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The Toughest Job You Face: Getting Your First One

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Several years ago, I found myself speaking to one of those really large lecture hall classes you know so well. In a sudden burst of curiosity, I asked the students: "How many of you here this morning want to graduate from this university?"

As you can imagine, a couple of hundred hands immediately shot into the air. Seeing that, I responded: "That's the biggest mistake you'll ever make. Why would you ever want to graduate? What you should be doing is switching majors every year or so, sending home for money, and staying here as long as you can. Why would you ever want to leave anything this perfect?"

That response was not what the students expected.

"Are You Ready To Leave Paradise?

There is much more than a grain of truth to the advice I gave those students. Think about it. Why do you want to leave Paradise for the Real World?

Out there where I live, work starts the same time every morning. The commute is longer than the walk from your dorm to your first class. That assumes you go to your first class.

In the commercial world, you don't 'cut' work.

You don't get many extensions on your projects.

And worst of all, you don't get every summer off.

So I advise you one more time in the strongest possible terms to stay where you are for as long as you can.

The balance of this article is directed at those of you who refuse to heed that advice, who are stubborn enough to want to seek your destiny, and confident that it will be a good one.

Are You Scared To Death?

A long time ago in 1961, an important event happened in my life. I graduated with a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I belong, in other words, to the generation of your parents, who we all know belong to the generation of dinosaurs.

I am going to tell you a deep, dark secret. When I graduated, I Was scared to death. Let me repeat that for emphasis. I WAS SCARED TO DEATH. What was I going to do? Would I fit? Was I good enough? Where would I start?

It took me two full years after I got that diploma to begin to find some answers. Some might say I wasted the two years that I spent working in the family retail business by day and attending law school by night. I don't think so. Anything we do contributes to our life experience.

In 1963, a full two years after I left Carolina, sheepskin in hand, I exited the family business, quit law school, and discovered the wonderful world of public relations. I went to work for a tiny one-person firm called Walker & Company. I was the first employee. Through the years, remembering my own humble origins, my own lack of direction, my own indecision, and my own very real fears when I was 22 years-old have helped me deal with my own children, with hundreds of students like you on different campuses, and in interview situations with young people visiting our company. I have walked in your shoes.

I want to spend the next few pages giving you a sense of what employers are looking for. Believe me, I know whereof I speak-my experience covers 27 years in the public relations industry, all of it with public relations firms. For the last 19 of those years, I have been in positions where I've interviewed many prospective employees and participated in all of the hiring decisions. For many of those years, I regularly hired entry-level people. The downside was their lack of experience. The upside was that they hadn't learned any sloppy habits somewhere else that I had to undo.

You Get Three Questions

As a senior public relations counselor, one of the questions I frequently ask a client is: "If you could only communicate a one-sentence message on a particular subject, what is the single most important thing you would say?" After the client responds, I then ask: 'If I let you have another message, what would the second most important thing be?" And then when the client is finished responding, I ask for the third. Nobody needs more than three basic messages, so I quit at that point.

I'm going to turn the tables here and ask myself that series of questions:

What is the single most important message I want you to absorb? Answer: Show me that you have the ability to think.

What is the second most important message? Answer: Let me see that you have a sense of values.

And finally, what is the third message? Answer: Demonstrate some energy. How Tall Are You?

I'm going to assume that many of you reading this Career Directory are currently enrolled in a university-level public relations sequence and that most of you are members of the Public Relations Student Society of America. In general, you have all probably taken the same type of courses. Most of you have done an internship or soon will. In that respect, you are all plain vanilla.

I am reminded of the time a few years ago when I was on a train that pulled into the Yokohama railroad station at rush hour. I will never forget looking out of the window and seeing several thousand Japanese on the platform. There, in the middle of this throng, was a very tall, very blond Westerner-something on the order of six-seven or six-eight. Obviously, he stood out.

If you want to meet success in the job market, you better find a way to stand out, too. Welcome To Missouri

When you come to see me looking for a job, you come armed with a diploma, a PRSSA background, an internship experience, and a dream. And so do all of the others. If you are invited to come back a second time, it is because you have demonstrated that you can think, that you have a sense of values, and that you have energy.

Let me be very honest with you, I make certain assumptions. I assume you like to write, that you can write, and that you have written something you want to show me. I assume you have some comprehension of the public relations process and what it is supposed to accomplish. I assume you know something about different types of media. I assume you have some knowledge of how to put together a newsletter.

I do not assume you can think. I do not assume you have values. I do not assume you have energy. As the Missouri license plate says: Show Me. Any prospective employer knows that he or she is going to have to pick up where your college education left off in terms of teaching you additional skills. What a prospective employer cannot teach you is how to think, how to have a strong sense of values, and how to exude energy.

Making the Leap

OK, It's June. Congratulations! You're a graduate. You've just given Mom and Dad the biggest raise they'll ever get-no more tuition payments! They're delighted by that and also very pleased that you have finished something you started. Many don't. It's a great time. Everybody's happy.

However, graduation is a little like getting a big new client. Soon the reality sets in that you better start delivering on all those promises. There's work to be done.

Parents as Partners

When you ask a young person up my way in Ohio what he or she is going to do after graduation, the answer you hear most often is: "I'll be going to Chicago. Everybody's there. Lots of jobs in Chicago". Folks, there's also 87 zillion June graduates in Chicago who want those jobs. But, if you want to go to Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, go. And, if you want to come back to your hometown of Cleveland or Lubbock or San Jose, that's great, too.

In either case, you'd better quickly recognize that your folks have a big emotional stake in your success. If you're smart, you'll make them partners in your job search. If you want a lot of grief, keep them in the dark.

Let's talk for a moment about what your folks have a right to expect from you and what you have a right to expect from them.

Here's what your folks should expect from you:
  • Clear recognition from you that your job is to get a job.
  • A serious, planned, proactive effort by you to make something happen.
  • Some type of work right now-regardless of what the job entails-to keep you in pocket change and away from the soap operas. For example, I just had a young man come through my offices a couple of weeks ago. He's working ll-to-7 as a machine tool operator at night and looking for a PR job by day. The best young person I ever hired in my life was working as a waitress till she could find an opportunity.
Here's what you should expect from your folks:
  • Supportive listening. Let us all remember we were once 22.
  • Space, Lots of space. There are things to talk about at dinner other than how today job search went. Getting a job is stressful. Adding unnecessary stress compounds an already difficult situation.
  • Respect-provided you are living up to your end of the bargain. And, if you're not, they need to come down on you with a little "tough love."
Connect To PRSA

So, armed with some parental understanding, you set out to get that first job. If you're in a small community, there will be darn few jobs and a small pool of people going after them. If you're in Chicago or other major metropolitan area, there will be more jobs and a much bigger pool of competition. The fundamentals are the same.

If you are a member of PRSSA, the first thing to do is connect with a PRSA member. Find one, call him up, and tell him the following:

(A) You're a PRSSA member.

(B) You're calling because you know he's in PRSA.

(C) Yes, it's true that you are in the job market, but what you need more than anything now is an informational interview so you can learn about the overall local job market and get a better handle on what people like him expect when they're hiring.

(D) Might you set up a time for such an information interview?

See if you can do this with one person from a PR firm, one from a corporation, and one from a non-profit organization.

If you're not a PRSSA member, what are you waiting for? Join (assuming there's a chapter on your campus).

Get Ready To Interview

It's the day of the first interview. Get out your navy blue interview suit, white shirt, and the conservative tie Dad or Mom's going to loan you. Clean your fingernails, comb your hair, and be on time.

And remember-this is an informational interview. If the person has a job and thinks you're great, he'll tell you. Otherwise, keep your end of the bargain and make it informational.

Keep these rules in mind:
  • Never leave an interview without at least two additional names of people to contact.
  • See if you can use the interviewer's name when you make those contacts.
  • Ask the interviewer to be alert to something that might be right for you. PR people hear about job situations all the time.
  • Get a critique of your resume.
  • Don't ask if you can call back in a few weeks. Tell him when you'll call him back to let him know where you are in the process and to see if he has heard of anything.
  • Send a thank-you note, but always look for opportunities to keep your name in front of that person in other ways. For example, you might see an article of interest about his company. Clip and send it with a quick note that you noticed it and thought it was interesting.
Let's back up for a minute and talk about the interview you just had. You are not necessarily there to sell yourself. By asking intelligent questions and inserting some intelligent comments, you will do that anyway. Remember, your goal, in addition to gathering information, is to stand out, to be memorable.

This is your opportunity to do what we talked about at the very beginning of this article: Show that you have the ability to think. Ask penetrating questions. Where does the interviewer think PR is heading in the 90s? Is he finding that a proliferation of specialized media is complicating his life or helping him tell the company's story? If he were starting out again, what advice would he give himself? In this informational interview, you are asking the questions. If you ask good ones, you'll leave the right impression. And you'll learn something from the answers.

Show the interviewer you have values. Have a point of view. Don't be plain vanilla. Feel strongly about something. Show a little passion on an issue. Or, if you really want to get a PR person talking, ask a question about ethics in business. Example: "I have a strong sense that as public relations is maturing; there is a concurrent tightening down of ethical standards. Do you find that to be true?"

Show the interviewer you have energy. I cannot tell you how many lethargic people have come to visit me-once. Sit up straight. Act like you want to be there. Don't speak in a monotone. There is a distinction between being a little bit laid back and dead.

Remember, one of the things you want from this person is a short list of a couple of more names of good local people who can help you gather more information. Out of that process-if you play your cards right-may well come a mentor. A mentor in this sense is somebody who thinks you're terrific and will really go to bat to help you get a job. Everybody should be so lucky as to have a mentor they can call or see on a regular basis.

The other thing this networking begins to get you is a small cadre of people who are alert to possibilities that might be right for you. Do whatever you can to remain in that person's memory by regularly reminding him or her that you are still out there. A follow-up call here and there, a note once in a while will help.

So, will attendance at some industry functions. For example, find out when your local PRSA or IABC chapter is having its next meeting. Find a way to get there. As difficult as it maybe for you, "Find a room". Plow into the crowd and make some new friends. And, when you do so, see if you can set a time to come over and talk to them in detail. We all know the expression "the early bird gets the worm." I would suggest to you that the persistent bird gets the job.

No Blue Resumes, Please

Let's talk about resumes. Ten or twenty years ago, somebody came up with the great idea that printing your resume on an off-color paper stock would make it stand out. Friends, beware of cosmetic fixes to real problems. Printing a poorly constructed, sloppy resume on sky blue paper doesn't do much for me. Let me give you three very specific pointers on your resume:

" Do not list a career objective. Put that in your cover letter. Tailor that letter to every recipient. And don't be afraid to tailor your resume, too.

" Don't tell me about your high school career. (I have actually seen resumes that go all the way back to elementary school to list credits.) I only want to know about what you've done in college and relevant work experience. In that respect, tell me more about a PR-related work experience or internship than your experiences as a busboy at McDonald's .

" Have that resume speak to the issues I have been emphasizing- thinking, values, and energy. Give me a flavor of those interesting things you've studied and done.

Armed with a great resume, you arrive in my office. Wonder of wonders, you are going to bring along a couple of samples of something you have written. You are not doing this because you think I have a job opening, but because you want my opinion of how these are packaged and whether or not I think they would be of interest to a prospective employer.

On too many occasions, I have had interviewees arrive in my office with a four-to-six inch stack of original clips from the campus paper. I don't want original clips. They make my fingers dirty. I want nice clean Xerox copies. And I don't want a four-to-six inch stack. I want four to six clips. Less is more. Show me a variety within that-not just publicity. Show me a speech, an ad, a PSA, a brochure. Have them neatly displayed. Think enough of your career to go out and buy a $25 display book as your showcase. Do as much for yourself as you would for an employer or a client.

Remember when I talked about three prioritized messages? What are the three messages you want to convey to me about yourself? Think that through well in advance of our meeting.

Here's another tip about coming to see me: Find out something about Edward Howard & Co. don't come in and tell me you're sorry you haven't had much chance to find out about us. Rather, come in and tell me how interesting you find it that we are Ohio's oldest firm and that we must have done something right to survive and prosper these last 63 years. Go to the directories and look us up. Find out something about our key people. If we've been in the media recently, find a way to let me know you're alert enough to have seen that.

Do your homework! Why would I want to find out about you if you don't want to know about me?

The Good News & The Bad News

Through the years, I have concluded that looking for a job is really a good news/bad news scenario. On the bad news side of the ledger, there are a lot of adults out there who have forgotten that somebody gave them a break once, that somebody spent time with them. You won't get through to these people. Those few you do reach will be at least off-putting and likely quite rude.

Another thing you need to know is that there are more of you than there are PR jobs. Communications in general and public relations in particular are "hot" revenue sources for universities and we may be doing young people a disservice by turning out more of you than we need.

And get used to hearing people say, "...come back when you have some experience". You'll have some experience when somebody gives you some. Also, don't forget an internship is experience.

On the good news side of the ledger, there are people who will see you. Don't take rejection personally. Keep plowing ahead. You will find some good folks. There are entry-level public relations jobs. And finally, although you are lacking in experience, there is no doubt in my mind that a friend of mine was right when he said you are "...up to the experience." If you believe that too, it will shine through in every situation.

19 Years-19 Tips

Let me close with a random laundry list of specific tips. As you read them, remember I've been interviewing people just like you for 19 years.
  • Steak is more important than its sizzle. Don't be slick. Be you.
  • The single most important attribute of a good communicator is listening skills. Show me you have these. Let's have a conversation, not a monologue.
  • When I hire, I hire attitude. I can teach you almost everything else. Show me that you'll roll your sleeves up and get into the trenches with me.
  • The credibility of an organization is personified by its public relations staff. Convince me you are a credible person.
  • In public relations, perception is reality. Conduct your life with the knowledge that PR people are visible people. Conduct yourself in an interview as a person of good judgment and taste.
  • Public relation is a business where you never stop learning. PRSA members are interested in people committed to professional development. Share that commitment.
  • Network with young people in your community who got a job last year. What did they do right? What mistakes did they make?
  • Build your portfolio by volunteering. Don't restrict yourself to the classroom. Find an organization that needs a brochure or a feature story and let that become part of your portfolio.
  • Never stop networking. The more people you meet, the more you know.
  • Remember you are not looking for a career right now. You are looking for a job. You do not need ten jobs. You need one. The hardest job you will ever find is the first one. After that, you're a member of the club, and you can make a switch quite easily. Don't panic.
  • Retain your humor. There is a lot of humor in the process you are facing.
  • Get into PRSA as fast as you can. As a PRSSA member, you can ease into this for $50 a year for your first two years after graduation. Earn an APR designation as fast as you can-its value is going to go up a lot in the 90s.
  • Never set a deadline for getting a job. If you tell yourself you will find a job by September 1, you are setting yourself up for failure. Just keep pushing ahead steadily, and it will happen.
  • Remember what you've learned. Focus on benefits for the person on the other side of the desk.
  • Involve your parents in the process. If they are partners, they will be supporters. If you shut them out of the process, prepare for a big-time hassle.
  • Rigid people are not successful in our business. Be flexible. Roll with the punches.
  • Although there are more of you than there are entry-level jobs, PR executives constantly decry the shortage of good people they can hire. So there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Somewhere down the road, remember all the people who help you. Repay them by helping some young men and women who are where you are today.
  • And, finally, don't worry about being the best. Just be the best that you can be. That's an important distinction. Be the best that you can be.
In my career, I have been blessed with some wonderful experiences. Without a doubt, the highlight was 1984 when I was privileged to serve as Chairman of PRSA's Counselors Academy, the professional organization representing more than a thousand men and women from the public relations counseling firms. A year later in 1985, on the occasion of the Counselors Academy's 25th Anniversary, I was asked to deliver the after-dinner speech commemorating that milestone birthday. The thoughts I expressed at that time are something I would like to leave you with:

''...The world in which you and I live is characterized by crises, by surprises, by new opportunities, by lost opportunities, by sands that shift and by two waves that are never exactly the same. The companion who walks at our side every hour of every business day is called by the name Change. You and I spend our business lives on the leading edge of new developments.

...Members of our professional society are at once craftsmen and entrepreneurs, priests and business people. We stand on our own feet of clay to offer advice and counsel to other mere mortals. We place our hands directly on the tangible products of our craft. We are like-minded individuals....dedicated to the pursuit of more professional knowledge because we embrace the joy of learning as well as the concept that there is still much for all of us to learn...We know so little, yet our responsibility is large indeed. If we are to retain our relevance, the focus must remain on how good we are not, as compared to how good we are'

I think it is terribly exciting for you to be entering a field where you can indeed continue to grow and to learn every day throughout an entire career. And it is also terribly exciting to enter a field where-if you are good-one person truly can make a difference.

On behalf of your parents with whom I relate, my two children who are gainfully employed, and 15,000 professionals who care enough to belong to PRSA, I wish you every success, now and always.
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