The next generation: First step forward

As fresh graduates dreaming of a glamorous job in PR flood agencies with CVs, three young PROs talk to Stephanie Roberts about their experiences.

It's that time of year again when thousands of graduates will be spilling out of university, hoping to walk into the career they've spent three years studying hard for.

Or, taking a more sardonic view, they're looking for something that pays well, where no one day is the same as the next, and is a job that will be the envy of all their friends.

There are certain careers that will attract more graduates for their perceived glamour and variety in day-to-day work. PR certainly falls into that category. As recent research conducted by Milkround Online showed (PRWeek 6 June), out of the 5,000 graduates polled who wished to work in PR, 35 per cent were inevitably drawn to the world of celebrity and entertainment PR, while the tech sector only gained seven per cent of the votes, and internal comms fared even worse with four per cent.

However, the majority of those polled were realistic about the real world of PR, with almost 50 per cent believing the average working week would be 40-45 hours.

To find out a little more about what the world of PR is like for a graduate, PRWeek asked three of last year's intake whether working in PR met their expectations and what this year's graduates should consider when choosing where to apply.

TOM MACKEY - SKY TV

'Tom who?' was the abrupt and unnerving welcome I had to the world of PR.

'Tom Mackey, Sky TV,' I repeated, trying to sound all-conquering and confident but failing miserably. 'I was, erm ... wondering, if you would er ... be interested in er ...' I continued, but the journalist had gone. Did she care this was the first call of my fledging PR career? Quite clearly, no. Her deadline was in five minutes and she was stopping for no one.

Six months earlier, I had been lured into a vast university sports hall on the premise of freebies from companies wanting me to be their next accountant, management consultant or sales executive.

But I wanted a job in PR. While this industry is great at PR-ing itself - it's fair to say most students regard it as a glamorous job with long lunches and amazing parties - the reason I looked to it is because I wanted to work within a creative industry where I would be able to influence public perceptions. Media PR seemed a good fit, and this meant I was more likely to work in-house.

The problem I initially faced was finding out where these in-house jobs existed. Most jobs advertised in media PR wanted a minimum of two years experience. I had blitzed the careers service and media companies, talked to industry people and embarked on work experience.

While all this provided a good background, in the end I heard about the junior position at Sky's in-house PR team through a friend.

Sky appealed to me because I see multi-channel TV as the future - just look at the ratings. Working in-house means I get a sound understanding of what Sky, and the broadcasting industry in general, is about. From day one, I have experienced the whole spectrum of PR, both proactive and reactive.

My main remit is working on Sky News alongside two senior PROs. So far, the Iraq war has been the most challenging period for me. Proactively selling-in features and authored pieces from the field, in addition to getting ratings stories out, it seemed the phones never stopped ringing and, as a team, we had to respond to a range of sensitive issues.

At the same time, I was part of the PR team launching three new music channels: the Amp, Scuzz and Flaunt. The amount of effort and organisation that went into the launch events was phenomenal. I would go from dealing with safety in Iraq in the morning, to seeing raucous rockers reveal all in the afternoon.

While my job has not been part of a formal graduate scheme that has not mattered. If I think a project or course will help my development I'm allowed, and encouraged, to get involved. I have been on PR courses as well, but these mainly refresh what I've learnt at Sky. In addition, the seasoned PROs at Sky support me and I learn from them, being able to constantly badger them with questions.

The role has evolved, as I've taken on more responsibility as I progress.

The job is different to what I imagined; for example, instead of working alone, people bounce ideas around, making sure they've squeezed every possible story out of a project. There's a real buzz here, and I enjoy being part of the in-house team.

And the journalist who put the phone down on me ... well, she's just done a double page spread on Sky News.

TOM ELLIS - Firefly Communications

As a graduate wanting to venture into PR, I was looking for a job that would offer me the opportunity to write, be creative, work in media, as well as learn about a variety of business. I saw that the best chance to find all these was within agency PR.

But I realised all these aspects of employment were top of many other graduates' wish lists, and getting in to PR would be highly competitive.

I applied for the position at Firefly Communications on the recommendation of friends who knew the company and found that, while the interview process itself was intensive, it was also designed to be challenging.

On arrival, as the company was extremely busy, my fellow graduates and I were expected to hit the ground running. One of my key reasons for joining Firefly was its training programme, in which I've been trained in basic PR skills such as writing pitches, press releases and opinion pieces, delivering a presentation, pitching for new business, time management, presence, technology, analyst relations and attending client lunches.

However, I quickly found that, while the training was useful, most of my learning was on the job. My first months were spent developing PR skills and reading frantically to familiarise myself with publications and issues.

With a diverse range of clients, covering sectors such as corporate, consumer, tech, telecoms, TV & entertainment, HR and media, I spent much of my first few weeks simply trying to get my head around their businesses. While there was plenty of team support, understanding enterprise application integration often seemed a good deal more complex than my university degree.

But being thrown in at the deep end does have its advantages. My knowledge of both clients and media far exceeds what it would have been if I had been stuck doing admin for the first six months, and has helped me become much better at the client-balancing act.

On average, I work between 40 to 45 hours a week, but one of the most useful aspects of joining Firefly is the 'social induction' graduates are given. This included new grads lunch, drinks during the week, mentor lunches, even bowling and ice-skating. One of the advantages of this is that when you do inevitably need to ask a 'stupid question', it's a lot easier to ask someone when you've socialised with them outside work.

AMY GOOCH - HBL Media

Following graduation I underwent a couple of work experience placements to get an idea of which career path I should follow.

One was working on a local paper and, although it was entertaining, I began to be more interested to learn just how much of what I read came from press releases.

So the placement that won hands down was working at the Central Office of Information in London.

Following this, while researching how to get into PR, I realised the industry is an extremely competitive area. Therefore I opted to take the PR post-graduate course at Cardiff University to get a head start. The course was tipped as having 100 per cent success in placing students into PR jobs after completion. For me, this was true. My boss approached my tutor for candidates.

Work experience is the most crucial factor in order to get into PR, and my course was very much 'hands-on'. It involved a day-per-week placement, plus three weeks at Easter. Work experience is the only way to try and bypass the catch-22 situation of how to get into PR when employers want at least six months' experience.

Once I had decided in which area I wanted to specialise, the next question was whether to go to a large or small agency. During my interview at HBL Media, I saw one of the advantages of working at a small agency was the freedom to take on as much responsibility as possible, and not be pigeonholed into a narrow job specification, where the reins are pulled in as soon as you step outside your boundaries.

When working for a small team it is essential to pull your own weight, and you find yourself getting involved in every area of the business - HBL also offers media training and conference TV, so I am learning about these areas too.

One popular misconception is small agency equals small clients. This is not the case. At HBL I work on some big accounts. And another selling point was the company's history. Three ex-journalists founded the company, so among the things I've learnt are how to understand a journalist's agenda and how to locate a story.

My job has so far lived up to my expectations - for example, I met with clients in my first week, and wrote my first opinion piece on IP virtual private networks. This was the best way to learn about the client, HBL's house-style and how to sell in a story, and certainly was preferable to being introduced to the newspapers, glue and scissors and told to get on with it.

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