January 10, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Susan Balcom Walton
The following article appears in the January 2008 issue of PR Tactics.
You’re partway through your job interview process. You’ve researched the hiring company. You’ve painstakingly prepared your résumé. Maybe you’ve even had a phone interview. And, just when everything seems to be going smoothly, the question arises: “May we see your portfolio?”
The prospect of developing a portfolio can fill both new and seasoned PR practitioners with dread. Of all the steps in the job application process — research, résumé preparation, interview — the portfolio is often the least understood. We wonder, what does my potential employer want to learn about me through my portfolio? What do I put in the portfolio? How do I present the contents of the portfolio?
PR practitioners, especially those new to the profession, should carefully consider these questions, because the impact of portfolios should never be underestimated. You will have other opportunities during your interview to share your personality, job history and understanding of your prospective employer’s business. But the true breadth and depth of your PR production skills — especially your writing — will only come out in your portfolio. This is the place where the writing hits the road.
To help get you started on that journey, here are some answers to those all-important questions:
What does my potential employer want to learn about me through
Erin Enke, an account supervisor at Fleishman-Hillard New York who supervises internship hiring and evaluates entry-level candidates, says, “Think in terms of what the employer needs to know about you and what you’ve done. They don’t need to know that you’ve written a 40-page paper unless that paper discusses new media or some other emerging trend that the organization is interested in.”
How do you know what the employer does need to see? Begin by reviewing the basic required skills and tactics of public relations and include any high-quality materials you’ve produced that show you’ve mastered them. It’s also a good idea to learn about the employer and the business. Do some research; contact the company to see if they would like you to be prepared to discuss any specific topics. Then, if you’ve done related work in these areas, include that work in your portfolio.
What do I put in the portfolio?
Stress the basic PR tools, but think about any and all work you’ve done that demonstrates important skills and can be displayed visually. Enke notes, “Things that you might think are just project work may be extremely significant to your employer. Articles and press releases are top priorities, but examples of article analysis, communications measurement and media monitoring can be important as well.”
The Public Relations Student Society (PRSSA) Web site provides information about compiling portfolios with a list of helpful items to include, such as résumés, evidence of professional affiliations, licenses or certificates, and work samples. The Web site also suggests making a habit of saving your work. Keep copies of everything you’ve written or contributed to, and save it in its original form. You won’t use it all in your portfolio, but you will have a bigger pool of possibilities to choose from when the time comes.
How do I present the contents of the portfolio?
Some general tips:
• Present samples in their original form as often as possible. For example, if you are showing a newspaper story, a clipping of the printed publication is best, not just an electronic version. Original pieces help the reviewer better understand how the document was actually used.
• Select your best pieces to include, not everything you’ve done. Avoid the temptation to use your lesser work as filler if the portfolio seems too lean.
• Opt for samples of work published or used professionally, not just in the classroom. If you do use class work, try to use pieces that deal with topics and skills emphasized in the workplace.
• Include newsletters, brochures or Web site samples that demonstrate graphic design or desktop publishing skills along with the writing, if you have these skills, as recommended on the PRSSA Web site.
• Make access to the portfolio content as simple as possible for your reviewers. Consider using tabs or a table of contents.
• Proofread, proofread, proofread — then ask your roommate, mom, academic adviser or lab instructor to proofread it again. And did I mention the importance of proofreading? Enke recalls a candidate who, having successfully passed through two rounds of interviews, was not selected for the job, partly because of typographical errors in the application materials. “When it comes to proofreading, the little deal can really be the biggest deal,” she says.
• In addition to rigorous proofreading, check your tone as well. Ruthlessly review your own materials to ensure that you’ve achieved the right tone — and ask friends or teachers to help. Does the portfolio speak about your skills and not just about you? Is it confident but not arrogant? Is it an honest and reflective portrayal of what you’ve done?
• PR folks, unlike journalists, often do not have their name in the byline of materials they’ve written. If your name is not prominently featured on a piece as the writer, create a brief, neat caption for the portfolio that explains your role in, or contribution to, that piece.
• As you create your hard copy portfolio, keep a few samples handy in neat, organized electronic form as well. You never know when a faraway recruiter or account team may be considering a candidate and may need to look at some writing samples. Have some work that you can quickly e-mail if prospective employers ask.
• Even seasoned professionals should keep careful records, dates and copies of significant work. You may not need portfolios as often when you are further along in your career, but you may still need the information for résumés. Keep it all.
• Plain black-and-white (or color, if it was done in color) pieces mounted on a plain black background are best. Avoid bubbles by using two-sided tape, adhesive spray or very light glue for mounting.
• A ring-bound notebook with a clear protective sheet covering each page is one good choice for displaying your work. It allows reviewers to easily remove pieces to pass along, and allows you to change the portfolio easily. That said, don’t agonize too much over the precise format. The important thing is that the portfolio is neat, professional, and easy to read and understand.
• And above all, remember that this is portfolio creation — not scrapbooking. Avoid funky fonts, clever clip art and other frills. Enke says, “The differentiation will not be ‘Who has the cutest clip art?’ It comes down to ‘Who has the most to contribute to my company?’”
The hiring process for PR internships and jobs is highly competitive. Rest assured that your prospective employer will review stacks of portfolios. But, as Enke points out, “The winners will be those whose materials speak directly to their PR experience. I know I won’t have to train that person about what public relations is or how to write.”
By following these basic tips, you and your portfolio will be ready to hit the interview road. Much success on your journey.
Susan Balcom Walton is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. She previously held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why create a professional portfolio?
• To market your capabilities in job
• To negotiate promotions and raises
• To apply for bonuses, scholarships
• To document the quality and quantity of your professional development
• To demonstrate prior work or learning experiences for educational credit