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Working Your Way Up The Corporate Ladder

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Don't expect to be the head of a PR agency or top person in a corporate PR department within a couple of years. No matter how talented you are, that's an impractical goal. After coming this far, you know that there is no fast and easy road to the top.

The broad-based field of public relations is complex and multi-dimensional. There are many facets to it and it's safe to say it takes years to hone your PR skills.

The big question is, "Can one start at the bottom and work his or her way to the top of the career heap?" The answer is yes. It has been done in the past and it's still being done today. New PR agencies are forming every day, small PR firms are getting bigger, and large, established ones are opening offices all over the country.

And on the flip side, many well-intentioned individuals are in vesting large sums in new agencies and are closing their doors only months after they opened. What distinguishes the successes from the failures? No clear answer exists for this question. Suffice it to say that the successful in the field were clever enough to proceed cautiously, moving up the ladder step by step. They weighed each move carefully and they proceeded when they were sure of what was ahead. In short, there were no surprises for them. They never doubted they would accomplish their goals.

"There are no shortcuts to learning the business," said the owner of a small, established Chicago PR firm. "I got my first PR job when I was 23, and I didn't open up my own firm until I was 40. I know a lot of people who started their own agencies when they were in their late 20s and 30s. However, many of those firms failed because the owners weren't ready to head their own operations.

Looking back, I could have started a small firm much earlier in my career. But it would have been a risky venture. I don't know whether I would have made it or not. The key word here is experience. I had the contacts, know-how and talent behind me. When I did make my move, I never doubted that I would succeed. I was ready."

Experience Counts

Just like any other field, experience in PR is a crucial ingredient to landing a high-paying job with potential. Look at the employment ads for public relations jobs in your daily newspaper. The higher the salary, the more experience they're looking for.

The important question is how one gets experience and what kind of job experience will be most valuable. That's another difficult question with no simple answer. The best way to answer it is to ease into it. Typically, there are two paths into public relations, the direct path and the indirect path. The direct path is the logical career path from college right into a public relations firm. Those taking the direct path are in touch with their career objectives early in their careers. They've majored in public relations or a related field like communications in college and, after graduating, they step right into an apprentice position in a general PR agency or possibly a large corporate PR department.

The indirect path, as you've probably guessed, is the unconventional route. It is, in fact, the route taken by the majority of people interviewed earlier in the book. Here backgrounds vary and the circumstances leading into the field are different.

An experienced journalist with 20 years on a large metropolitan daily joins a PR firm as a highly paid writer, or a chemist with impressive educational credentials who worked for a major chemical company for a number of years joins a PR firm specializing in chemical accounts as an account executive.

Or a writer who spent a number of years working on a monthly trade magazine for the cosmetics industry joins the PR department of a cosmetics firm as a coordinating editor of a house organ.

There are many more examples that could be cited. The essential difference between the two routes is that in the indirect route your prior work and educational background are the important criteria guiding you into public relations work. After working in a closely related field you decide that public relations work, which adapts the skills and techniques you've learned working in another business sphere, would be more to your liking. So for those who wander into PR jobs via the indirect route, their career paths are pretty clear to them. They know where they are going and how to best put their talent to work.

However, the path isn't so clear for those starting off with very little or no experience in the field. Trying to pick the right type of organization to work for is a crucial career decision. To illustrate this point, picture this situation: You're about to graduate from a PR degree program in a couple of months and you're already considering a number of interesting job opportunities in the following areas: government, small PR firm, large tire company, labor union or PR department of a conglomerate.

Imagine the frustration of not knowing which job to take. Each job seems attractive to you, yet you're hard-pressed to find an easy way out of the dilemma. You have no experience in the field and no particular career goals. Which job should our imaginary trainee take? If you were in the same position, what would you do? If you picked the conglomerate, you made a sound choice. Since you have no strong feelings as to which PR field you'd eventually like to be working in a decade from now, your best bet is a job offering a smattering of different public relations fields and skills - a position where you're not dealing with one particular product or service, but many.

Working for the conglomerate would offer you just such an opportunity. The conglomerate in question is a large corporate empire with offices all over the world. It's involved not in 1 business but in 12 major business sectors, each of which is a separate entity unto itself. It employs a PR staff that could be compared to that of a sizable public relations firm. The position is public relations trainee.

As a trainee you'll be spending a number of months in every major PR department. At the end of a 12-month training period you'll be placed in a department which will best utilize your skills and career inclinations. And beyond that, there are many career options open for you. A year or two later you might find that a transfer to a new department is a compatible career move.

No matter how you look at it, you've made the right choice. But if you had taken a job with the tire company, small PR firm or labor union, your career options would have been restricted. Government and labor union public relations, as we said earlier, are highly specialized fields with unique problems and goals. Working for a tire company limits you to one business area, and working for a small PR firm again restricts you to a firm that services only a handful of accounts. So you see, each of these job experiences is limiting in its own way.
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