Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Forget what they taught you in college about searching for a PR job

June means a whole load of unsolicited resumes arrive in my e-mail box from college graduates around the country. Having been at the receiving end of thousands of cover letters and resumes over the years, I can tell you that nearly all of them are badly done and ineffective.

I am always puzzled as to what career counselors are telling graduates about their job hunting material. It's like they are all living in a time warp where everything is so cookie-cutter and unimaginative.

So to start this blog off, I'm giving out my veteran advice to anybody looking for a public relations position, not just college graduates. You know how they tell you to forget everything you learned in college when you get to the real world? Same applies here.

Your goal is to improve your odds in getting in the door for an interview. If you are a college student, you are up against every graduate who wants a PR job like you. If you already have a job, you're up against internal candidates and a growing pool of unemployed people in a crummy economy. So the burden is on you to absolutely stand out among the vast mediocrity that is out there. If you are smart, think the right way and do the work, you will improve your odds to get the interview.

This is public relations, not pharmaceuticals. So if your job search materials are boring, how can an employer feel you are going to drum up attention working for them in this field?

The person who opens your letter has 3 -5 seconds to decide whether they will keep reading your letter or trash it. So you had better grab them from the very first words. Think of the biggest public relations-related accomplishment you’ve done so far in your career. Start with that. If you interned somewhere and helped with a campaign, begin your letter with: “I helped Joe Blow’s PR firm launch the new brand of Fuzzbucket toothpaste by calling reporters, organizing a press conference, and writing the media alert for the event.” Elaborate a little. Tell them very quickly about other accomplishments. And what you can do for the company you’re writing to.

  • If you’re responding to a blind ad, make sure to address a couple of the ad’s points. If the ad says: “Must be a sports lover,” make sure to say not only how much you love sports, but give a couple of examples of what you’ve done in sports.
  • If you are targeting a company or firm for a job, tell them within the first two paragraphs that you know something about them. Mention a couple of clients (if they are a firm), or what announcements they’ve made lately (if it’s in-house). Show that you have done your homework.
  • Do all the research. Find copies of PRWeek (www.prweek.com), so you can learn what is going on in the industry on a consistent basis. Advertising Age magazine (www.adage.com) will be covering PR more this year. Check out books like Michael Sitrick’s “Spin!” which really give you a flavor for what goes on behind the scenes in publicity crises. Seek out meetings of the Publicity Club of New York and the Public Relations Society of America. Go out of your way to get a public relations internship and see what it’s like from the inside. Visit the web sites of PR firms. Read a copy of O’Dwyers Guide to Public Relations Firms in the library to research potential employers.
  • Show that you really read the ad. Companies get thousands of resumes and cover letters every year. 98% of them are terrible and are immediately discarded because of boring writing, lack of care, not reading the ad, irrelevant experience or a combination.
  • Write a killer cover letter. If you start your letter with anything resembling, “I am writing to you regarding the position you have posted…” or “I am a senior and will be graduating from college in May,” you’re out. B-O-R-I-N-G. Everybody starts their letter like that and it says nothing.
  • Put your accomplishments on your resume and embellish. Even if you’re repeating what you said in the cover letter, this is your chance to embellish. Use bullet points and expand on saying “wrote press releases” or “answered phones” by explaining some specific things you did (i.e. “wrote media alerts for store opening, attracting local TV and newspaper coverage from all outlets” “pitched radio and TV about new product, resulting in five media interviews with company president”). Employers want to hire do-ers, people who accomplish things.
  • Be contrarian -- send an ink-on-paper letter and resume instead of e-mail, which can be easily deleted.

  • Don’t send letters with unusual fonts or colored paper.

  • Be creative if it means something to the person you’re sending it to. But don’t overdo it.
  • Show up 5 to 10 minutes before your scheduled interview time – no earlier. Walk around the block if you have to kill time.
  • Ask for informational interviews if there are no job openings. Networking is critical, so ask if you can meet for 15 minutes for advice and guidance. Many executives who would normally not meet with you feel good about career counseling and will see you. Bring your portfolio of clips or public relations-related work. You never know who they know who can help you out. You want to see as many people as possible and build your network.
  • If somebody offers you an internship, seriously consider taking it. Nothing beats getting real world experience and your foot in the door somewhere. Not only does it look better on your resume, employers like hiring people who have some chops under their belt. Additionally, internships can lead to full time jobs.

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