It was a great pleasure to be invited to deliver a Guest Lecture to students from Middlesex University in Mauritius this week to share my experience on how to build a career in PR.
In this blog, I share my insights on how to kickstart your PR career, based on my international communications experience gained over the last two decades and across three continents.
Tip #1: Be bold – nothing ventured, nothing gained
I recently read an article which suggested that the best way to plan your career was to start by writing your own obituary. Morbid as it sounds, the rationale is that it will give you a laser-like focus on what you intend to have achieved by the end of your career. All you have to do is work backwards to figure out exactly how you are going to get there.
Right now, you are on the starting block of your PR career. What do you have to lose? Nothing whatsoever, particularly in the digital age where you can connect with anyone, anywhere.
Take the example of a friend of mine who runs a pan-African PR firm (you will know who you are if you are reading this!). At the age of 19, she kickstarted her career by contacting Africa’s first music television station to say she was a tri-lingual female and they needed her. They hired her. A few years later she took a similarly bold approach in contacting MTV and became the first African woman VJ on MTV Europe. She has since channelled all of that experience into her PR career. I got my first job in the European Parliament using a similarly bold technique of telling someone that they needed me. Go for it.
Tip #2: A well-crafted motivation letter can take you far
The White House. FBI Headquarters. The Pentagon. These are some of the places which I managed to access, through private tours arranged by a US Congressman from Pennsylvania, who I wrote to from my home in England when I was 22.
I carefully crafted a motivation letter to say that I was passionate about US political communication, which I had been studying, and that I would love to be an intern in his Congressional office in Washington DC to build my knowledge and experience. I added that I would fund it myself (which I did through a hotchpotch of odd jobs). He said yes, and it was a fascinating experience.
As you start your career, you should create a list of target employers, conduct thorough research, and write a tailored motivation letter to the appropriate person at each organisation.
Young graduates often place too much emphasis on their CV and not enough on the covering letter. You should aim to fit your CV onto a single page, which is informative and well-formatted. One of my clients is a recruitment agency which recently published a post saying that the average time period spent by recruiters looking at a CV is “just 5 to 7 seconds”. I think this is a slight exaggeration. I will have normally decided within the first 3 seconds of perusing a CV whether I am interested or not.
Tip #3: Go digital
It’s literally child’s play. I have children of primary school age and there is nothing they find more hilarious than filming each other on their iPads doing stunts on their scooters (one leg up in the air with their tongue out, for example). Once they have worn themselves out, they use an app that they found online (I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of it) to edit all the videos together, add an introductory text and sub-titles and fill in the transitions and special effects. On the one hand I slightly grind my teeth, thinking that I would prefer them to be reading a French book, but on the other I am faintly impressed. This is the shape of things to come.
For those who are on the verge of entering the PR workforce, you simply cannot have enough digital and technical skills. For people like myself, with over 20 years of experience, we are far too busy with client facing issues and management, and even family commitments, to have the wherewithal to start from zero as a techie.
You can be the one to bring that layer of skills and knowledge to edit videos, make suggestions on the SEO strategy, and run the social media accounts.
Tip #4: Learn real world skills outside the PR domain
Much as I am an enthusiastic advocate for the PR profession, you can learn useful real world skills from completely unrelated jobs.
In my first ever job, I learned team management skills when the manager of the supermarket I worked in would spend the day at a wholesaler and would literally give me the keys to run the show (I was 15 and on school holidays). I learned how to hold my nerve in the face of the unexpected when I was working in a mental health institution, when people would knock on my locked door and I thought it was someone coming to attack me (I was 16). I learned the importance of deadlines while packing clothes in a warehouse for a UK fashion retailer (still aged 16). By the time I landed my first internship in a fashion PR company at the age of 17, working on a Lee Jeans product launch, I had already amassed plenty of transferable skills.
Tip #5: Perform due diligence on your target employer
I always used to think that the best way to determine who I wanted to work for was to engineer an opportunity to get into my target’s workplace and see what was going on (this would normally be by securing some sort of invitation, rather than by scaling the wall Mission Impossible-style). Over time, I have learned that such a visit will only show you what they would like you to see.
Post-COVID, where some organisations have closed their physical offices or imposed sanitary restrictions, you really need to conduct your own due diligence to ascertain whether it will be the right working environment for you. Start by talking to everyone you can find that knows your target person or organisation. Follow the organisation on social media. Do your best to work out if you would honestly be the right fit for that employer, and the team you would be directly working with, to save yourself from grief later on.
Once you are satisfied by the findings of this first round, you could then create a meeting opportunity. You might invite the key person for a coffee on the pretext that you are inspired by their career and you would like to seek their advice. If the person accepts your invitation and even gives you useful advice, then this is a huge tick in the box, as it shows that the person has an interest in the professional development of others and not only in their own career.
If you do finally arrive at the point where you decide to apply for a job with the organisation concerned and are lucky enough to be offered a formal interview, find a way to rehearse your answers to mock questions with friends or family in advance. With the wonders of technology, you can practice on a Zoom call with anyone on earth. You can even record it and play back so you can identify areas for improvement before the real thing.
Tip #6: Build your personal brand, online and offline
Imagine you have now followed my advice and you decide to apply for a PR job with me. The first thing I am going to do when I receive your application is to Google you. What I am looking to find is a delicate balance. Do you exist? Do you have any friends? Are you a political activist? Have you ever written anything online that would interest me? Are you on LinkedIn? If you are then you already have a professional mindset so I am intrigued to know more.
What would you want people to say about you when describing you to someone else? That is your personal brand. One way to define it is to come up with a series of hashtags that sum up your interests that you want people to know about. If I was going to do it for myself, I would say:
#PR #training #CIPR #innovation #entrepreneurship #technology #finance #womeninafrica #Mauritius #Africa
If you Google me you will find online content, in different combinations, related to all of these themes. We could hone it down further by saying that I believe in the power of effective storytelling as a force for good and as a motor for opportunity, equality and growth, as a common thread that brings everything together.
These hashtags do not represent 100% of my real life interests, but they do represent 100% of the brand that I am projecting to the world. By developing your personal brand – which must be consistent online and offline – it builds your credibility. It gives the impression that you have clear objectives and that you believe in something. This will bring comfort to potential employers, or clients, that you are someone they can trust.
Tip #7: Be prepared to take calculated risks
At the start of your career, you might gravitate towards seeking a job in a large, established firm, but these may now be firing and not hiring people. Times of crisis lead to the creation of new businesses, often founded by well-regarded professionals who have experienced a sudden change in their own career trajectory. If such an opportunity comes your way then consider it carefully, as you may be able to make a greater impact in a new organisation.
I once left a very well-established PR agency to be part of a new business to be set up by an industry veteran, where I was the very first staff member and I had to incorporate an entity in Europe myself. Today that business that business has 36 offices across 6 continents. When you are presented with such an opportunity, you really need to focus on the founder and their network to see if your career is likely to take off in their hands.
Tip #8: Focus on lifelong learning to keep building your knowledge
The PR industry is in constant evolution, with the era of digital and AI transforming the traditional PR landscape. One organisation which is helping PR professionals to navigate such change is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), where I am a Fellow, a member of the International Committee and the founder of the Mauritius network. If you join as a student, you can access over 1500 online training materials, across all PR disciplines, which can complement your areas of academic study and enhance your employability. In time, you could rise up the membership grades and eventually, with solid experience, become a Chartered PR Practitioner.
I would highly recommend CIPR membership as a way of expanding your current fields of knowledge and skills, developing your understanding of industry ethics and professional standards, networking, as well as keeping pace with industry trends and developments, not only as a student but throughout your career as a PR professional.
Tip #9: Be resilient
Resilience. Perseverance. Flexibility. You will need all of these in spades as you launch and build your PR career in the post-COVID era.
The early stage of your career might look like a game of snakes and ladders. Your dream employer may be downsizing or closing down. You may get a job then lose it. You might need to change course several times. You must accept that there are things that you cannot control, from the outcomes of acquisitions and restructuring exercises to political and economic developments, particularly those triggered by the pandemic. Consider it all as a learning experience and don’t blame yourself if things don’t work out as planned. Pick yourself up and start again.
Tip #10: Think of your career from a portfolio perspective
Don’t sit back waiting for the perfect opportunity, which is tantamount to putting all your eggs in one basket. Think about your PR career from a portfolio perspective. You might start by undertaking several professional opportunities in parallel. You can write online blogs for free and get a by-line. You can engage in community activities and run their social media channels. Continue your online training. You will slowly move forward, building your visibility and network of contacts. Through taking the initiative and showing the world what you can do you will eventually achieve your professional goals.