The snow in Syracuse has melted, the school year is ending, and public relations graduates are starting the next step: resumes and interviews to launch the careers for which they’ve spent four years preparing.
I recently organized the first Benchmark Career Trip to Washington, DC, for PR majors at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. It is one of many opportunities our students have to network and find the career paths that will inspire their creativity and success. Our hosts had wisdom worth sharing:
Never. Stop. Learning.
More importantly, never stop being willing to learn. Your academic career may be ending—for now—but you have a craft to learn, experience to gain, and a professional identity to shape. Be open to new ideas and challenges that make you interesting, creative, flexible as an employee and, frankly, a colleague that people will want to have around. It’s normal in today’s market to change employers from time to time; even if you don’t, seeing a 20-year career in one place as a series of new assignments, new challenges, and new horizons will keep you fresh, creative, and engaged in your career.
In my prior career, I often told new press spokespeople that they could expect not only to be misquoted, but to be spectacularly and embarrassingly misquoted. Whatever mishap comes, the sun will rise tomorrow and you will get through it. Every agency loses clients or has work rejected. Campaigns sometimes don’t produce the results sought. Figure out why, learn from the failure, and do it better next time. Try not to make the same mistake twice. Remember this advice from entrepreneurs: if an entrepreneur hasn’t failed, it means they’re not trying hard enough.
Trust and credibility are the core of successful PR. Clients may forgive a good attempt that falls short, but they will never forgive failures of honesty, candor, and integrity. That includes being brave enough to tell them what they need to know but might not want to hear. Are there corners of the profession that deal exclusively with spin, misdirection, and propaganda? Absolutely. Make that a conscious choice, however, because once you are known to swim in that pool, it will be your reputation for a long time.
It’s a partnership, not a one-way street
Every employer wants to know what you can do for them, and rightly so; they’re writing your paycheck. They have to give you the chance to deliver. That means a professional environment; management that values employees; respect for innovation; willingness to mentor and grow employees; and a reputation for excellence. You cannot perform in an environment that crushes your soul, and no job is worth an abusive boss. Do your research even before you send in your resume.
But you do have to pay your dues
Your first assignments are all about showing that you are both capable and reliable. Be the team member who will jump in and collaborate. Portraying success as only about "who you know" is too cynical, but it is more than just merit and knowledge. It is what you can do, and who knows you can do it. In a needs-driven and sometimes crisis-driven industry like PR, the phrase "you know who really knows this and can be counted on to fix it?" is the preamble to being offered opportunities to shine. Do what you can to have that sentence end with your name.
Practical tips for interviews
Show up early, bring copies of your resume, and don’t assume it has been read. You must relate your experience to their needs, so don’t "wing it," do your research. Have an inventory of your strengths and interests. Everyone asks your greatest weakness; turn it to discussing what you want to learn next or the talent you are trying to acquire or nurture. Know what the employer does, what its corporate culture is, who its clients are, and familiarize yourself with its work. Look professional. One good piece of advice I received early in my career from a Madison Avenue headhunter: "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." And as strange as this may sound, do not chew gum. It has actually happened.
Take a deep breath and have faith in yourself
You may not get the first job for which you interview. Or the second. Or the one you have dreamed of for the last two years. Recalibrate, retarget, try again. You have made it this far and someone can use your talent. You just have not met them yet. When you do land, do not set yourself up to fail by worrying that it is not what you expected. Look around and see what you can do to make a difference, what you can learn, or with whom you can collaborate. Start making positive contributions where you are, and people will pull you to where you want to be. And remember: things come around. I once applied for a particular dream job three times before I got it, and honestly, they were right to pass me over the first two times. I was not ready.
Steven Pike is assistant professor of public relations and public diplomacy at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. He previously served 23 years as a public diplomacy practitioner and diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.