Starting your PR career in a world still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic will seem daunting. Some PR agencies lost a bulk of their clients at the start of the pandemic, as uncertainty loomed and marketing budgets were slashed. However, Canada is returning to normal with provinces putting reopening plans into motion and businesses ramping up activity for the rest of the year.
Inevitably, this past year has caused huge shifts in the PR industry and prompted new rules for marketing in a post-COVID world. PR practitioners have had to adapt to newfound ways of communicating and information sharing with our stakeholders or clients.
For new graduates, navigating a world forever changed by the pandemic is challenging in several ways. Mainly, the job market has taken a hit and the PR landscape has had to adapt as media professionals lost their jobs and one story relentlessly dominated over the rest.
As someone who worked throughout the pandemic, I will share insights on what has changed since the start of the pandemic and how you can best prepare for your upcoming job search.
Here are my top tips for new grads and anyone looking for a PR job right now:
- Understand what you excel at – and what you don’t
- Get to know the new PR landscape
- Pivot to strategic storytelling
- Become a T-shaped marketer
Understand what you excel at – and what you don’t
In an age of virtual interviews, it may feel like you’re giving an elevator pitch. You need to convey your personality and energy virtually rather than enjoying a casual conversation over coffee. And since we’re currently experiencing “Zoom fatigue”, most people don’t want to stay on video calls any longer than they have to. So make the most of the time you have with a prospective employer.
To start with, you need to understand both your strengths and weaknesses. Most interviews will ask you to speak about both these sides of yourself. And when you speak about a weakness, share a plan for how you will improve and turn that weakness into a strength.
It may seem pretty obvious, but read the job posting carefully and review each of the employer’s requirements. By doing so, you can identify a handful of qualifications to confidently speak about. If an employer is seeking a certain skill that you have, include it in your resume or cover letter and bring it up in the interview, without waiting for them to ask you about it.
When reviewing the resumes of potential interns or junior coordinators, I always look for candidates who can do three things:
- Clearly articulate their skills
- Describe how their skills are relevant to the role
- Demonstrate how attuned they are to their strengths
At a tech-focused agency, I once interviewed an exceptional intern candidate who had clearly researched our client list. They spoke to their knowledge of one of our past campaigns, a B2B tech conference organized by a global trade association. Then they showcased their keen PR eye by identifying the campaign’s key goals (ie. to gain more membership and awareness of the association’s research). They finished by affirming their interest in B2B tech by recalling similar campaigns from our client’s competitors.
A good employer isn’t looking for the ‘full package’, but rather how you can adapt to and progress in the job. Remember that they also own responsibility in developing and mentoring you, especially at junior or entry levels.
Your dream job might require some qualifications that you presently lack. However, articulating your desire to fulfill them and the steps you will take to achieve that in your role, makes a great first impression.
Get to know the new PR landscape
As you’ve probably learned in PR school, the Canadian media landscape is quite different from the broader range of journalism and news outlets available in the US or UK. Especially over the past year, it has become increasingly evident that traditional media is shrinking, along with the available pool of journalists. For instance, 48 community newspapers folded at the start of the pandemic, and in February, Bell Media shuttered 200 radio, television, on-air, newsroom, and programming positions.
An advantageous thing to do is to familiarize yourself with who the players are amongst major media outlets. Don’t forget to take into account all forms of media (TV, radio, newspaper, magazines, online), and their respective key journalists, editors, and reporters.
Try picking a topic of news you’re passionate about, or an area you aspire to focus on such as luxury retail. Read, watch, and listen to the media pieces in this area so you can pick up trends, storytelling perspectives, and who is covering this beat the most.
It won’t be easy to build rapport with media until you start working. However, you can still demonstrate your knowledge in interviews by dropping the names of the outlets and journalists you know. And if hired, you will be that much more equipped to hit the ground running.
One last thing to remember is that traditional media isn’t the only landscape out there. Influencers can be even more important in some industries, depending on what audience and consumer they’re trying to attract. Take the time to also research which influencers are big in the industries you want to work in and observe what kind of content they create and the sponsorships and partnerships they have.
Pivot to strategic storytelling
I’m not going to lie – due to changes in the media and PR landscape, it has become exponentially harder to land a story for some client campaigns (and during COVID-19, fewer stories have timely hooks).
However, strategic storytelling and reputation management help convey a brand’s product or service to a mass audience and builds positive sentiment for the company on an authentic and credible public platform. And this need will always persevere.
Communications Consultant Jordan Bower explained strategic storytelling this way: “A strategic story is more than ‘telling the right story at the right time’. It’s not about having an elevator pitch or another scripted story you tell frequently. It’s about ‘enrolling’ people in the bigger narrative that keeps them coming back for more.”
Over the past year, many brands opted to invest in digital media marketing to directly get to their audience who were spending most of their time at home, looking at screens. But when it comes to building robust brand stories, it’s PR practitioners who have the necessary skills.
As a communicator, you are as good as your ability to find the story angle and build the lead, no matter what you’re selling. Whether it is a bottle of wine, a financial service, or even blockchain technology – all of which were clients I have worked on in the past. Trust me, as long as you have the foundations of storytelling, you can transfer that skill to virtually any industry.
Before you start working, you can start exercising your storytelling skills. Pick a brand/product and an outlet or journalist, and formulate a pitch. Imagine you really have to send out this pitch and consider if it would actually be successful. You can also reverse engineer coverage by looking at an existing story and thinking through how it may have been pitched.
These exercises will help you think through real-world examples, which will allow you to speak more eloquently in interviews or be more confident when completing an assignment given during the hiring process.
If you have an interview coming up, come prepared with ideas on the kind of stories you would tell about the brand or the agency’s clients. You can even prepare a pitch and/or share the outlets you think would go for the story.
Become a T-shaped marketer
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies and clients saw communications and marketing professionals as expendable. Many professionals lost their jobs and agencies saw their client roster shrink. While the communications discipline was already merging with marketing, the pandemic has accelerated this shift.
Looking now and ahead, traditional approaches to PR may no longer be sufficient or relevant. Whether you want to work in-house or in an agency, PR practitioners need knowledge across multiple fields in order to be successful. Think social media, SEO, event planning, and more.
So what is a T-shaped marketer? Here’s how Buffer broke it down:
The concept of a T-shaped person comes from the world of hiring, and it describes the abilities that someone brings to a job — their depth and breadth of ability. The vertical, up-and-down stem of the “T” represents one’s depth in one or more areas, and the horizontal, side-to-side stem of the “T” represents one’s breadth.
Take a look at the diagram below. “Base knowledge” covers fields that are helpful to all kinds of marketers. “Marketing foundation” are areas that are useful for most marketers to be skilled in. And “channel expertise” are the channels whereby you find your audience and obtain their attention.
Being proficient in different areas and channels of marketing is seen as invaluable to employers. You can switch into different roles depending on business needs or crisis situations (such as when they are layoffs of other employees). Or if you lose your job, your diverse skillset will make you more relevant in the talent pool.
On any given day, I could be copywriting social media content, running digital ads, crafting a media advisory for news desks, liaising with event vendors, and conducting research for a business development opportunity. Not all of these are traditionally thought of as PR responsibilities yet they are part of my role.
Until you actually land your first job, you may be wondering how to upskill. You can look for volunteer opportunities on job boards such as Charity Village, where communications, social media, and event planning roles are available. You can also offer free help to friends who may be building a new business, just to gain some real-world experience and even a portfolio piece.
There are also plenty of online certifications and courses available – some at no cost. Afterward, you can add these certifications to your LinkedIn profile and mention them in your resume.
Having breadth and depth is clearly important, but as a new graduate, this outlook towards T-shaped marketers also gives more opportunity for you to apply your skills derived from past courses, part-time jobs, or volunteering that may not have been directly related to PR.
The job market is bouncing back for the first time in a year, though recovery will continue to be slow and steady. Continue to connect with recruiters, tap your network to access hidden job opportunities, and keep checking the Generation PR job board regularly.
During your search, look for ways to strengthen yourself as a PR professional, learn more about your field, and become an invaluable resource to your next employer. And with the above points of advice, I hope I’ve added a little more wind beneath your wings in your search!