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February 22, 2021 0 Comments

What PR Students Really Need to Know Before Graduating

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The advice I give my PR students changes year after year, considering the industry itself evolves so often. That’s especially true now, both pre- and post-COVID. Before the pandemic, I often told students to think deeply about what they wanted or needed out of a job, before accepting any offers. But now that the economy has slowed and fewer jobs are available, I tell them to focus on getting their foot in the door. 


The reality is that your first job won’t be your forever job. Instead, consider it as an opportunity to learn about the PR industry and discover what it is you like or don’t like, what it is you’re good at and what you can improve upon. Since you’re not married to your first employer, it’s okay to be selfish in the relationship. Set goals for yourself and make the most of it, whether it’s working on a big-name brand campaign to boost your resume, or seeking out new professional and media contacts to carry with you throughout your career. 


Most importantly, don’t overdo your stay. If you’re at a company that you know is not a good fit for you, don’t be afraid to move on. Trust me, you’ll be better off in the end. I’ve had several former students land what they thought were their dream jobs, only to realize later that the job or the agency was less than glamorous. Those who decided to part ways sooner rather than later are consistently much happier. 


Now, for any of you reading this who are just starting your PR careers, consider these pro tips to help you get off on the right foot: 


  1. Think of PR as a business. A lot of students get into PR without a basic knowledge of how businesses operate. Since most of your clients are likely businesses, it’s important that you understand how they operate and what matters most to them in terms of return on investment (ROI). The more you know and appreciate about their business, the better you’ll be able to align PR objectives to their overarching business and marketing goals, and ensure you have the key decision makers on your side. 


  1. Know thy industries. Often PR students think they only need to understand the communications industry — and that’s it. The reality is you will need to understand various elements of businesses across many different industries. At a traditional agency, it’s likely you’ll juggle 5 or more client accounts at one time, and the types of industries the clients fall into are rarely the same. You could be working on a beauty product campaign for one client, requiring you to learn all about consumer media and influencer relations, while also working on an account for a techy gadget or business software that would be geared toward completely different audiences. It’s important to really hone in on each of the industries your clients fall under and get to know the key reporters and publications within each.


  1. Understand what it takes to be an expert communicator. While this may be objective in some regard, there are certain traits that great communicators share. These include superior listening skills, an aptitude for learning and teaching yourself, and a general curiosity. With regard to curiosity, there comes the ability to draw connections from things you’ve been exposed to in the past and seeing how those experiences or bits of information can be leveraged in the work that you do as a PR professional. Other key traits are self-awareness and growing a tough skin. Students and young PR professionals need to take constructive feedback without internalizing it or getting defensive. 


  1. Remember you’re interviewing them too. If you’re in the interview stage to land your first PR job, don’t let them ask all the questions. It’s just as important for you to “interview” the company and potential team members to get a better idea of their culture and what personality traits are generally a good fit. You’ll likely spend more hours a day with fellow employees than with your friends and family. Keep that in mind so you end up somewhere you genuinely enjoy working and with people that you are comfortable around. 


  1. Seek out mentors and advocates. When you land a new job, it’s important to understand who you’ll be working with and what the reporting structure will look like. It’s very likely that the person you’re reporting to is on the hunt for his or her next big promotion. Sometimes this can influence their relationships with their direct reports, as you could be competing with them down the line, if you advance more quickly than they do up the professional ladder. That said, I’ve advised students to seek out additional leaders or potential mentors that can advocate for their development and professional growth when promotion times come around. 


  1. Keep it short and sweet! Our attention spans are shrinking at an exponential rate. No reporter wants to read through a page-long pitch about your client’s latest product. That’s a sure case to end up in the “deleted” folder. Instead, practice on saying more, with less. Keep your writing short and concise across all client, media and company communications. 


  1. Multitask, but do it mindfully. I often hear people say that PR professionals are always good multitaskers. That may be a common trait, but there is a threshold. Don’t take on so many things at once that the other balls you’re juggling start to fall. 

For more tips and to hear what else I covered on my episode of the PR Wine Down podcast, check it out here.


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Tara Wyckoff

Tara Wyckoff is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.