Passport to PR: Career advice for communications students

Seven PR professionals offer tips for the next generation of leaders

On March 11, PR students in Toronto got an insider’s look at agency life and in-house communications, thanks to Passport to PR. The event, held by the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), gives students the chance to hear about the ins and outs of working in communications. Marketing asked a few participating companies to share their best career advice for the next generation of PR leaders.

Paul Lockhard

Environics Communications

PaulLockhardWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
Be fearless, maintain a positive attitude, embrace learning on the job, and be nimble. When you work in marketing communications, there are daily opportunities to grow one’s skillset and develop as a communicator. Be kind to others because teamwork is essential and you want to maintain positive relationships throughout your career, whether they’re with media, influencers, colleagues or business partners.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
In-house communicators are entrenched in the business – you work with sales, product management, finance, customer service and marketing, so your perspective is company-centric. Agency communicators look at clients with an external lens, which enables us to provide holistic recommendations based on industry and customer insights. Both in-house and agency communicators provide value, but in different ways. The ultimate win-win is when in-house communicators collaborate with agency partners for a common goal.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
When you work in integrated communications, every day is different. Those who succeed are those who know the only constant is change. Embrace the idea of learning new things, and recognize that continuous problem-solving is at the core of what we do. You need to exercise creativity at all times, and work well within a team. No one person can know everything, and collaboration is integral to success.

Tracy Ford

Director of Public Relations

Chelsea Hotel, Toronto

TracyFordWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?

I’m constantly reminded of two things that are so important: the relevance of social media and the importance of old-fashioned networking. Here are pieces of advice related to both:

-Take advantage of job/career fairs at your school – it’s a great opportunity to build connections and potentially land an internship/job.

-Don’t just be a member of CPRS, become a volunteer.

-Attend networking events – you never know where one connection could take you.

-Make your mark on social media platforms and follow some PR influencers to gain insight and keep up with the latest trends in PR.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
I’ve worked on both sides of the fence and there are definitely some differences. Within the agency world, there’s generally a vast portfolio of clients resulting in various projects that will undoubtedly result in an array of skills and experience. This is a great foundation for new grads of PR.

In contrast, working in-house offers the opportunity to focus on one brand, including industry issues and the brand/company’s products and/or services. When it relates to career development, PR agencies consistently offer new opportunities for developing new skills and there’s also room for promotion. On the flip side, in-house PR doesn’t offer the same development unless the team grows or someone is prepared to move on. I suggest getting experience on both sides of the fence, especially early on in your career.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
The PR industry is constantly evolving. More than ever before, I am focused on the reality of the current media landscape and making it work in my favour while embracing the rapid growth of social media platforms. I’m also discovering that I must adapt to new technologies. With stakeholders – including bloggers, influencers and journalists on the playing field – we must engage everyone with strategic campaigns and creative content. Within our organization, PR and marketing teams are working together to leverage each other’s strengths in order to meet the new media demands. PR is more strategic than ever. The skill set that a PR practitioner brings to the table fits with the changing media landscape.

Rohini Mukherji
Account Director
Apex Public Relations

rohini-mukherjiWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
Having chanced upon a career in PR, I would definitely encourage students to try and do as much networking as possible in person. PR practitioners are busy folks, but most of us have moved up the ranks because we met mentors and managers who were invested in our careers early on – and we are happy to pay it forward. Meeting someone is a better way to create an impression and the person you meet is more likely to think of you when a suitable opportunity comes up. So get out there — meet people, ask lots of questions, show your personality — and you might be surprised about where that might lead you!

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
I have always worked in a PR agency, and I think one of the key differentiators from an in-house role is the variety of clients and industries you work with. That can of course be both a pro and con – if you thrive on being able to switch gears quickly, and consider yourself an efficient multitasker, it’s Disneyland. If, on the other hand, you like to take your time to delve deep into one industry, then an in-house role is probably more your speed.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
One of the occupational hazards of working in the PR industry is that you always represent a brand – your own personal brand, your school, and your employer, past and present – for better or for worse. The reality is, what you post on social media is fair game for people to make inferences about you. It is common for employers to conduct social media scans alongside reference checks, and it isn’t uncommon for great candidates to lose out on opportunities because of an impression they create through their social channels. So it’s important, certainly when you’re at the job-seeking stage, to curate your social media channels and ensure they reflect the side of your personality that you would want your future employer to know.

At the same time, it isn’t about hiding your inner personality. It is important to have a point of view and express it in the right way through the right channels – as long as it isn’t done in a way that is offensive, off-putting or inappropriate. At Apex, for instance, we encourage everyone at the agency – from the president to the interns – to contribute to the company’s blog, and take a stand on the issues closest to their hearts. Our clients might choose us for the work we do, but they stay because they like us, and so it’s important to develop a sense of balance of showing just the right amount of personality to ensure your brand is always on top.

Neil Parmenter
SVP, Corporate and Public Affairs and Chief Communications Officer
TD Bank Group

NeilTDWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
Put some thought into your personal brand and how you can differentiate yourself from others. Think about your favourite brands – some of mine include Nike, Apple, Oreos, Tim Hortons and Disney. All of these brands are clearly distinguished from their peers. They’re authentic, have a strong and consistent track record and meet a defined need or want with a benefit. Yes Oreos, I’m talking about you!

The same is true of your personal brand. What do you do that makes you: credible, unique, outstanding, positive, valuable, in demand and useful? In short, what differentiates you?  As new graduates with limited work experience, how do you want to set yourself apart? Take some time to write down the elements of your personal and aspirational brand, and fine tune your story about what sets you apart.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
I’ve been lucky in that I have had both experiences. In my current role as the chief communications officer for TD Bank Group, I am a big proponent of the benefits of PR from within an organization or corporation. Working in-house affords you depth of experience in an industry, and gives you the opportunity to build and foster strong relationships across your organization.

That said, there is great value in the diversity of work at an agency. Especially early on your career, an agency provides you the opportunity to determine what type of work interests you the most. Also, being surrounded by and having access to many talented PR professionals gives you a wonderful opportunity to learn and develop as a practitioner.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
There continues to be a great deal of opportunity in our field. As a PR professional, you can have a career that provides variety and the possibility for personal growth. Today, leaders in organizations, governments and businesses need what we provide – strategic counsel, big picture thinking and authentic content.

By engaging with a diverse set of stakeholders, you can play a powerful role in building and enhancing brands. You are joining the PR profession at a remarkable time. The landscape in which we work is evolving and you will have a hand in shaping and defining the future of PR in new and exciting ways.

Daniel Tisch
Argyle Communications

Daniel Tisch headshotWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
You need great communication skills, but that’s just the start. Success in PR is about having a view of the entire organization and its environment. Work on your business literacy, because no matter where you work, or who your client is, you have to understand their business.

Be relentlessly curious about the world. You’ll need that to help your organization or client understand risks and seize opportunities, and to build stronger relationships with your publics. Always think critically, but never think cynically. Be aware of popular culture, but don’t take it too seriously. That will always keep you a step ahead.

Be ethical. Don’t let anyone tell you PR is about spin or distortion, which demeans you, your peers and your profession. Finally, don’t ever use the term “personal brand.” It’s something everyone needs, but no one should ever talk about.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
As a consultant in an agency, your experience will tend to be broad – working with a variety of clients over time. It’s great for those who thrive on variety. As an in-house professional, your experience will tend to be deep, as you will really get to know one organization intimately.

The pros and cons depend on you. Great consultants thrive on diversity, variety and change; they love working for a business whose core business is public relations, and trying to stay on the cutting edge of communication. However, the odds of your days being unpredictable are high, because you have many different clients depending on you. And some people find it challenging to account for how they use their time every day, which is key to demonstrating value for the client.

The most important thing is choosing the organization well: if it’s an agency, are they ethical and fair? Do they value learning and joy as much as they value hard work? If it’s an in-house opportunity, does the organization truly value communication? Will they invest in their relationships with their publics — and therefore in their PR team?

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
Public relations is changing forever, and for the better. The days of PR being mainly about media relations are over. Today, the key is thinking broadly and deeply about how to build relationships with publics – not just through communication, but also through action – and measuring change in attitudes and behaviour over time.

A couple of years ago, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management led a global dialogue among PR professionals and academics, and identified three emerging roles of modern PR: the definition of an organization’s character and values; the building of cultures of listening and engagement; and understanding and acting upon professional and organizational responsibility to stakeholders, and to society.

Those who see PR through the old lens of “message control” won’t do well in the years ahead. But those who focus on PR as a means of ethical influence – and have the skills to earn it – will both survive and thrive.

Vincent Power
VP, Corporate Affairs and Communications
Sears Canada

VincentPower copyWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
Don’t underestimate the value of volunteer work and internships. Practitioners today understand the job market can be challenging but, when hiring, we like to see that candidates have been keeping up with the practice and have been using their time to hone their skills.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
Both have positive benefits. Agency can teach fast-paced, multi-disciplinary activities in a condensed period of time, as well as the value of time spent on projects or clients and how significant each minute of the day is.

In-house lets you see how your practice can benefit the goals of an organization, and support its mission, vision and values. You set your priorities on what the enterprise sets as its priorities and you see how the results of your work contribute to the overall reputation and success of the larger organization.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
Two things:Don’t be afraid to start at a lower level than you would have wanted and work your way up. Once you get started, the opportunities multiply. The cream will rise to the top and solid practitioners will get noticed.

The positive reputation of our industry has greatly increased since the early decades of PR because of the professionalism its members have instilled in the practice. Good PR today is built around ethical, truthful and purposeful messaging. Continue to learn after graduation and make your own contributions to a discipline that provides exciting work and rewards.

David Doze
President and CEO
Pilot PMR

DavidDozeWhat’s the best advice you have for graduating PR students?
Don’t be a generalist. The world is full of them. There is no room for faking it in an agency like Pilot where rigour is demanded in our everyday efforts. Determine what you want to be exceptional at and commit to it. If you do this, you will soon establish a clear role for yourself within the team. Superior talents are never out of work.

What are the pros and cons of working in a PR agency vs. in-house?
The pros to working at an independent agency like Pilot are substantial. We are in control of our own decision-making. Our approach and ideas are our own – no reporting to London or New York. This freedom allows us to think freely about the talent we hire, the internal structures we adopt and the types of solutions we develop. It is a unique and rewarding experience that demands the best from our people.

What is the one thing every PR student should know about the industry?
Know this: many agencies have responded to the connected economy by piling on services. Don’t get caught up in this. It is short-term thinking that inevitably comes back to haunt. We saw this in the social media realm. Clients want solutions – not more billable services. Seek out a team of smart people who know why they do what they do – a team that is sufficiently humble to know that they need to keep learning – making collaboration a must. Keep a clear focus on where you intend to add value and stick to your guns. If it sounds too good to be true…

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