May 26, 2009
Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR
The following article appears in the May 2009 issue of PR Tactics.
It’s an all-too-common scene right now. You’ve spent four hard years earning your degree in public relations. You’re at commencement, and you’ve just crossed the stage and shaken hands with the dean. Your friends and family are in the audience, Twittering away. There’s just one problem. In one hand you’re holding your new diploma, but the other hand is empty — you have no job offer. What do you do now?
This is a challenging time for college graduates, including PR majors. It’s natural to be concerned when you can’t seem to find an entry into the profession you’ve prepared so hard to join. But there are still jobs to be had — now and on the horizon — and there are important steps you should take to position yourself. The key is understanding that your path to success might not look exactly like you thought it would.
Says Dr. Isabel Botero, assistant professor and former internship director at the School of Communications at Illinois State University (ISU), “You might not start where you want to start, but you can end up where you want to end up. Look closely at all the different routes you can use to get there.”
In other words, don’t panic — just focus. Here are some ideas:
Find other ways to gain PR experience
If a full-time job hasn’t materialized yet, consider internships. Adrienne McGarr, vice president at Ruder Finn in Chicago, notes that many agencies are offering project-based or lower compensation internships now. And, more agencies are offering PR internships to graduates. If you have the financial flexibility to fulfill an internship in PR or a related field, it will likely strengthen your résumé more than a higher paid job in a completely unrelated field.
In my own experience as a PR hiring manager before I entered the academic field, I never once asked a candidate about the financial details of his or her internship. I was only interested in whether that internship had provided quality experiences that better prepared the candidate for the job I was offering.
It’s also important to set realistic job expectations. McGarr says, “It’s a mistake not to consider jobs that you feel you may be ‘overqualified’ for.” And, don’t discount the opportunity to work at a smaller organization. Adds McGarr, “While agencies are one good option, startups and nonprofits are another. They may have a greater need for volunteer help, and you can gain a wide variety of experiences.”
McGarr notes that freelance writing is another good way to gain experience. With so many publications reducing full-time staff these days, the extra help may be welcomed. Freelancing can also yield writing samples that will strengthen your portfolio.
ISU’s Botero used volunteer internships as a way to enter the PRprofession. A college squash player, Botero noted that her league didn’t have any PR representation, so she volunteered to do the public relations herself. While in that role, she made many contacts who were influential in sports and local business. Through this network of contacts she landed her first paying job, doing public relations for a bank.
Other options for gaining experience include study abroad and service abroad opportunities. Notes Botero, “The opportunity to have lived in a different culture can give you an edge and become a topic of conversation at your interview.”
Graduates can also enroll in or audit additional classes that can round out their skills. Graphic design, digital media, PR measurement and evaluation, and courses such as business management or statistics can help qualify you for additional opportunities.
Stay focused on the big picture
In times of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to keep your perspective and stay focused on your long-term goals. McGarr says, “If you have to work for little money or on a volunteer basis for awhile, just suck it up and do it. In the long run, it will position you better over candidates who haven’t gained the same experience.”
Louis C. Williams, Jr., chairman, L.C. Williams & Associates in Chicago, agrees. Early in his career, Williams took a five-figure pay cut for a job that offered him a chance to work with a great mentor and better position himself in the long run. It paid off, and a few years later Williams launched his own successful PR firm.
His advice: “Make sacrifices for the long term. You have to look at all your options and ask yourself, ‘What will get me where I want to go?’”
Build your network, tell your story
In today’s tight job market, says McGarr, “Networking is the name of the game. Get involved in as many things as you can. You never know when your opportunity will surface, and it’s amazing how much more often ‘who you know’ is going to get you in front of people.”
One of the most valuable things about networking is that it allows us to not only leverage our direct contacts, but also their contacts and their contacts’ contacts.
“Most of us look only at our ‘strong links’—the people we know personally,” Botero says. “But the ‘weak links’ — the ones you can’t see or who may be one or two steps removed from you — may be the most valuable.”
One important part of networking is putting yourself out there for people to see. This is not the time to be shy or self-effacing.
“You’ve learned in your college career how to conduct a PR campaign — now it’s time to make yourself the object of that PR campaign,” Williams says.
How? Seek for visibility and get your name and messages out there. Williams suggests writing guest editorials, posting comments or submitting letters to the editors of PR-related publications. You can also join professional organizations such as PRSA. Take on assignments or volunteer positions, and attend your local chapter meetings and professional development events.
Consider graduate school — but for the right reasons
Many graduates consider graduate school in the hopes that the additional education will make them more competitive or that the market will have improved by the time they finish. However, remember that additional education is not a substitute for solid job experience.
Says Dr. Steven Thomsen, professor of communications and graduate coordinator in the department of communications at Brigham Young University, “Gaining job experience is paramount. Having a graduate degree with no job experience doesn’t help you any more than having an undergraduate degree with no job experience, unless you are interested in a specialized area that requires additional research skills.”
Working in a PR-related field while pursuing graduate studies is one way to keep up your skills. Another is to consider graduate school after you get a job and have been in the field a couple of years. At that point, your employer may help finance your graduate degree, and you can make a better decision about what graduate degree to pursue — Master of Arts, MBA, MPA, or law — to fulfill your interests and improve your job skills.
Williams notes that, all other things being equal, a graduate degree can give a candidate an advantage.
“If I’m looking at two candidates and all other factors are equal, including strong job experience, I’ll consider the master’s degree,” he says. “We need an intellectual foundation in the profession.”
Graduate school right after your bachelor’s degree is a good option to consider if you plan on a career in teaching or simply have a genuine interest and desire to continue your studies.
“You should go to graduate school because you’re curious and want to know the critical thinking behind everything,” Botero says. “Graduate school is hard and takes time, and you don’t go just to prepare for an entry-level job.”
To sum it up, the best advice for job-seeking graduates is probably this: Start NOW to build your network, gain more experience, and make yourself as relevant to your field as possible.
“The question unemployed PR graduates ask themselves — ‘What do I do now?’ — comes a little too late,” Williams says. “The question should actually be, ‘What have I done so far?’ You really start preparing by about your sophomore year. Get internships (paid or unpaid) or volunteer experiences. Join and become involved in professional groups such as PRSSA; establish networks; get your name out there.”
If you’re a graduating senior and haven’t done these things to the extent you’d have liked, start now. There is still an opportunity for you to have many of these experiences and leverage them to your professional advantage.
Remember — focus, and keep a positive outlook. Says Botero: “Don’t give up. If you believe there’s a job out there for you, there will be. Time and time again we’ve seen that students who persevere, succeed.”
Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.