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Breaking into Public Relations in Canada

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One of the great things about the public relations profession is that many of its skills are transferable from one country to another. Economies and media become ever more global in focus, the opportunities for international experience become increasingly exciting and more in demand.

Part of the reason for this is that the basic skills required to be a good communicator are universal. It's safe to say that, essentially, what you need to enter PR in the United States is what you'll need to join the profession in Canada.

With few exceptions, the recommendations of other contributors to this Career Directory with regard to education, internships and involvement in industry associations are every bit as true for Canada as for the U.S.

Every employer in Canada will stress the importance of having a university degree with emphasis on the liberal arts and communications. Like employers in the States, they will be looking for evidence that along with your degree you've picked up some work experience through internships or summer employment. And, without fail, they'll be looking for strong writing skills and creativity. No matter what part of the business you may want to specialize in, the ability to think clearly, strategically and creatively-and to put your thoughts in writing, will be among the strongest attributes you will have.

There Are Differences

Now, having said that the basic skills are the same for entering the business in Canada and the U.S., there are some differences to be taken into account.

Size of the Market

A convenient rule of thumb for comparing the size of Canadian markets with those of the U.S. is to divide the U.S. market by ten.

For the public relations business this often translates into smaller scale projects and correspondingly smaller budgets. However, many of the elements of a communications program are, in my experience, very similar, and practitioners in Canada can achieve the same level of professional satisfaction as their U.S. colleagues.

Canadian PR agencies vary in size just as much as U.S. firms, though the biggest ones in Canada are definitely smaller than their American counterparts. For example, Hill and Knowlton in Canada, which incorporates a public opinion research firm and a specialist government relations practice in addition to its other public relations practices, has a total of some 150 employees; in the U.S., Hill and Knowlton employs over 1,000.

Regional Differences

The majority of Canada's population is concentrated in Ontario and Quebec, and this is where the major PR agencies are located. However, well-established, small to medium-sized firms thrive in other provinces, serving the needs both of local clients and of clients in central Canada with markets and operations across the country.

The need to know two languages is, far more pressing in Canadian agencies than in American firms. In the province of Quebec, for example, it really isn't possible to work if you cannot speak French. In Ottawa, the national capital, there is a strong preference for bilingual staff. Even though the business language outside Quebec and Ottawa is predominantly English, bilingual candidates will have an edge over those with only one language. In fact, at Hill and Knowlton Toronto, we find ourselves continually executing dual-language campaigns to serve the needs of clients with interests in both the English-speaking and French-speaking markets.

Generalist or Specialist?

As the public relations profession matures and expands, the trend towards specialization continues to grow. This tendency is certainly part of Canadian PR, although, again, the size of the market to some extent lessens the impact. While there are increasing opportunities for career development in areas such as government relations and public affairs, financial relations, environmental communications and so on, these specializations often come after some years in the business.

My recommendation is that new entrants into the field try to gain some experience in a variety of areas. An understanding of what's involved in various aspects of the business will give you an opportunity to decide where you want to direct your career. As well, broad experience increases your professional value because you have seen business from varying perspectives. Knowing how different parts of a company's operations interrelate enables you to provide the most realistic and effective counsel.

An environmental problem or some proposed legislation could have a marked impact on a company's marketing strategies. If you know about marketing communications as well as these other areas, you'll be in a much stronger position to develop strategies and plans that are sensitive to all aspects of the business.

So What's A Typical First Year?

What you do in your first year in a Canadian agency is probably not too much different from what you'd do in the U.S. But no matter where you practice, your job description depends on a number of things. It depends on the size of the agency, its client list, its specializations. But most important of all, it depends on you.

I don't know of any agency that isn't looking for good young people who are going to make a difference to the future prosperity of the business. If you are keen and show a willingness to do anything to learn more about the public relations business, you will create opportunities for yourself that will propel you ahead of someone just putting in time.

Despite everything we say about academic qualifications, there is simply no substitute for experience. You have to have faced certain situations to know how to deal with them. To a large extent this is a function of time, and time moves at its own pace no matter how quickly we try to gain experience. But you can squeeze more into your learning years by being a team member, learning by observation and by participation.

To double-check this idea, I asked some of our staff who had joined us last year to give me a summary of the kind of work they had been doing in their first year with us. I'm pleased to say their work was wide-ranging. It involved, of course, the usual media list preparation and researching of background material for proposals and events. It also included a good deal of direct media relations and writing, including first drafts of program ideas.

And most importantly, it included exposure to clients. No one in their first year is managing a client relationship, but nor are they kept out of sight. Our philosophy is that our junior people learn by being part of the process and taking an appropriate part in client meetings and dealing directly with clients on some aspects of an assignment. All this is part of the learning experience, and, in some ways, the most exciting education is found not in the classroom, but in the boardroom.
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