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Ask An Expert: How To Transition Into PR

Thinking about making a career switch to PR? These tips might help

Career Question

 via: Marco Bellucci

In its recently released 2014 World PR Report, The Holmes Report highlighted the health of the sector stating “Public relations industry growth improved significantly to 11% in 2013, cracking the double-digit barrier for the first time since the global recession took hold in 2008.” The industry’s outlook is also bolstered by projections from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) which forecasts industry job growth at 12 percent through 2022.

With those numbers, it should come as no surprise that some people are deciding to jettison their former careers in favor of joining the glamorous world of public relations. OK, maybe it’s not as glamorous as some might think, but unlike a few other professions, the PR industry is healthy and growing.

Whether a person has had years of success in their career and wants to do something new or their chosen occupation is going the way of the dodo bird, whatever the reason, some people have decided it’s time to switch jobs and try PR.

But is it possible to jump into the deep end of the PR pool if you’ve had no prior experience? For mid- and senior-career veterans, it can seem like a daunting, almost insurmountable task to transition into an industry as multifaceted as PR without first being required to start out with floaties in the kiddie pool. Experience in related industries will help and traditional education can’t hurt – BLS indicates that “Public relations specialists typically need a bachelor’s degree in public relations, journalism, communications, English, or business” – but what are the true possibilities?

We spoke with Deb Hester, a public relations industry recruiter specializing in agency recruitment about what it takes to transition into PR from other careers or get back into the industry after extended breaks. She offered some sobering insight as well as a few tips that might help get you hired.

Q. What are a few top skills you look for in a person transitioning into agency PR from corporate or another career?

Deb Hester> It really depends on the client I’m working with to place a candidate. Some clients absolutely refuse to talk to individuals who do not already have PR agency experience, while others will consider interviewing people without agency experience provided they have been working in-house in a service group and treating the people they’ve been doing work for as in-house customers or clients. In either case, it’s important that candidates can show that they have transferable skills for the position they are interested in.

Having good media contacts and excellent writing ability is a must, but it will also help to have a useful industry specialization that can be used to get your foot in the door.

Another thing to consider is that most agencies will want candidates to possess creative, out-of-the-box thinking. These days, candidates will need to be able to take things beyond PR into a more marketing-focused arena for an integrated approach.

Q. Anything else? 

DH> Professionalism! Professional communications, professional demeanor and professional presentation. PR people are expected to be somewhat buttoned up.

Q. The PR industry is (hopefully) flooded with good writers (or at least many who claim to be), what else can someone new to PR focus on to help further their chances of landing a PR job?

DH> Along with mastery of the skills listed above, there are two things that can help get someone a leg up:

  1. An In-depth understanding of different industries and the current media universe
  2. The ability to think strategically and from a 360-degree perspective

Editor’s note> We agree with Deb. Strategic thinking is an ability that it takes time to learn and master. PR companies might be willing to take a shot training you in PR if you have the strategic thinking aspect down.

Q. We know that it can be a pretty simple to transition from journalism, marketing or advertising into PR, but are there any other careers that we might be surprised to know make for a good PR pro? 

DH> Focusing on agency recruitment, a corporate communications background might work for some instances. Sometimes sales, public speaking, member relations and product evangelists will also be able to adapt well to the PR world.

Editor’s note> We’d also add anyone who comes from a political background to Deb’s list. Working on a campaign or as a staffer often provides prospects with the necessary training and some interchangeable skills necessary in traditional PR people.

Q. Is it necessary to start from the “bottom” or at a junior level when transitioning into PR from another career? 

DH> Not necessarily. There are plenty of talents that experience brings that will mean you won’t have to start over.

As you know, the further up the PR food chain someone travels, the more strategic thinking becomes a commodity. People are counting on you to see the big picture and plan accordingly. Additionally, the more senior you are, the better connected people expect you to be; which can always come in handy. 

Furthermore, at the mid- to senior-level, you’ll need to be a good team manager and mentor.

This is also the level where the professionalism we discussed earlier begins to come into play. You’ll need to be able to work with high-level clients in a consultative manner. Some agencies might want you to be an active spokesperson for the agency, head out to conferences as a presenter or act as a thought leader, etc… If you can bring those kinds of developed and polished capabilities along with you as well as an ability to perform basic PR tasks, you should be able to be considered for a more senior position. 

Also consider that some firms may be inclined to introduce you at a lower level, but possibly put you on a “fast track.” All in all, my rule of thumb in recruiting is if someone expects to change careers, they should expect a cut in pay and a lower level position than the last one they held, regardless of the industry.

Q. What are a couple of key points that new PR entrants should focus on in an interview when transitioning into PR from an outside field?

DH> Each situation is a bit different.  I’d suggest putting together a “road map” to use during an interview which addresses how you meet all of the hiring company’s needs.  If, for example, you’ve been in-house at a major forest products corporation helping to provide investor relations services and the agency PR position you’re trying to get is with an investor relations shop that happens to have a couple of forest products-oriented clients, you can explain why your corporate background and perspectives might be useful.

One of the key things to remember here is that the successful interview will be about what the candidate can do for the prospective employer – not vice versa.  I would encourage candidates to avoid asking how the company is going to help bring your skills up-to-date, how much they’re going to pay you, how much time off you get to take, how much they’d reimburse you for training and education, how the agency’s going to hook you up to clients, etc…  Expect to have the tables turned on you and be able to explain how you are going to successfully do all those things for your new employer.  If possible, you might even bring up business you believe you can bring to the firm.

Q. Is there an expiration date on PR skills? How would you respond to someone who says they can’t get hired because they haven’t practiced PR in several years – whether they left to teach, raise a family or just try something different? 

DH> Yes and no. PR is changing rapidly.  If the individual hasn’t managed to somehow keep up with all the changes, they’re going to have a tough time of it unless they only talk to firms who continue to be focused on traditional PR. Even so, being out of “the game” for a while means you’ve probably lost all of your very valuable media connections because they’ve either changed jobs or gotten out of the media industry altogether. Although you can explain that you’re not afraid to make new connections, most firms are looking to new hires to come on board with an existing “Rolodex.”

And, of course, many of the basic tools agencies use have changed dramatically. The successful applicant will have found a way to keep up with those things.

Keep in mind that people will want to know why you left PR in the first place and will want to be able to believe you’ll stick with it if you take the job being offered – i.e. not leave to try something else.  It’s important to be able to relate the story of why you did what you did, how your decisions made sense, and how what you’ve learned might be of benefit to your next employer.  People like to hire individuals they see as “reasonable.”  “Reasonable” usually isn’t “flitting” from one career path to another just because it looked like fun, your friends talked you into it or the grass seemed a bit greener.  “Reasonable” is well-thought-out and intelligent strategic maneuvering of your career to get to a desired goal.  BTW, you should be able to tell this story both in-depth as well as with a high level summary. During an interview, try the summary first but be prepared to go into details if asked.

Q. How does a mid-career professional with limited PR experience, but has a great background and valuable experience in another field separate themselves from a hungry young PR professional looking to advance? 

DH> The “hungry young professional” is most likely going to be willing to handle anything thrown at them, work long hours, be able to come up with “cool” creative ideas and fit right in with the rest of a team. Where a mid-career professional from another field can offer value is by showing in-depth business experience, industry knowledge, experience managing others, professionalism (sometimes!) and maturity. Of course, if they are also a workhorse themselves, willing to tackle just about anything and able to come up with “cool” creative ideas they will be able to position themselves even better.

Q. Bluntly, what does it take for someone without a communication background (PR, marketing, etc…) and no PR experience to get hired in a PR position?

DH> It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely hard.  Going back to school should help, even if the person just goes back to pick up a PR certificate. Joining PRSA and participating in meetings is a great way to learn what’s going on in PR as well as learn from others. Taking an internship might help, but those might be hard to come by. One great way to start building a portfolio is by volunteering to do marketing & PR for start-ups, non-profits, etc… When it comes to showcasing your writing ability, look for opportunities to submit articles and/or blog posts.

I frequently encourage candidates like this to think of themselves as their own first PR client– what kind of strategic plan can they come up with for themselves and how successfully can they implement it? I’m constantly amazed when people wanting to get into PR or even PR practitioners can’t figure out how to use their skills to “peddle” themselves.

Editor’s note> Thinking of yourself as a client is a great tip for experienced pros and new PR practitioners alike. Approaching an interview in the same way you would launching a brand might help you land the job.

 

Although formidable, it’s not impossible to go from zero to 60 when it comes to transitioning into a mid-level PR career from another industry. With findings from the Holmes Report indicating that “hiring Senior and Mid-Level staff as the biggest challenge PR companies are facing when comes to talent,” having some experience will obviously help, but if you’re willing to go the extra mile to learn the industry, you can likely land the job you’re looking for. As shown through the Ask an Expert series, if you’re able to realistically and effectively link tangential experience to the position you’re interviewing for and also have skills that can transition to PR, some companies and hiring manages might be willing to take a chance on practitioners who don’t have a traditional PR background.

 

Deb Hester is president and founder of Deb Hester & Associates, a recruiting consulting firm. With nearly 30 years of recruiting experience, Deb has sourced, interview and successfully placed candidates for firms involved in the energy sector, traditional engineering, advertising and public relations. Her public relations clients run the gamut including technical, energy, consumer, corporate communications, fashion, travel and wine and spirits, healthcare, consumer electronics, automotive, family entertainment, finance, food and beverage, etc… With an equally diverse background herself, Deb has also worked in IT, physics, nuclear medicine and computer programming among other things. She believes that with the right attitude and a willingness to adapt, everything is possible. Connect with her 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

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