To the Class of 2021: Career Tips for Recent Grads
By Susan Elmore
A hearty congratulations to the class of 2021! You have done the hard work — in a pandemic and virtually, no doubt — and your college courses and internships have provided you valuable experience and a fundamental understanding of the PR profession. Whether you have landed in an agency, corporate or nonprofit setting, or are still on the job hunt, you are on your way to a fulfilling communications career.
With more than 28 years servicing clients in the nonprofit, business and urban planning sectors, I would like to take a moment to offer you some words of wisdom, and more practically, some of the foundational best practices I have identified over the years for you as you begin your career.
Many of our mid-level and senior-level employees started out at our agency as entry-level account coordinators and, by applying the principles enumerated below, they have risen through the ranks to leadership positions at our agency or in other nonprofit or for-profit companies.
I’ll refer to clients in the tips below because they are who I serve with an agency. However, in other organizations, your client may be another department or contacts in the field locations of the organization.
This advice, I believe, will serve you well no matter the direction your career takes:
Understand that good storytelling is about good listening.
At the core, our profession is all about storytelling. We are responsible for sharing the stories of our clients, our employers, and our communities clearly and creatively. But to be good storytellers, we must first be good listeners.
We cannot share these important stories if we haven’t listened carefully and asked thoughtful questions. “Active listening,” or the practice of empathetic, reciprocal listening, promotes curiosity and reflection, and confirms we are on the same page as those we’ve been entrusted to communicate on behalf of. Once we confirm our understanding of the fundamental conversation, we can develop the language and structure necessary to tell our clients’ stories in impactful ways.
It is human nature to fill in the blanks when we are missing information. Rather than assume we know the “why,” good communicators take time to pause and reflect to get to a deeper understanding of the issues and goals at hand. It is imperative we ask questions — and the right ones.
When developing PR campaigns, consider the following: What is at the heart of the request/statement/observation? What is the desired outcome? Who benefits from this campaign/product/service/information? What might the objections be and from whom? What assumptions are we making and what are they based on? Are there sensitivities (political, cultural, business, personal) to consider? Who are the other players involved (internally or externally) who have a stake in the initiative?
Practicing curiosity ensures that, from the get-go, we are fully informed, with the big picture guiding us as we apply our experience to strategy, and strategy to tactics.
Be comfortable with the gray areas.
As PR professionals, we are often privy to sensitive or exclusive information before the public. We call the time between when we learn of a client’s plans or announcement and when we externalize that information “the gray area,” and all communicators must respect it.
Adhering to boundaries around confidential information is critical in our profession. We must have the full trust of our clients to effectively develop strategies for their communications needs. Our integrity — and that of our clients’ — depends on the respect for confidentiality and sensitivity to tough or complex issues.
The mishandling or premature communication of confidential information can significantly impact a client’s or our own organization’s business dealings and public perception.
Your role as a communications practitioner is, in part, one of trusted adviser. Understanding sensitivities around a news opportunity is essential to upholding your integrity and value in that role.
Discover if you are a big-picture or tactical thinker.
In building teams within my firm, I identify two types of thinkers: big-picture thinkers and tactical thinkers. Both are needed to create a fully realized plan. When approaching a new concept or campaign, it is best to start with the big picture. Big-picture thinking allows you to stretch, to understand the root of your clients’ needs, and to challenge yourself to come up with strategies and tactics to achieve lofty goals.
After you have those conversations, you can move to the equally important tactical thinking. Big ideas are great, but if you cannot tie them to actionable steps, then they are meaningless.
Consider which category you naturally fall into. Are you an ideas person? Or are you focused on the micro steps necessary to execute a strategy? The good news is: There isn’t a right or wrong type of thinker. Our industry needs big-picture and tactical thinkers who can develop robust, well-rounded strategies for clients supported by actionable plans.
Having the awareness to know which type of thinker you are naturally will enable you to provide the most value to your team, and you can work with your manager or other colleagues to work on developing the skill to work on the other.
Practice, practice, practice.
In all things, the more effort you put into your craft, the better your results. PR practitioners who propel through their careers, whose stars tend to shine brighter than the rest, are not necessarily more naturally gifted than their peers. Rather, they have strong work ethics and high expectations of themselves. They are self-starters and always curious.
They are constantly practicing their craft, utilizing their strengths, and recognizing and honing their weaknesses. They respect their own boundaries and the boundaries of their clients and colleagues. They ask questions. They seek and practice clarity. They collaborate well. They can read a room. They are supportive.
They can be you if you approach your career with thoughtfulness, gusto and zeal. Your potential is limitless, and the good news is: You are just getting started.