From time to time, journalists ask me for thoughts on moving into public relations. Somebody tells them about my shift to PR a couple of decades ago after a dozen years as a newspaper reporter and editor. So I get the opportunity to share what worked for me — and hopefully will help them. Here are a few of the things I did. (By the way, I don’t regret the career change at all.)
(1) Strategic outreach to my network (although I didn’t know it at the time). I sent letters and resumes to contacts at companies I admired and knew were doing well, and followed up with phone calls. I had the great fortune of doing in-depth research as part of my job as a business reporter, so I knew who they were. I didn’t hear back from many of them, got rejection letters from others… Then, one called and said he was working to create a position in the corporate communications office he led at a computer software firm. That landed my first job in PR. I put my background as a reporter to use pitching stories about our software to trade journals and writing customer success pieces.
(2) Join the Public Relations Society of America and start attending its monthly meetings. My first manager encouraged me to join. He said it would be a good place for me to keep up with the pulse of the local PR scene, which would help us identify good candidates if our office expanded and keep us up to date with the latest in PR and communications. He also joked (sort-of) that a single guy like me might find a wife in an organization with so many women. I did end up meeting my wife at an Internal Association of Business Communicators (IABC) meeting!
(3) Connect with people at PRSA meetings. As a business reporter, I had learned a few things about networking at events. One tip was to set a goal of exchanging several business cards at an event. Take time to ask each person where they work and what they do. Ask where they went to school, etc. Be sure to have a concise description of your role and/or career objective rehearsed and ready, and bridge to it when appropriate. When you leave, jot a note or two about each person on the business card that will help with followup. Be sure to connect on LinkedIn, if you haven’t already.
(4) Reach out to your contacts when the seemingly inevitable happens. I had only been in PRSA for about a year when my first PR job was eliminated as part of a company-wide downsizing. I e-mailed and/or called people in PRSA I barely knew, and several of them gave me good leads. They steered me away from dysfunctional situations and pointed me to possibilities I didn’t know existed. For example, I had seen an ad that stressed desktop publishing ability, which I didn’t have. But a contact who had a freelance job with the government social services agency suggested that I call anyway. Within two hours, I had an interview! Within two weeks, I had a job — one that would keep me gainfully employed for the next 17 years! My manager viewed the ability to write interesting and informative articles in AP style and on deadline was much more valuable than desktop publishing, a skill that could be learned in a relatively short time.
(5) Get your APR (Accredited in Public Relations) from PRSA. This was a game-changer for me. It taught me about areas of PR beyond media relations and newsletter/fact sheet writing. It showed me how to develop strategic communications programs. Now, it’s part of my DNA — Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. I’ve had the great fortune of developing and carrying out plans with worthy goals such as getting employee buy-in for an important foster parent recruitment campaign, making an intranet an essential part of employees’ workdays, and building awareness for a a previously low-key healthcare system.
(6) Get involved in PRSA volunteer opportunities. Another major step came when I joined the leadership team of the Cincinnati PRSA chapter. I gained invaluable experience about event planning while serving as programming chair and, more importantly, about leadership during my year as chapter president. I made amazing contacts, many of whom I now consider good friends. I learned how to work collaboratively with diverse groups of talented individuals. Five times, I served as a National Assembly delegate, which allowed me to connect with PR go-getters from across the country.
(7) Never stop learning. As time goes on, I find myself endlessly reading PR, marketing and digital strategy books and blog posts. I attend not just PRSA meetings, but offerings of groups such as the American Marketing Association, Cincinnati Social Media, the Social Media Health Network… This is a vast field, with lines between PR, marketing, communications and advertising blurring as never before. Technological advances come faster and faster.
(8) Follow the leaders on social media. Twitter opens the door to a treasure trove of valuable information — white papers, infographics, podcasts, videos, webinars… Hashtags take you to conferences around the globe focused on PR, marketing, digital, healthcare communication, innovation, inspiration… you name it. You get access to well-known authors and speakers as never before. LinkedIn is awesome. Facebook and Google+ and YouTube, oh my!
(9) Don’t take yourself too damn seriously. This is just a note to me. I can get super serious and stressed out about this stuff. Lighten up and have fun. The journey into PR is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the process!
Started reading Networked: The New Social Operating System by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. It’s a fascinating look at the way societal trends have shaped the way we communicate. I’ll do a book report after I’m finished.
But, for now, I’d like to share a few thoughts that have been bubbling in my head as I soak in the knowledge from Networked.
For one, I’ve been thinking about those who serve as powerful networkers — those who nurture powerful connections and get a lot of great things accomplished due to their networking skills. The people I admire are humble, giving, go-getters who attract the same into their worlds. They work hard and have passion for the causes that motivate them.
Also, I’ve been pondering those who go about networking in entirely the wrong way. For example, I got a LinkedIn invite from a financial services person recently who really played up our common bond as Ohio University grads. Literally within a minute of accepting his invitation, he wanted to meet with me in-person to talk about my financial needs. Soon, there was a voice mail at work. Then, an e-mail. Got to admire his persistence, but it was a major turn-off to me.
However, I feel like I’ve been on the other end at times. I recall years ago when the editor of a trade publication I was trying to pitch told me to back off — in not so polite of terms. I told my boss, who congratulated me for being persistent. He didn’t want a timid PR pro trying to sell the trades on our company’s story.
My biggest lesson — from being a reporter/editor and a PR pro and a human being in this era of networks — is that relationships develop at various paces. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes slowly. It just depends.
You learn when to push harder, and when to back off. You realize that you’re in this for the long haul. Seeds that you plant now may pay off literally years down the road.
I really like the view from my office window on the edge of downtown Cincinnati. It reminds me to get away from my computer, join the human race, and connect in person with my many online friends and associates.
The world of blogs, social networks, message boards and the like has linked me to a vast network of amazing people. We share information and ideas literally every day. We ask and answer questions, post photos of cool places and people, and generally get to know each other better. We already have some knowledge of our backgrounds, perhaps even a close bond, when we finally meet in person or reunite.
Since creating a Twitter account four years ago, my “networking” has gone on steroids. Instead of just connecting at PRSA meetings and conferences, I now trade handshakes, smiles and hugs with all sorts of folks at organized meetups of groups such as Cincinnati Social Media, New Media Cincinnati and the Social Media Health Network. I enjoy conversations over coffee or lunch with lots more people than ever. There’s just not enough time in the day to attend all of the great conferences, bootcamps, workshops and the like where I finally get to see that person I’ve only viewed in photos or, perhaps, videos.
So, I encourage you to do the same, if you haven’t already. Get out there. It’s not just about fostering online relationships. It’s about meeting great people in the flesh.
My boss looked at me with a smile this morning after I gave a brief update about connecting with some business associates. I really get excited about the people I meet and the knowledge we share with each other.
“You sure like networking,” he said.
“Yes, I guess I do,” I replied with a smile of my own.
It wasn’t always that way, though. There was a time when I felt out of place at networking events. I got very nervous about having a meal or coffee with a professional contact.
But that began to change years ago when I took a job as a reporter at a business publication. Our publisher gave me a few basic tips that really helped. Getting active in professional associations such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and serving on the board of a community organization raised my comfort level considerably.
Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful:
* Bring business cards and make a goal of handing out a certain number. Don’t just shove them into somebody’s hand and move on. Get to know them, and then politely head to the next person.
* Ask questions. Express genuine interest in what the other person has to say. Everyone has a story to tell. Listen to it.
* Find a commonality. Perhaps you attended the same school, like the same kind of music, love the same vacation spot. Use that as a conversation point.
* Try to find ways to help the person. Perhaps you can point them to a resource or a contact that would help them further their goals.
* Get to the point. If there is a key point you want to make, do it quickly. If you’re looking for a job or building awareness about a product or service, be concise. Don’t hold the person hostage.
* Have fun. Enjoy the conversation. I’ve developed lasting relationships and friendships by attempting to practice some of the above.
I’d love to hear some of your networking tips. Please feel free to share in the comments.