How to get hired by a PR firm in 2015

Charles Lankester, senior vice-president with Ruder Finn, offers 11 pieces of free advice for job-seekers in the PR field.

Charles Lankester, SVP, reputation-management practice, Asia-Pacific, Ruder Finn
Charles Lankester, SVP, reputation-management practice, Asia-Pacific, Ruder Finn

Over the past week I heard of two cases where very academically bright candidates delivered poor quality (read: dreadful) interviews. Book smart and street stupid is a dangerous combination in 2015, in any industry. I thought I would share a few notes on how to maximize your chances of getting hired into a PR firm.

1. Understand what public relations is in 2015. It’s not about building relationships, events or making connections. It’s increasingly a data-driven, carefully planned and strategic business that should deliver measurable business outcomes.  You must be able to define public relations from an industry standpoint—and ideally offer your own definition.

2.  Understand the industry. Read the trade media. Learn about the latest campaigns, client moves, industry trends, client wins and losses. Get to know the industry lexicon. Have an opinion on campaigns. Did any of them impact or impress you? Why? Why not? Again, it is vital to have a point of view.

3. Research your potential employer. Find out where they do business, who are their biggest clients and research their strategy/positioning. Immerse yourself in their world. Research and understand their product and service names. Find out about their latest developments, people moves, hires, client wins. The more you sound like an insider, the more impressed we will be.

4. Getting the interview. It’s always better to be introduced via a friend of the firm or a client, but we tend to be a fairly egalitarian industry. We have also all "been there" looking for work. Hint: research the CEO/MD of the office where you want to work and email her/him directly. Establish yourself as an individual with the boss vs. be one of many CVs sent to him/her by the HR department. Hint: Don’t wait for a job to be advertised! If you like and respect the firm, write in and seek an interview. This kind of "can do" initiative and approach always impresses.

5. Social and digital insight. You must understand this area and have a point of view. What new knowledge or insight can you bring? What are the hot three social media platforms in China that we should care about? Why? If you write a thought piece like this you will automatically be in the Top 5 percent of candidates. But is has to be good and it has to be original! We also look carefully at your social media profile, so have a decent LinkedIn, Facebook and/or Twitter presence.

6. Make a big effort with your first communication. Be memorable. Explain why we can’t live without you.  Remember: your communication is one of many we will see every month. Competition is fierce. Why should we care about you? Show your social-media skills. Share a POV about a PR industry trend. By all means send an email, but consider something more memorable. Maybe create a Facebook page? Your personal business website? Or even consider a letter on paper that you send as a document and email as a PDF?

7. Three things that will kill your chances with your first communication? 1) "Dear Sir or Madam". This shows you can’t even be bothered to find the right name. 2) A typo in the name of the person you are writing to and/or in the text of your email or letter. If you are too lazy or disinterested to check spellings when we hear from you for the first time, why should we even consider trusting you with our clients? 3) Using a "standard" introduction letter and/or where you use a different font or point size so we know you are too lazy to make the effort to write a personal, tailor-made approach. "I am pleased to contact COMPANY about your advertised role for ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE". See what I mean?

8. The interview. So many candidates make the same old mistakes it makes me want to weep. Let’s start at the beginning. Repeat after me "I will never get a Second chance to make a First impression". When you meet your interviewer, be it in Starbucks or the boardroom, remember it’s all business. Shake hands firmly whether you are male or female. The "wet fish", "soggy" or "finger clasp" handshake are total no-nos.  Also print up some smart business cards so you have something to hand over. The card is a vital part of the business introduction. Hand it over with confidence. They cost very little. Just put your name, phone number and Email/Twitter/WhatsApp/WeChat details. It’s 2015. Reflect the channels of today.

9. Act like you mean it. Make eye contact with your interviewer. Be confident. Dress the part for the role. Dress for success. Be clear about what you want. But also be yourself. Bring some examples of your work—but not pages and pages. References from former employers (even if just when you were interning) are great and always impress. The bigger the name the better!

10. Be prepared for, and ask, questions. Think about the questions you may be asked and have good answers. Be prepared when the interviewer asks "Why do you want a career in PR? What does PR mean to you? Why did you not chose advertising? What are the greatest challenges facing the industry?" Feel free to also ask your interviewer questions. In most cases they will be happy to answer. "How could I increase my chances to get a job in your firm? Why did you choose public relations? What are the three pieces of advice you would give someone considering a PR career in 2015?"

11. The follow-up. A short thank you email is fine. If you get our cell phone number, by all means send an SMS or WhatsApp. Keep it short and sweet. Also consider  sending something that will impress via email a few days after the interview to keep you top of mind. Maybe a news article that supports a point we discussed. Or a Tweet or social media comment. Use your judgment; make it interesting and supportive of your employment case.

There are no guarantees in life but by adhering to these principles, I am confident you will move into the top 25 percent of potential candidates in the interview process.

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