get solid context on what’s a passing fad or a waste of time and what actually will leapfrog what others my age are spouting off about. What’s critical is that you learn to do things that your boss (or even your peers) either can’t do or doesn’t have time/inclination to do.
You’ve picked a great career path. Stick with it. Once you get past some of the most mind-numbing entry-level stuff, it gets interesting and it stays that way as long as you keep your perspective on right and wrong, keep reinventing yourself and speak-up.