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Starting Your Career At A Large Public Relations Counseling Firm

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Large firms tend to attract large clients who are facing broad-based challenges. This increases opportunities for strategizing, creativity, and for implementing a broad range of communications activities. Another asset of a large firm is the diversity of co-workers' backgrounds. This can mean more experienced role models, as well as exposure to greater variety in styles and approaches to solving business problems.

The large firm, often international and thus globally oriented, also can afford better opportunity than a small firm can for understanding the complexities of worldwide business. Keeping in mind the industry trend toward globalization, availing you early of an international perspective may be tremendously helpful as your career progresses.

Whereas a small firm, often by necessity, is geared towards a certain specialization, the large firm often includes a combination of many specialties. Entire departments can focus on one particular type of client, i.e., the health care department in which account handlers are specialists in the health care industry; the consumer department wherein account handlers possess consumer marketing expertise; the hi tech department comprised of individuals with the specialized technical knowledge needed to aid their clients in this competitive industry. In addition, there are often specialists in communications functions media, audio visual, exhibits, communications training, design, internal communications, and on and on.

Also, the large firm often has a broader range of support services available to the account handling staff. In house libraries, computerized information services, production and printing, word processing departments, secretaries, and well equipped mailrooms let the account person devote more time to direct client work and give the entry level person invaluable experience at working with diverse groups.

Another major advantage of a large firm may be formalized training aimed at both the obvious, e.g., writing and editing, and the not so obvious, e.g., financial management and supervisory skills. During your interview with a large firm, ask what training is offered.

Other advantages of large firms may not be so apparent. For example, a person interested in working, say, in Hong Kong might ordinarily find it difficult to secure such a position. However, he or she could increase the chances of going to the Far East by joining a firm with offices there. It is important to keep in mind that firms transfer experienced employees more often than junior people. They do this because such experience may be required by the overseas office.

Some individuals who have not worked at a large firm may perceive size as a concern. They might fear they will "get lost." This is not the case if the individual has initiative. People who get involved in their clients' work and in the culture and programs of their firm, inevitably, are highly visible.

And remember, even the largest PR firms are really small or mid sized companies compared to other U.S. corporations. The leaders in large firms make a concerted effort to know the value of the individuals who work in their company, since these people are so critical to the firm's success.

The Skills You Need

If the large firm appeals to you as a place to start, the next question you must ask yourself is "What must I bring to the job?" Public relations professionals are concerned when college graduates present themselves armed with a broad list of personal attributes, but are unaware of how lacking they are in the basic skills the industry needs. While still in school, you should focus your energies on acquiring the skills necessary to make you a top candidate for a position after graduation. Journalism and communications skills are obvious. No so obvious is a basic understanding of how businesses work.

I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of a solid grasp of the fundamentals of the English language. Numerous studies have concluded that "Little Johnny/Mary can't read." The question facing public relations professionals, however, is: "Can Johnny/Mary write?" Basic writing skills composition, grammar, spelling, punctuation must be mastered. Most firms, large and small, make prospective candidates take a writing test. Firms repeatedly face the prospect of hiring from a pool of applicants who cannot pass this basic test. For example, applicants presented with the written text of a client speech too often are unable to identify the actual news in the speech and thus are unable to write the proper lead. You would be well advised, while still in school, to have your writing critiqued by a journalist to ensure your basic competency in this area. In today's public relations job market, the candidate possessing solid writing skills is far better positioned to get the preferred job.

Another area of strong concern to public relations professionals (in fact, to business professionals at large) is the lack of general business knowledge. If you want "an edge" in the job market, become well versed in current affairs and major business trends. A top executive, when addressing a gathering of students, has been known to ask "How many of you read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every morning?" It is surprising how few hands go up.

Unfortunately, university guidelines often hinder a student's ability to acquire the broad knowledge base so essential in today's business world. The communications curriculum, for example, usually does not allow for courses in accounting, as accounting is only for business majors. If you are fortunate enough to attend a school that has combined degree programs, such as communications/marketing, you should consider heading in this direction. The student who is well rounded in both communications and business is far better prepared for facing the day to day challenges of the public relations business than the student whose knowledge is so specialized that it severely restricts his or her approach to solving a client's problems.

The Behavior You Need

Your personal goals and how you work are also an essential factor in your success. Large firms are looking for people who are achievement oriented and committed to their jobs, who work well in teams and share information willingly, and who are open to learning new things.

As a young account handler recently remarked, "You have to pay your dues, prove yourself, and show that you are committed. If you want to work in an agency, forget '9 to 5'."

A teamwork spirit is also important since it is a major part of firm life. At a major firm, working on complex, multi faceted programs, teamwork dividing that program into well coordinated, discrete projects ensures that all projects drive towards the same objective.

Securing a Public Relations Position

In most cases, the human resources professional will be the first person you will deal with at a large public relations firm. What is this individual looking for in your resume and cover letter? Much should be obvious. Your cover letter should be well written and grammatically correct. A business type letter, direct and to the point, is much more effective than attempts at clever creativity, unusual imagery, and other so called attention grabbers (which, in fact, usually fall short and accomplish the opposite effect). The well prepared resume (many guidebooks are available to assist you) is reviewed with an eye towards schools attended, grades obtained, course of study, major/minor, etc.

At a large firm, the ability to work well under pressure and to juggle a myriad of projects is also essential. Participation in a range of extracurricular activities during school while maintaining good academic standing is evidence of these capabilities. Experience with school newspapers, yearbooks, debating clubs and community periodicals are all good learning experiences and will make an excellent impression, too.

If your resume leads to further consideration, be prepared to meet with several different individuals, each of whom will assess you're "fit" with their particular client. They will be looking for someone who speaks well, is focused on a career in communications, has a good sense of self, and projects a sense of leadership. Often, emphasis is not only on your ability to do the entry level job, but also whether you have the potential to grow and be promoted within the organization.

Responsibilities and Expectations

The student entering a large public relations firm will meet people with a diversity of jobs and job titles. These titles reflect the different functions the individuals perform in the firm and the different experiences expected.

As people are promoted in a firm, they are expected to handle a larger number of, and more complex, programs. The expectation, too, is that they will think more and more broadly about the business. And, while the time frame for a project handled by a junior person may be one week or one month, a senior person is expected to work and think in one year to five year time frames.

At the entry level, your job title will probably be account representative or assistant account executive, a position which primarily entails writing, and more writing! And adding to its organizational and detail oriented assignments coordinating events, compilation of media lists, research, etc. and you have a good idea of the types of activities the entry level person handles.

You'll also spend time learning about the firm and its clients their business, communications needs, marketing plans, competition, the environment in which they work, etc.

For the account representative, there is no such thing as a typical day. By its nature, public relations work is extremely varied in content, though a fast pace is a constant. One day can be a frenzy preparing for a press luncheon; the next can be spent reporting immediate results of that luncheon to a client. At a large firm, the opportunity to learn and develop is enhanced continuously as young account handler's move on to a variety of projects and clients, and even new departments, as new career opportunities and projects arise.


There are certainly a number of professions where entry level compensation is higher than in public relations. However, for the person who gets excited about communications, about the psychology of what makes people react, starting salary may not be of paramount importance. At this level, job satisfaction and potential are extremely important. This is not to imply, however, that your career cannot lead to a six figure income. Success brings rewards.

Salaries differ, too, depending on locale. More than likely, a student directly out of college with no significant experience should expect to receive a starting salary in the New York City area of around $20,000. In addition to straight salary, you should consider whether the company provides bonuses, good savings plans, and solid medical and dental benefits.

Perhaps the most important element to keep in mind when embarking on your public relations career is flexibility. If, after reading this article, you find yourself leaning towards a career at a large firm, keep open to all opportunities that may present themselves. Each firm is unique and exploring all options is profitable. Although industry patterns may reveal that certain characteristics are prevalent in large firms, while still others prevail at smaller ones, the patient career detective will uncover what's best for him or her. A thorough review of opportunities and your own personal preferences should lead you to the firm best suited to your career ambitions.
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