6 habits of highly successful PRs

I’m currently mid-way through delivering the current Taylor Bennett Foundation programme. We’re also about to publish our impact report, which spells out in stark figures the outcomes we’ve achieved over the past nine years including this astonishing statistic: 93% of our alumni are employed – 81% of which are working in PR & communications. That’s pretty good going.

Employers tell us that they like to hire our grads because they’re ready for work. They understand what it takes to be a professional person – that turning up on time and meeting deadlines is important, that accepting (and acknowledging) criticism is a vital part of self-development and that giving credit to others when it’s due is not only polite, but makes them a nice person to work with.

Sadly, not everyone can get a place on a TBF programme; we only have the capacity to take 24 graduates a year at the moment. But what we teach at the Foundation is useful for all graduates (and non-grads!) looking to enter the industry.

In fact, much of what we give as advice is applicable no matter what stage of your career you’re at so I thought I’d share some of the guiding principles we base our programme on.

Read (and write)

In the 2016 CIPR State of the Profession report employers listed the top ten skills they want in entry-level PRs. Writing was so important it featured on the list twice – traditional writing and social/digital writing. Also on that list was a knowledge of current affairs and to get that, you need to read – a lot. At the Foundation we push both these skills hard. Trainees have to read at least one newspaper every day and summarise the top stories. The newspaper they read changes on a weekly basis so that by the end of the 10-week programme they have a good overview of current affairs and a grasp of different print media across a range of broadsheets and tabloids. Plus, they learn pretty quickly how to summarise lengthy articles into snippets of information – useful when they’re heading into careers where they’re going to have to summarise coverage for their clients.

We also ask them to write weekly opinion pieces on various subjects including PR blogger and publications, diversity in the industry, what professionalism is and a recent PR crisis and their analysis of how it was handled.  The trainees get detailed feedback on those pieces of writing from our English tutor and even those who thought they were fairly good writers to start with learn an enormous amount from him.

Punctuality and time management

This is a major sticking point for many employers. If someone is consistently five minutes late for work every day no matter how good the quality of their work is, you can guarantee their manager is going to focus on their timekeeping.  Similarly, people who miss deadlines or are afraid to ask for help when they need to get a job done quickly become a drain on a team.

We set our trainees weekly tasks that they must complete and submit by 10am every Monday morning including the news summaries and opinion pieces I’ve already mentioned. They also have to complete a weekly feedback form as it’s a good discipline to keep a note of what they’ve learned and the sponsoring PR agency also set them a task each week – typically a presentation or a debate.

Most of their week is taken up either in training sessions or on visits to various PR agencies and in-house comms teams so they have to fit all the work they’re given in around those. It’s high-pressure and, sometimes, we throw them an extra task at the last minute to keep them thinking on their feet. You might think that’s mean (and I’m sure they do too) but it teaches them that this is what work is like – sometimes you don’t get a week of notice that you’re going to have to pitch for a client and you need to rally round as a team to get the job done. If they miss a deadline, I have been known to move it from 10am on Monday morning to 5pm the previous Friday.  I am not very popular when I do that but they never miss another deadline and learn to manage their time extremely effectively.

When we asked our alumni what they got most out of the programme ‘learning to be organised’ was high on the list.  It’s tough going, but they appreciated they’re being set up to be really effective members of a team – and employers like them for it.

Saying thank you

Nothing makes you stand out more than saying thank you. Being able to build a network is such an important part of being a PR and saying ‘thank you’ effectively is a really simple way to do that. We encourage all our trainees to sign up to social networks, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn, and to thank people publicly when they’re given their time. We also insist that they send hand written thank you cards to all the people and organisations that host visits or are guest speakers on the programme. As part of that, I also send the trainees’ feedback to the visit hosts and speakers along with my own thanks and that of our whole team.

You might think that’s overkill, but we appreciate that people have given us their time (and in some cases, their money) and our programme would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for their generosity. Hosts often write back to me and say ‘we received a really lovely thank you card from your trainees, it was so lovely to receive it’. It makes the trainees stand out and if you’re looking to enter PR you can do something similar.

Every time you go to a lecture and hear a guest speaker, or someone gives you some advice, or you go for a job interview (even if you don’t get the job) send a thank you. You will be much more memorable and besides, it’s just a really nice thing to do.

Giving and receiving feedback

Graduates love feedback. Actually, what they really love is measurable feedback – like receiving a grade – but we don’t do that at the Foundation.  In your working life your work doesn’t get a score from A – D but for graduates who have spent the vast majority of their life being measured in that way, it can be tough to make the transition. We overcome that by giving some very structured feedback – for example the tuition from our English tutor and guidance on their CVs and covering letters from me, our Programme Manager and the trainees’ mentors. It’s a 10-week programme and from week four we push them to start applying for jobs. As part of that, we offer them personal development sessions to talk through their career plans and to help them with applications.

The sponsoring PR agency (MHP, Brunswick and Finsbury in 2016) and Taylor Bennett also give each of the trainees a mentor each so there’s plenty of people to offer feedback on their performance and at the end of our programme Golin sponsors a mentoring programme for their first year or so in the industry. In week 7 we also give them a formal appraisal – which is a taster of what an appraisal at work might include.  Our feedback is honest and constructive and, sometimes, much more forceful than an employer might give them as it’s our chance to make sure they’re aware of any issues and have a chance to address them before they head off into jobs.

We try very hard to teach them how to receive critical feedback and act on it without taking it as a personal attack.  In order to do that, we make them give feedback to each other.  In week one, they have to each deliver a presentation and critique each other.  As part of the appraisals they have to appraise themselves, and all their fellow trainees.  When they read their own feedback they then appreciate that critiquing other people in a constructive way is a skill in itself, and just as they tried to be fair and helpful, so did the people who were providing feedback on them. It’s incredibly effective.

A positive attitude

Nothing is more draining than someone who moans all the time. As part of the assessment day for the Foundation the candidates are left in a holding room between assessment exercises, and one of our team sits in with them. Partly, that’s so she can manage the logistics and answer any questions they may have. Partly, it’s to spot anyone who may be difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis when they’re more relaxed and not sat in front of assessors. I can think of at least two candidates who performed well in front of assessors, but spent the whole day moaning to our team member that the room was too hot, the lunch wasn’t enough, the day was taking too long and so on that we didn’t take them on the programme.

The thought of having to deal with someone being so negative for ten whole weeks was too much for us to bear. When they write their weekly feedback we ask them to pick out the positive experiences they’ve had and give constructive criticism on things they feel could’ve been improved. This has helped us hone the programme over the last decade (it’s a much better programme than it was in 2008!) and it helps them to find the positive in everything – even the things they haven’t enjoyed doing. Working with positive people is much more enjoyable so if you find you can’t find the joy in your work you need to find a way to turn it around.

Sharing success and giving back

Just as many, many PR professionals give their time to the Foundation we ask that our alumni do the same. Each cohort interviews a previous alumni which helps them build a network of alumni and gives the alumni a chance to share their experiences of the programme and their working life. We also hold welcome drinks for the newest trainees and the alumni come along to those.

They go to universities to speak on our behalf, they sit on our shadow board and they spread the news when we’re recruiting for the next batch of trainees (we’re recruiting right now, by the way).  We encourage them to stay in touch with each other, and with the people they’ve met during their time on the programme.

The lack of BAME role models in PR is often cited as one of the reason for the lack of diversity in the industry so we’re keen to create some role models and encourage more BAME graduates to consider it as a career.

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Sarah Stimson has over 10 years of PR training, writing and recruitment experience. During that time she placed people in jobs both in PR agencies and in-house communications teams from entry level all the way up to the most senior roles. Most recently she has concentrated on helping graduates enter the PR profession in the UK and is currently the Chief Executive of the Taylor Bennett Foundation; a charity dedicated to improving diversity in the PR industry.

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