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Ask An Expert: 13 Interview Survival Tips

Editor’s Note: Throughout May, we will be offering helpful tips on transitioning into the PR industry and shifting from PRSSA to PRSA. As college seniors begin their move from the classroom to fulltime practitioners and undergrads search for the perfect internships, industry leaders will answer pressing questions, address concerns and provide general advice for establishing a strong foundation for a positive PR career. Whether you’re a new pro or veteran, this is information you can use.

No one has ever said “I love searching for a new job”… on the contrary, it’s more often compared to The Hunger Games than The Price is Right.

If your resume is lucky enough to be one of the few to survive the culling, you must then face the dreaded interview.

Interviewing can be a nerve racking, confusing and stressful process. We rack our brains trying to predict the questions we’ll be asked, but those sometimes go off the rails and can range from “what was your biggest client win and team budget before markups” to “who’s your favorite television character?” (Both are examples I’ve personally been asked).

While we toil for hours, days and sometimes weeks developing a never perfect resume, customizing tailored cover letters and performing research into companies and interviewers that the NSA would be envious of, even if we land the gig, we’re often left wondering what we did right throughout the interview process or could have done better; what made the difference and how we set ourselves apart from other candidates.

These are all great questions that I have absolutely no answers to… so I’ve asked the experts. Human Resource professionals and hiring manages from PR companies throughout the country have been gracious enough to offer up some insider tips and key advice to many of our most pressing interview-related questions.

We’ve avoided the obligatory “what should I wear?” because gym clothes is never the right response (see below), in favor of finding answers that are more likely to get you hired. We’ll be sharing these tips with readers throughout the month and moving forward.

Christine Godbey, a Human Resources Specialist at Ketchum, offered her responses to our 13 interview related questions and provided some key insights that new and veteran pros alike can benefit from:

 

1. What is the one resume mistake that immediately sends up a red flag for you?

There are two resume mistakes that send up an immediate red flag for me: obvious spelling errors and an objective statement that was repurposed from a previous application and wasn’t edited.  Sometimes candidates reference a different company or completely different position than what they are applying for in an objective statement. Big oops!

2. What is the one item that most new pros include on their resume that you would have them cut?

I wouldn’t recommend omitting anything from a resume that a candidate feels is worth including.  However, I would encourage candidates to really know the company and position they are applying for and cater their resume to both. For example, it’s nice to know that you worked as a server or lifeguard while in school (it’s certainly professional experience) but this shouldn’t take up the majority of your resume. Expand upon internships or class projects that more closely relate to the job that you’re applying for. Your resume is a one page case you’re building for recruiters and employers to see that you’re a good fit for the particular role you’re applying to.

What would you like them to include that they aren’t?

For candidates who don’t have internship experience or may have work experience that doesn’t directly translate to the job or industry they are applying for, I encourage them to include class projects and expand upon those as if they were a job. Of course, be sure to clearly note that this section of your resume is a class project and not a job. If you are applying to a PR internship or entry-level position, the semester-long project you worked on with a team to create a campaign for a pretend client gave you applicable PR experience to include on your resume.

3. What is the biggest job search faux pas that might cause you to exclude a candidate?

Some candidates treat the interview process in an extremely informal manner. Whether it be the way they answer questions, lack excitement or interest in the job they are interviewing for, dressing in gym clothes… I’ve seen it all! Most PR agencies aren’t buttoned up, but we want to see that you take pride in your appearance and take the interview process seriously.

4. Can a social media profile hurt a candidate’s prospects?

Yes, a social media profile can hurt a candidate’s prospects. As long as your activity on social media is tasteful (not necessarily 100% professional), you don’t have anything to worry about.

5. After education and experience what is the most relevant determining factor for moving a candidate on to the next level?

Professionalism/how a candidate articulates themselves during an interview is a strong pre-determining factor of how strong a candidate is.  We work in the communications industry, so how a candidate shares their story, experiences and how they respond to questions paints a picture of how strong of a communicator they are in general.

How might these factors exclude them from candidacy?

If a candidate rambles so much that they forget the original question asked or tells a story/example without clearly connecting the dots, the recruiter has to ask: Is this candidate really nervous or not a strong communicator? This could potentially exclude a candidate.

6. Should candidates contact/connect with you directly on social media? If so, is there a best approach?

LinkedIn is certainly the best medium because most recruiters use this as a candidate source. If a recruiter uses other social media outlets for recruiting, it would be appropriate to connect with them on those mediums too.

How might this backfire?

Be aware that when you ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ a recruiter, they will probably reciprocate. Make sure your social media sites are appropriate for your job search.

7. What’s the appropriate time frame for a candidate to follow up with an HR dept. after an interview?

My rule thumb is a week. I usually have to take notes to the interview team, corral next steps, and reconnect with candidates. This takes a couple of days to accomplish.

8. What is the best post-interview etiquette? Should candidates thank interviewers with cards, emails, etc.

Believe it or not, thank you cards and even emails are rare these days! If you want to stand out as a grateful and appreciative candidate, at least send a thank you email.  Cards are a nice personal touch if you want to take it up a notch!

9. Should cover letters be creative or formal? PR pros are often expected to have one foot in each world.

I don’t have a preference. As long as your cover letter tells the story between the lines of your resume and isn’t an exact repetition of your resume, I approve!  Use your cover letter as a way to expand on your most relevant experience or share hidden details of your experience. For example, share how your boss left during your internship so you had ample opportunities to step in ways beyond your level.  I always encourage candidates to be creative, however I don’t encourage sacrificing strong content for overbearing creativity. Know the company and job you’re applying to and cater your cover letter appropriately.

10. Do employment gaps automatically preclude a candidate?

Employment gaps don’t preclude a candidate for jobs at my company. If you have good experience that relates to the position, we’ll consider your application. I’m confident saying most recruiters know that the job and hiring market has been a bit rocky for a handful of years, and even great candidates have gone periods of time without employment.

Are there any good ways to disclose that information?

Share that information during the interview. Whether you build your explanation into how you explain your background and experience or if a recruiter asks directly, know exactly what you plan to say.

11. There seems to be great deal of mystery regarding online job submission forms. Many candidates feel that they go into a “black hole” once they are submitted or that they are filtered through an algorithm that looks for key words. Can you dispel any of these possible misconceptions?

I can’t speak for all recruiting systems and company processes, but at Ketchum we make it a point to review all resumes that are submitted into our online portal.  If a candidate isn’t a fit for the role, we will decline and send an email. We aren’t perfect and some applications don’t get reviewed, but this is rare.  Even if you apply to the job right as we’ve made an offer to someone else, we may reach out to connect about future opportunities if you have a resume that seems it can be a good fit for a future role.

I would always assume a candidate database does parse for key words and cater your resume as such. For example, if you’re applying for a Ketchum account management internship and the job description states we’re looking for a candidate to perform the following functions: media relations and pitching, writing press releases, project management, event planning logistics, etc., and you have experience doing some or all of these functions, put them on your resume! Pull the ‘buzz’ words from the job description and incorporate these into your resume.

12. What is the one best piece of advice you would give to a new PR candidate – whether they are new professionals or changing careers?

Whether you have cookie-cutter experience for the role you’re interviewing for or not, be prepared to tell your story. How does your experience parallel with that the recruiter is looking for in the position? What case can you build for yourself?  Give strong examples and if you have to answer, “no I do not have experience in X” or “no, I don’t know that program,” be prepared to immediately build your case. Share an example of a time you learned a complicated tool on your own or an example of an experience or project that showcases transferable skills.

I’ve interviewed many candidates with backgrounds that don’t perfectly align with the role we’re recruiting for who prove they have the smarts to learn new skills and tools by providing strong examples during the interview process. The question is no longer ‘is this candidate a good fit for the job?’ and becomes ‘does this candidate have potential to beat the learning curve?’

13. PR pros are expected to have a number of skills, is there one skill, tangible (i.e. great writer) or intangible (i.e. creativity) that you’ve found to be most relevant for new pros?

Strong writing skills (tangible) and resourcefulness (intangible) are two top skills I look for in candidates.

So maybe that was a few more than 13 tips, but as I always say, if you find yourself at a bar and you’re sitting next to someone in HR, buy them a shot and a pint and you’ll never regret the conversation.

 

Christine Godbey is a Human Resources Specialist at Ketchum, Inc., a global full-service public relations firm, with responsibility employee relations, performance management, talent acquisition, new hire on-boarding and training for both the Ketchum Midwest Region and Zocalo Group.  Prior to joining Ketchum, Inc. , she worked as an executive recruiter and served multiple financial services and trading firms. When not working, Christine enjoys making home-made wine (all varieties of red), attending street and music festivals, acrylic painting, and cooking.  Christine can be reached via LinkedIn.


Have any good interview tips to share? Let us know in the comments below. You can also submit your own questions on this and other topics to pr@prsa.org with the subject “Ask An Expert.” 

Laurent Lawrence is associate director of public relations at the Public Relations Society of America

 

6 Comments

    • Hi Diana,

      Fundamentally, I’d say that many of these tips can extend
      to mid-career practitioners; especially 10, 12 and 13, but I hear you, and I’m working on it. I hope to continue sharing interview
      and other business tips for all levels on an ongoing basis. Are there any
      specific questions you’re interested in having answered?

      • Thanks for your prompt response!
        People mid-career are often transitioning, so #12 is golden. 🙂 A number of people in the industry told me I’d have to start in PR at the bottom rather than make a lateral transition. So I guess my first question is about the overall practice of mid-career transition hiring.
        Similarly for #13, I have a lot of writing experience and skill, and PR firms told me that although it may be in the top 2 skills, it doesn’t go very far because there are a lot of good writers.
        I even spoke to a former PR professional who now teaches, and she said the profession wouldn’t hire her back because she hasn’t been in it recently.
        An article that would be most helpful to me would be one that interviews a number of PR firms and gets brutally honest answers for those who’d like to transition. Questions would be something like “how often do you hire writers without a marketing/PR background” and “what would it take for someone to be hired by your firm if they don’t have PR experience?”
        Thanks again!

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