From the outside

You don't need a PR degree to have the skills to succeed in the industry.

You don't need a PR degree to have the skills to succeed in the industry.

While Stefanie Aarthun was a lieutenant in the Navy, she learned about engineering systems and managed the day-to-day business of a division of sailors. Today, at 30, she's a senior associate in Burson-Marsteller's public affairs practice. “I don't get stressed out over little things because, in my experience in the Navy, when something goes really wrong, someone could get hurt,” Aarthun says.

While stationed in San Diego on the USS Pearl Harbor, Aarthun also did public affairs work on the side, including working on the ship's newsletter and serving as a liaison for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. She was accumulating experience in the field, knowing she would want to work in communications once her four years in the military were through.

During her post-Navy job search, Aarthun emphasized this work on her résumé, landing at Booz Allen and IBM Consulting before joining Burson a year ago.

“I highlighted any PR experience I had and focused Still, he suggests that those embarking on a on what would be important to the business world,” PR career get some sort of training quickly, for she says. “That was very attractive to the consulting example, through a communications or firms who wanted someone with military experience.”

Certainly, some experience in the art of communications is an asset when trying to build a PR career. But backgrounds, life experience is spending time in other disciplines won't automatically rule you out. Many now recognize the benefits of staffers whose paths to PR are diverse.

“To me, the most important thing is recognizing a transferable skill set,” says Maya Kalkay, HRdirector at Burson, who lists the ability to multi-task, quickly change focus, and the desire to stay current in a variety of subjects among coveted traits.

Still, HR departments and others involved in staffing must have a game plan for non-traditional hires.

“Hiring someone outside the traditional PR background [must be] strategically managed,” says Billee Howard, EVP and MD in the global strategic media group at Weber Shandwick. Right now, two out of her group's 17 members have outside experience (not counting those with journalism experience, a more common crossover), but she expects that figure to rise.

“As PR becomes much less tactical and more consultative, the more we need to [hire] people who can bring in a customized flavor,” she says.

The key, says Howard, is placing people at the appropriate level and keeping a handle on their progress. Renee Rossi, an account supervisor at WS, worked at the American Stock Exchange marketing to institutional investors. For Howard, her experience made her mid-level post seem most appropriate. Rossi says she has had to learn about new markets and build on the skills that she acquired previously in this role.

“I knew I wanted to go into PR based on what I was seeing with corporate reputation and branding,” says Rossi. “This job [means] taking a step back and looking at 50,000 feet. It's more macro than micro.”

With PR taking a bigger business role, candidates with a business background are becoming a logical non-traditional fit. That connection between business and PR is being made at the university level.

“Too many PR people assume that you need a speknowing she would want to work in communications cial qualification [for what they do],” says Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. “You need to be a better communicator, but you also need to have a solid foundation in business.”

For people with non-traditional backgrounds, life experience is also helpful.

“I know what's out there” says Aarthun. “I've drawn on my other experiences to help my clients.”

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