I frequently give informational interviews to future public relations professionals looking for a bit of direction in their new career. I’m not sure if word got around that I almost always find time to mentor or if the trajectory of my own career appeals to amateur media wranglers but I keep receiving requests to chat.
No matter which soon-to-be graduate or mid-life job shifter sits across from me I always have the same advice: start at an agency. That may sound odd from someone who thoroughly enjoys in-house communications roles but by working at, drafting RFPs for, retaining, and yes, even firing agencies, I learned how to be a better communicator. It all started with practicing the basics. Let me explain why.
Write, Write, and Write Some More
If you are considering making public relations your career you better like writing. Sure you’ll be recording and cutting video or clicking away on your digital camera at times but writing remains the backbone of public relations. At an agency you’ll be assigned to multiple clients all with various drafting needs including releases, social media posts, Op-Eds, white papers, and so forth. Writing multiple releases a day while also drafting a few blog posts may give you onset carpal tunnel but it’s worth it. Cranking out copy and having it marked up so that only three words remain is how you become a better writer. Soon you will learn how to put your voice in the background and write in specific tones for your clients, your bosses, and eventually the media.
My least favorite part of agency life that I am most grateful for having done is drafting pitches. I have not drafted a formal pitch in years thanks to these experiences. That sounds a little contradictory but let me explain.
The pitches are the little notes you send along to the media to accompany whatever release, alert, or advisory you created. While usually short and to the point these little bits of copy can be all that separate your story from being read or ignored. Each one is the hook or teaser to draw the reporter in further and I used to fail miserably at these when I started out for one reason – I couldn’t see what the news really was.
Drafting pitches will help you understand what the heart of the matter is and how to speak about it succinctly. The process of creating a pitch will eventually take place in your head so that you can draft better releases/alerts, put out more succinct social media posts, provide higher quality conversation with reporters, and generally not get lost in the fluff.
You’ll learn how to be organized at an agency by creating editorial calendars, listing speaking engagements, and assisting with events among other items. However, the most vital public relations creation often left to new or recent hires is the press list. Learning which reporters, bloggers, thought leaders, authors, and news gatherers to approach is not magically bestowed upon you when you are hired. Deciding whom to write to, call, have coffee with, or invite to an event takes research and lots of it.
Every campaign for each client needs a foundation and the press list will be yours. By going through this process of aggregating contacts you’ll better understand each industry and the personalities behind each byline. It includes reading more than you probably ever have before and, come to think of it, really deserves it’s own subhead here along the lines of Reading, Reading, and More Reading. If you write you need to read everything you can get your hands or your eyes on to help your clients.
Life at the Buffet Table
You’ll juggle more than a few clients as I mentioned. The average is usually somewhere from 4-6 with some agencies putting you on less teams as they scout for new business or more clients if they are running low on resources.
By handling multiple clients in various industries, or at least with different products, you’ll be provided with invaluable opportunities to learn what really gets your blood pumping. This is the best way to decide if you want to eventually narrow your focus in one field of expertise or remain a floater, able to move with ease among clients. If you choose to go in-house this will help greatly with juggling different departments and personalities.
Eventually you’ll be asked to help retain new business. This will involve countless meetings, more research, and the creation of presentations at first; ultimately culminating with accompanying your agency for the in-person pitch with perspective clients.
This is a time for fresh ideas and you will soon learn when to speak up and when to listen. Since you may be a PR genius I will not tell you to listen first but if your ideas don’t seem to be met with streamers and confetti you may want to take notes and mull over a few things before opening your mouth.
I hope you like talking to strangers. I was lucky to have been a reporter before going into PR. Approaching people on the street was easy for me so I took quickly to picking up the phone and talking. The hard part is talking with focus.
Every conversation, you’ll learn, has a goal. Sometimes it may be obtaining an interview for a client and other days it may be touching base to see what a reporter is working on. Just remember that whenever you open your mouth or put your fingers to work you’re making a connection that will hopefully last the entirety of your career.
There are many more skills to be learned at an agency that help those starting out to decide if they want to stay or shift in-house. These are the few that left a lasting impression and made me better at my job. What were yours? Drop me a line on Twitter (@brianadamspr) with #AgencySkills.