Getting Your First PR Job: My Two Cents for Aspiring PR Pros

When I was an aspiring public relations professional new to Kansas City and fresh out of college, I attended a PR job fair hosted by Fleishman Hillard. It was there that I met Larry Pfautsch, who was a University of Missouri alum like myself. I was fortunate that he took a few moments of his time to answer my questions, offer me some sage advice and gave me a shot confidence to pursue my dreams.

PRSSAKC-Summit_LogoThe experience left a mark on me. Over the years I’ve tried to make time to help young people just starting out who are where I once was. Today was one of those opportunities, at the #PRSSAKC Summit for our local student chapters of the Public Relations Society of America. Approximately 100 students from five states attended the event, which was one of the best programs for young PR professionals I’ve seen. Huge kudos and hearty thanks go out to my colleagues who organized the event.

I had the opportunity to meet with a number of students to review their resumes, and I thought some of the more frequent questions  and observations would be worth sharing when it comes to resumes and applying for jobs.

Do I need a cover letter?
A few years ago the answer to this question would always be yes. Now, many career counselors will say you don’t need one. For most jobs their right, but PR isn’t most jobs. If you want to make it public relations, you have to write. Your published clips might tell me if you have a good editor. Your resume should be polished well. But a cover letter is a good glimpse into your writing skills. I also want to see that you can connect your experience and talents to the job description. If you can’t sell me on yourself in a cover letter, how are you going to pitch a story? A good cover letter can get you in the door, and it can be the difference between landing in my A pile instead of the B pile. (The C pile is the trash can, by the way).

Should I list all my jobs or just experience relent to PR?
Some counselors will tell you to keep your experience relevant to the job you’re seeking. I agree when it comes to your second or third job. But when you’re looking to get hired for your first job, I need to know you’ve had a paying job with responsibilities. Even if you worked at McDonald’s, it tells me you know what working for a big company is like and understand the importance of rules and codes of conduct. When I’ve hired young people for communications jobs, I love to see customer-facing jobs like retail and restaurant service. The people skills you need in those jobs translate to PR in many ways.

How much design should I put into my resume?
I’m a meat and potatoes hiring manager. I want simple, clean and neat. Just give me a nice readable font, well-structured organization, job titles with companies and bullet point experiences. Give me your name and contact info at the top with a rule underneath. I don’t need anything fancy. Even with PDFs, you never know what can happen with overly designed resumes. If you’re applying for a job with high levels of design skills required, you can push the envelope a bit. But don’t go overboard. Make sure you use verbs and give me a “cause and effect” — tell me what you did and how it related to the overall goal or project.

What should I bring to an interview?
Always bring portfolio material just in case. If I need writing samples it should have been mentioned in the job listing and submitted with your resume. If you’re seeking a design job, definitely bring your book or a tablet you can show me. Don’t count on WiFi or a computer being in the interview room. When I was applying for a job I always put my writing samples on my website. With today’s cloud applications, YouTube and LinkedIn, sharing your samples has never been easier. Don’t be afraid to show off your tech skills. Bring your references if I ask for them.

About those references. Are you to call them?
It depends. Some companies and organizations have requirements to check resumes. With today’s privacy rules, most companies have policies that only allow you to verify dates of employment and titles and not give personal references. I’ll be honest — I haven’t called a reference in probably ten years. First, you should be giving me three to five people who will give you a glowing review. If you give me the name of someone who doesn’t endorse you, you’re making a big mistake. Second, I’m going to check you out in other ways. I’ll verify your resume online and check our your social media accounts. Those will usually tell me more than your references ever will. Google yourself and make sure you’re record is clean — and be ready if I bring up anything about you online. If you’ve been terminated from a job and are afraid it will come up, don’t sweat it. Terminations and layoffs happen frequently. Just be truthful and honest if you’re asked about why you left a job.

I sent in my resume. Is it OK to call?
Some people say tenacity and eagerness will be rewarded. I’m not one of those people. If I specify in the job listing “no calls please,” you better not call. I’ve known hiring managers who do that not to cut down on calls but to weed out candidates who can’t follow directions. I will gladly accept one call or voice mail from you. I appreciate a call because I may not get your resume. For the last job I hired at a Fortune 500, I didn’t receive the resume of three of my top five candidates from Human Resources. I only reviewed their resumes because they called and let me know they were interested. Once you call, the ball’s in my court. I should be polite enough to return your call and let you know I’m moving forward with other candidates. If you want to follow up a second time, find my email address or ask for it during your first call. I much prefer an email follow up than a phone call. Remember, I might be getting more than 100 resumes for this job — if everyone calls me two or three times, I can’t get my job done!

Should I send a thank you card?
By all means yes. Anytime you have an interview you should send a thank you note within 24 hours. I always recommend a handwritten note following a first interview. For a second interview email is fine. Sometimes you may have secondary interviews with other people in the company. Usually the turnaround time following second or third interviews is shorter, so email is acceptable to me.

What’s the one thing I should do to prepare for my career?
Write, write and write. The talent pool for PR professionals is pretty deep but the most valuable and least available skill is writing. If your studies don’t include journalism classes, consider volunteering for the college newspaper or seek internships focused on writing. It’s not enough to just write, but you need editors to help you hone your skills. If you can get professional or volunteer experience as a reporter, it will help you immensely down the road. As a former reporter myself, nothing has helped me more than being able to put myself in shoes of a reporter to anticipate their needs and questions.