10 tips for getting a job and getting ahead in communications

There are nearly 3 million recent college graduates looking to get a job this year. Here's how to stand out from the crowd.

After almost two decades in the PR business, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to get hired. I’ve reviewed thousands of resumes, interviewed hundreds of candidates, and hired dozens of people. In just the past 12 months at Burson-Marsteller, I’ve met with more than 200 pre-screened candidates and recruited more than 40 team members.

In a hiring environment where candidates typically far outnumber open positions, landing the right job can be tough, particularly in highly competitive markets such as New York City and Washington, DC.

It can be especially daunting if you’re just starting out. A survey from Accenture shows that while college graduates are as bullish as ever about their employment prospects, nearly half (49%) of their older counterparts who graduated in 2013 and 2014 still consider themselves underemployed, or working in a job that does not require a college degree – a number that has continued to trend upward the past few years.

If you are one of the 2.8 million university graduates hoping to gain a foothold on the first rung of the career ladder this year, and you’re looking to get into the communications business, here are 10 tips to help you stand out from the crowd while making mom and dad proud.

1. Network shamelessly
Many of the best positions in the PR agency world, and lots of other industries, get filled via word of mouth. That's how I got my first job. People trust their friends, and friends of friends, more than anyone else. You and your friends may not have address books filled with people in the agency world who are looking to hire, but you can get access to people who do, including parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, and professors. Don’t be shy about using those contacts. They all started at square one at some point, and invariably someone gave them a first break.

2. Don't get lost searching for the ideal job
Believe it or not, your biggest advantage is that you're young and inexperienced. It’s true! If you're smart, willing to learn, and aren’t afraid to work hard, an employer can potentially have you work on just about anything. My advice: get your foot in the door and get to know the place. Work out what you like and don't like, who's good at what they do and why, and who the good bosses are. Dig sideways! You have plenty of time to try different things and can afford to make a few mistakes. Remember, a career is a marathon, not a sprint.

3.  Have a point of view
In the PR and communications business, we are always pitching new business. Our goal is to be memorable, for all the right reasons. You need to be memorable, too. I interview between six and 10 people in any given week. That's a lot of faces and résumés to remember. If you’re a candidate, you need to work out how to make a connection with the person sitting across from you. Where are they from? On which account do they work? What do they talk, tweet, and Facebook about? Where did they go to school and what did they study? What about their job keeps them up at night? How can you make their team better, smarter, more successful?

4.  Do your homework
Back in the mists of time when I started my career, it wasn’t easy to find information about the people I met, their roles, and business. Not now! You have so many tools and platforms you can use to gather intelligence on the person interviewing you. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Slideshare, websites, blogs, and, of course, the news media, to name just a few. Use them to make yourself smarter about your prospective employer.

5. Choose people first, money and other stuff second.
One thing has made all the difference in my career: the people with whom I've had an opportunity to work. Find people from whom you can learn, and with whom you want to come to work. People who you like and look up to. Find your tribe and then stick with them as long as you can. Money is important, and there are lots of other factors that need to be weighed before you take a new job. But above all else, the people are what will define your experience.

6.  Become the right kind of "yes person"
Be the first to raise your hand to help out your colleagues. Ask, "What else can I do?" That way you’ll make a thousand friends before making a single enemy. Remember, it’s a small world.  

7.  Create solutions to problems no one even knew existed.
Anticipation is a mission-critical skill in our business. If you can come up with answers to questions that others didn’t yet realize needed to be asked, you will always be more than one step ahead of your clients and colleagues.

8.  Find a mentor and advocate.
Everybody needs a Sherpa for guidance. Find one and ask them if they would be willing to give you 30 minutes once a month. They'll probably give you more time than that and lots of wise counsel into the bargain.

9. Don't forget to do your own PR.
Doing great work is the most important thing on which to focus when you’re just starting out in your career. But it is also really important to make sure people know, in an appropriate way, that you’re doing great work. Don’t assume that your work will speak for itself. Find a way to let others know about your contributions.

10.  Remember to say thanks.
It’s amazing how many people don’t follow up to say thank you. Show your appreciation to anyone and everyone who helps you out, and even the people who don’t. It leaves such a positive impression and will pay off in the long run.

Alan Sexton is chair of the US corporate practice and New York market leader at Burson-Marsteller.

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