Samantha Sokol is a Communications Writer for the Canadian Olympic Committee and is based in Toronto, Ontario. She graduated from Seneca College’s PR/Communications Program and much of her work experience is in the sports industry.
How did you break into your industry and how did you advance to where you are today?
As part of my post-graduate course work at Seneca College (in the Public Relations and Corporate Communications program), I chose to be a part of the co-op stream and do an internship. Sports is a hard industry to break into and while I wouldn’t call it luck, as it took a lot of hard work and skill to land my internship, Seneca’s job board for students had a listing for a paid internship (very unheard of in sports!) with Golf Canada.
Knowing there would be a large number of applicants, I decided to write a press release as a cover letter to set myself apart from the crowd. Turns out the risk paid off and I landed my internship, where I spent the summer learning about the world of sports while expanding my communications toolkit. That experience certainly added some depth to my sports resume and was a contributing factor to how I landed my current position.
Two things I learned from this experience that I can impart:
- Set yourself apart from the crowd – in many industries, especially sports, the competition is fierce! If you really want to break in, you have to use your skillset to prove why you’re the one they should hire (or at least be considered for an interview).
- This one might be sports-specific but think outside the box as to what a career in the industry might look like. There’s nothing wrong with having big goals of working for a notable sports team or the Canadian Olympic Committee. However, nine times out of ten you need a lot of experience and skill to land them. That’s why it’s important to remember that there’s more to the sports industry. For example, many big banks have departments dedicated to sports marketing, or as it was in my case, National Sport Organizations with opportunities where you can grow as a professional and gain the necessary experience to achieve your “dream job.” Who knows, you might even decide that your dream job is different than what you originally thought!
Did you find your education provided a helpful background when you started your career?
My story is a bit different having been an “older” student – I did my post-grad in my late twenties in order to change careers. That being said, my education helped expand the skills that I already had which proved very helpful for my career. It was during my post-grad that I truly learned how to write like a communications professional – how to say more with less and what you can convey with precise word choice.
Most importantly, I was fortunate to have professors who believed in me enough to push me out of my comfort zone. I learned to be adaptable, to prepare myself to be ready for anything (my fellow Seneca grads will know what I’m talking about) and to be comfortable in high-stress situations. While a lot of learning ends up happening on the job, these lessons provided me with the tools and background necessary to be successful and grow in the communications industry.
What skills do you think a person needs to survive in the communications industry?
- Adaptability – It’s not enough to expect the unexpected because there are SO many unexpected things that you cannot necessarily prepare yourself for. The biggest thing is that once the unexpected happens, which it will, no matter how much you prepare, is that you can adapt to the situation to get what needs to be done, done.
- Creative and strategic thinking – There’s a reason why you focus so much on strategy in school. Every project needs strategy and objectives before you even consider tactics to deliver them. If you can’t think in terms of strategy and you can’t be creative in your thinking, you might find yourself in hot water.
- Objectivity – You need to be able to see a situation from all sides. What are the different viewpoints surrounding it? What questions would people from these viewpoints ask? The devil’s advocate in you is perhaps the most useful thing to grow. If you can anticipate any counterpoints or arguments against what you’re trying to communicate, you can be more efficient in your own communication.
What do you most enjoy about your job at the Canadian Olympic Committee?
That is a tough question. My job is pretty cool, especially since I’m a huge fan of the Olympics. Aside from getting to meet and work with some pretty incredible athletes, I would say I enjoy that no two days are the same. As a functioning workaholic, there’s something thrilling about touching multiple projects with competing deadlines, even when the unexpected happens and I have to reprioritize on the go. It’s rarely boring, to say the least.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen or experienced at your job?
In February, we put together a Vancouver 2010 10th Anniversary Celebration with a fan festival and Gala, which was an insane amount of work. The months leading up to the event were stressful with long hours and extra workdays. It is very easy to get caught up in the stress, daily to-dos and project planning. What sometimes got lost was just how special of an event we were putting together. Vancouver 2010, the last time an Olympics was hosted on Canadian soil, was a monumental part of our history that united everyone across our nation. To celebrate that, and to be a part of helping others reminisce – that’s not something everyone gets to experience.
The coolest thing I’ve experienced at my job came from one indescribable moment. There was a portion of our event when Clara Hughes, who was Canada’s flag bearer at the Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremonies, would once again carry the flag onto a stage we had set up. While other programming was playing on stage, Clara, who was a huge part of why I loved the Olympics, was waiting at the back doors for her signal.
I couldn’t help but watch as she waited. I watched the emotions etched upon Clara’s face and the tears that glistened in her eyes. As cliché as it sounds, everything else faded away. It was as if we were feeling everything she was feeling, remembering everything that she had experienced. As a writer, it’s not often that words escape me for long, but that moment will forever leave me speechless. While I am fortunate to experience many cool things (and I’m sure there’s more to come), that will forever remain one of the best.
What have you found to be the most important thing to keep in mind when working in a team environment?
Not everyone has the same approach to work that you do. Knowing how your team works and being able to communicate is extremely important. Consider being strategic with how you work with others. Does your teammate do better with specific instructions? Help by providing them with to-do lists and step-by-step instructions? Does your teammate deny your help when you offer to assist? Give them specifics on how you can help rather than simply asking what they need. Understanding the needs and personalities of your teammates will go a long way in an effective work environment.
What’s been your most rewarding career accomplishment thus far?
As many will probably know by now, on March 22 the Canadian Olympic Committee made the difficult decision to not send Team Canada to the Olympics if they were to take place in 2020. Not an easy thing to decide and not an easy thing to communicate.
Under those circumstances, I probably learned more that day than I did in a year of my career – a case study in crisis communications if you will. Rewarding might be a strange word to describe how being a part of that felt, but being able to be a part of that work (and managing to stay upright after an intense 72 hours) is an accomplishment I won’t soon forget.
What advice do you have for a new graduate who is having difficulty finding stable employment?
As difficult as the situation is, it provides you with an opportunity to evaluate your skills, your goals, and your applications. Sit back and take a hard look at what you’re doing that isn’t working. Could your cover letters be written ineffectively? Are you tailoring your resume to the job and company you’re applying for? Is there a skill that you’re missing? Did you miss a spelling or grammar mistake in your resume? What are you doing well during interviews and what do you need to work on?
These are all important questions to consider. Now is also the time to experiment with your applications – what can you do differently and are there creative ways you can be looking at to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Lastly, though it’s easier said than done, be patient. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just an issue of poor timing. Keep applying, keep looking for part-time projects that you might be able to work on while you’re looking for stable employment, and your time will come.
What is something a new grad can do to bulk up their resume?
Not every organization or business has the capacity or financial capability to have a dedicated communications team. Find those businesses (think local shops or charities) and offer your services to help on a project – whether it be creating a media kit or working with them to come up with a social media strategy.
While these opportunities are not often paid, they are a great way to bulk up your resume, build up your network and get referrals to potential paid projects or freelancing gigs). Another suggestion is to take targeted classes to fill the gaps of skills you didn’t have a chance to grow in school. There’s a fine line to take here. Don’t pad your resume with countless courses – be sure to pick a course or two that gets you skills that specifically benefit the job or industry you’re targeting in your job search.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or your industry that would be interesting or helpful to students and new grads?
I can’t say this enough – find a way to stand out from other applicants in a creative, strategic way. When I applied for my current job, I knew how popular the posting would be. Who wouldn’t want to work in the Olympic realm? I knew it wasn’t enough to wax poetic about how the inaugural women’s hockey events at Nagano 1998 changed the life of a little girl who loved watching hockey but didn’t see herself in players, or the impact of Joannie Rochette’s infamous display of vulnerability on the ice after losing her mother.
So, in what has come to be a defining move in my career, I came up with a strategy for my application. Since the job description required someone who was able to write press releases, bios, speeches, and Q&As, I created a “media guide”, complete with a press release announcing me as an amazing candidate, an ‘About Me’ biography page (modeled after the athlete bios I found on olympic.ca), a Q&A page and my resume. A bit extra? Yes. Did it work? Apparently.
My director spoke about it at a conference and started a #HireSamantha Twitter convo. Granted, it could have gone wrong. It could have implied that I was too much, difficult to deal with, or full of myself (who writes a press release about themselves?) but I took the chance.
This strategy might not work for you. It just happened to work for me and my personal brand. When I wrote a press release for my internship application, I was one of the few interns who wasn’t asked for reference checks. I also, by the way, created a portfolio and a separate Instagram page (@hiresamanthasokol) to show off what I thought at the time were amazing social media skills.
My point is, find whatever works for you, as long as you are able to a) stand out from the crowd and b) showcase your skills rather than something you just talk about on a cover letter. I can’t guarantee that it will get you the job or work in your industry, but it might be worth a try.