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Advice for PR and CorpComms grads

Image: istockphoto.com

Image: istockphoto.com

I received this tweet yesterday from @AntoineSarpong in the PR program at Centennial College. 

Antoinette Tweet Media Training Toronto.png

Getting that first job in your chosen profession can be a big source of anxiety. I wanted to reply with something a bit longer than 140 characters. So here, in good old long form, is my advice for the PR and corporate communications grads of 2013: 

Become a great writer

If your PR/communications career was a house, writing would be its foundation.

There isn't any aspect of your PR/communications career that won't benefit from stronger writing skills. Whether you're creating a media pitch, news release, communications plan, key messages, matte story, speech, web copy, Facebook update or a blog post -- strong writing skills will help set you apart from the crowd. If your writing skills are weak, you risk losing projects, clients ... maybe even your job. 

There are only two ways to get better at writing.

1. Read a lot, and

2. Write a lot.

Read a well-written article? Save it in a 'great writing' folder for future inspiration. Go out of your way to make sure your copy is crisp, compelling and mistake-free. Proofread multiple times. Have a friend or co-worker read and critique it before you submit it. Be your own ruthless editor.

Purchase the style guide your agency or employer recommends. Refer to it often. Learn the difference between 'you're & your', 'they're, their and there', etc. Steer clear of buzzwords and jargon. Spell out acronyms.

Write copy that a 12-year-old or a grandmother can understand. If NASA can do it about a Mars rover mission, you can do it about your client's new household cleaning product. 

Becoming an exceptional writer is a long, hard process. But the time you invest in this pursuit today will pay dividends for decades to come.

Work at an agency

If you have the chance, work at a PR or communications agency. It's the fastest way to learn about many aspects of the business in a short period of time. You'll be able to work with clients in a broad range of industries. You'll also have a chance to learn about different aspects of communications, including media relations, crisis communications, internal communications, social media, event planning and more.  

Working for one year in an agency is like working for three years on the client side. Nothing compares to the fast-paced environment of an agency when it comes to learning opportunities. An agency job will also provide you with a chance to experiment with different aspects of the profession and see what you like best (or least). And if you're considering working for yourself at some point, an agency job can teach you about the business aspects, such as billing, marketing and office management. 

Don't be afraid to work for free

It's hard to get a job without experience. And it's hard to get experience without a job. There are a few ways to short circuit this dilemma, however. One is through co-op placements that many schools provide.

The other is by working for free.

I know this is a controversial topic these days and I'm probably going to take some heat on this oneI also know that when you're graduating, money is tight. But ask yourself the following question:

"Would you rather spend your job-hunting time sitting around your apartment waiting for the phone to ring? Or getting some valuable experience, testimonials, references and connections while providing your services on a volunteer basis?" 

Working for free should never be 'Plan A'. But if you're getting frustrated with the job hunt, what do you have to lose? There are a few benefits to working for free for a limited period of time:

  • You may have a chance to work for a company that otherwise might not have considered you. 
  • The experience you get will look impressive to potential employers, perhaps giving you an edge over the competition.
  • And if you work your face off and make a great impression, they may hire you.

The 'work for free' strategy is not for the faint-of-heart. Be prepared to find yourself grinding your teeth as you drift off to sleep each night. I did the 'work for free' thing when I graduated in the early 1990s. The job market was terrible. I was looking to land a communications job with a professional sports team. I eventually talked my way into an interview with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The President of the team offered me the job but said he couldn't pay me (the team was on the brink of bankruptcy). Instead of a salary, however, he offered to provide me with a parking pass, two tickets to every home game, access to a wide variety of projects and weekly mentoring sessions with him.

Cash was tight that summer. I stayed at a friend's house. I paid my bills with a Visa card. But I was working in the front office of a sports team. I got some great experience writing executive correspondence, news releases and speeches for the President. At the end of each week, this incredibly busy guy would also set aside half an hour to mentor me. 

After two months, with my credit card maxed out, I interviewed for a communications position in Toronto. The woman who hired me said my stint with the football team was the main reason she hired me. She said that if I was willing to work that hard for free, she wanted to see what I could do in a paying position.

That job was my entry into the world of corporate communications. And it might not have happened if I hadn't worked for a football team all summer for free. 

Be persistent

Be tenacious in pursuit of your goals. Keep your chin up and don't be deterred by setbacks. Eventually, you will achieve your objectives. 

It took seven years to get the first project from a woman who is now one of my best clients. Every six months, I would send a brief, polite pitch email. I refused to be discouraged when she didn't reply or when she said she wasn't looking for any new writers. I would simply mark a new date in my calendar six months down the road to touch base with her again. 

The funny thing? Years later, she told me she didn't even remember all those emails. She had even asked me after one project, "Where have you been all these years when we could have used you?" Half-jokingly, I said, "Check your deleted emails folder."

If I had stopped approaching her after five or six years, I would have missed out on a great client relationship.

As Babe Ruth once said: "It's hard to beat someone who never gives up."

Buy 'thank you' cards. Lots of them.

To many, the idea of sending a note or card is as antiquated as the rotary phone. A handwritten thank you card can be a powerful thing. Go to a decent stationary store and invest in a few dozen high-quality thank you cards. Then, look for opportunities to send them out.

  • Just had a job interview? Send thank you cards to the members of the interviewing panel.
  • Your college professor wrote a testimonial on your LinkedIn page? Thank you card!
  • Someone in the industry took half an hour to have a coffee with you to give you some career tips? Thank you card!
  • The doorman in your building helped you carry that heavy package? Thank you card!

A thank you card conveys gratitude. But it also conveys so much more. And so few people (other than Jimmy Fallon, of course) are sending them these days that it's a really effective way to set yourself apart. 

Give your social media accounts a career-minded checkup

I get a few dozen emails each year from people looking for jobs or internships. Invariably (after scanning their email for spelling mistakes), I will check out their social accounts. I'm not looking for numbers of followers. I'm looking for how they present themselves online.

A few years ago, I received an email from a person looking for a job. They described their education and work experience in a concise, engaging way. This individual sounded smart, energetic and motivated. Their LinkedIn page was decent. Twitter profile too. It was the Facebook page that killed the deal. The cover photo was this person at an outdoor concert, covered in tattoos and chugging a beer while someone was riding on their back. 

I realize Facebook is a personal platform. And I enjoy fun as much as the next person. I don't have anything against music, tattoos, beer or piggyback rides. But as a prospective employer, how can I not have some reservations about someone who is looking to represent my company and clients and doesn't have the presence of mind to adjust their privacy settings on their social accounts?  

Is that fair? Maybe not. But employers are often looking for a reason to hit the delete key. Don't give it to them. First impressions are important. And today, those first impressions are almost always via social media. So do an audit of your social accounts. Make sure you're putting your best foot forward. What messages are you sending with your LinkedIn profile? Your Twitter background? The content you're posting? And make sure you adjust your Facebook privacy settings accordingly.


This is by no means an exhaustive list. I could write on this topic for days. But let's face it, people have short attention spans these days and many readers probably checked out when I was talking about reading a lot and writing a lot. If I had to add to this list, however, I would include things like: demand excellence in your own work, make your resume and cover letter stand out, don't be afraid to put in long days at the office (especially early in your career), be a team player, always give clients a bit more than they're expecting, take deadlines seriously, the one person you need to please is your boss/manager/client, don't be afraid to change jobs every two years or so (until you find one that truly fulfills you) and don't change jobs for less than a 10% increase in salary. 

To the grads of 2013, congratulations. I hope this list is of some use. And if anyone else has tips they'd like to share, please include them in the comments below.