Persistence, Chance and Luck Can Make a PR Career
“You shouldn’t have started your consulting practice so early in your career,” said one PR professional while interviewing me for a job.
“We couldn’t figure out your professional narrative,” proclaimed another practitioner, who was chair of a committee considering my application for membership in a PR organization.
These comments stung. Yet once I put aside my bruised feelings, I understood why they were saying them, as my career had evolved in a nontraditional fashion.
I actually never intended to work in public relations. Even after I landed my first job at a PR agency, my path was anything but straight and narrow. There was no detailed plan executed over time; I ended up where I am today through persistence, chance and luck.
A winding road
I originally intended to become a history professor. After earning my B.A., I moved to Northern California to attend Stanford University’s Ph.D. program in Modern European History. But I left school after earning a master’s degree, realizing that I was ill-suited for work as a professional historian, and I turned my energies toward finding a full-time job. Eventually, a nonprofit organization hired me as a fundraising assistant, but it was my involvement in Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership, that would transform my career.
I threw myself into Toastmasters. It turned out to be a place where I could channel energies that I had not yet had the opportunity to apply in my job. I prepared and delivered a lot of speeches. I assumed volunteer leadership positions throughout the organization.
I began to promote the benefits of Toastmasters. I devoured its materials on publicity and applied what I’d learned; still, I felt more could be done. I turned to local community newspapers (the internet wasn’t available yet) and learned as much as I could about them. I noted the types of stories they covered and their submission guidelines. No one taught me; I learned by doing.
My efforts yielded many stories about Toastmasters clubs in local media. My fellow members were impressed.
Meanwhile, I had concluded that I needed to leave my nonprofit job. I hoped to apply my new media relations skills in a new job. A member of my Toastmasters club who worked at a PR agency knew about my interests and invited me to come in for an informational interview. Two months later, the agency offered me a job. I soon discovered I was the only person at the agency who didn’t have an undergraduate degree in either public relations or journalism.
My career path
I started as a junior account executive, and in that role I pitched countless stories to reporters. I did reasonably well in this work. What I understood less well was writing. I had no clue how to write using an inverted pyramid structure, but I learned quickly, by writing countless drafts of press releases, pitch letters and other documents.
I look back fondly on this agency experience, as I forged many relationships I’ve maintained over the years. Yet that agency’s harried pace and relentless pressure to perform wore me down, so I looked for a PR position inside an organization, and soon found one.
After a year and a half in that position, I thought: “I can do this on my own. I don’t need anyone to direct me. I can be my own boss.” Just like that, Mitchell Friedman Communications was born. It was 1992, when few PR professionals were independent consultants.
I didn’t have a business plan. I simply reached out to former agency colleagues, and several hired me to help with their media relations efforts.
Soon, my Toastmasters experience beckoned me to expand my services. I realized I wanted to speak, train and teach. I reached out to my former agency colleagues, who hired me to lead training programs and referred me to others.
I craved opportunities to build longer-term relationships with individuals who sought professional development, above and beyond short-term training programs. Teaching seemed to hold some promise. Again, chance provided an opportunity. As a board member of a local PR group, I got to know the academic coordinator at a school that offered master’s degrees in public relations. Five months later, in January 1998, I was teaching a new course about public relations on the internet.
That teaching opportunity led to others at universities located throughout the United States and included the PR campaigns course I continue to teach today. Still, as a part-time instructor, there didn’t appear to be a long-term career path for me at any university.
I decided to return to school to earn a doctorate to increase my chances of landing a full-time teaching position. I studied organizational behavior and leadership, which I felt nicely complemented my communications experience. After graduating in 2011, I worked in administrative roles at local universities while continuing to teach courses on PR campaigns, crisis management, leadership and other topics.
In late 2016, I started a new part-time teaching position. It was unlike others, as there was a legitimate path to a full-time role. In 2018, I landed that full-time teaching position — 20 years after my first university teaching position.
As I teach, consult and coach clients today, I can share the details of my path with a confidence I had long felt was beyond my grasp. Indeed, there is no one right career trajectory in the PR profession. I’m living proof of that.