How to have a successful public relations career
I’m regularly asked to speak to public relations students to give them a chance to learn about how a PR agency operates. One of the questions I get every time – whether it’s at Red River College or the University of Winnipeg – is this: what skills do I need to succeed in a career in public relations?
Public relations is such a varied field. It can lead you in to social media, internal communications, event management, publicity, crisis communications, investor relations or content marketing. Regardless of which direction you head in your career, here are the six skills or attributes that I believe will benefit you the most.
1 Write well and often
Without a doubt, having polished writing skills is most important for a public relations professional. If you can’t organize your thoughts on a page, you will have a very difficult time communicating anything to anyone.
In my career, I have written news articles, magazine features, opinion pieces, letters, video scripts, ad copy, speeches, social media updates, signage, slogans, strategies and more. Each of those media require a nuanced understanding of your audience and objectives. They’ll lead you to make sometimes subtle decisions over language, voice and style.
The more styles you can write in, the better. That takes practice. A lot of practice.
It also takes a willingness to edit your own work ruthlessly and to allow others to do the same. At Dooley Communications, we know that the more eyeballs you can get on a piece, the better it will generally be. Editing is about refining and polishing so we can turn out the very best possible product for our clients.
2 Develop your presentation skills
Just about as important as writing is your ability to present your thoughts to people one on one and in large groups. You may never become a superstar spokesperson for a national brand, but I can’t imagine a public relations person going through his or her career without having to present to a group of executives, or to a town hall or other public gathering.
Just as with writing, it takes practice to become a good public speaker. Run through your presentation at least a few times before you do it live. Only the most accomplished speakers can get up on a stage and ‘wing it’ to great effect. Most of us mere mortals need to rehearse and revise and rehearse some more. The more you do it, the more confident you’ll become.
As a great speaker once said: you have nothing to fear except fear itself.
3 Be curious
We prize people who are curious. Public relations people are constantly seeking new and interesting ways to communicate with their audiences. The more curious you are, the more likely you’ll find a solution to a communications problem.
Natural curiousity also drives the best public relations people to seek out new technologies, which leads them forward on a path of lifelong learning. There is no end point on that path.
4 Learn to think strategically
It takes intelligence to do public relations well. The early years in your career will likely be focused on executing campaigns on a tactical level: writing, pitching media, building relationships with bloggers and reporters, organizing events, etc. As you work on that tactical level, spend some time considering why those tactics were chosen. What are your key objectives? Good communications strategies always have long-term goals that relate to the core values of an organization, initiative or brand. It doesn’t matter if you’re executing a small campaign in Winnipeg or Winkler, or a large campaign across Canada and the United States.
Fresh out of school, junior communicators sometimes think that any press is good press and any communications tactic is good so long as it’s cool and fun. That’s only true if it fits the long view too. Most likely, you’ll discover your job as a communications professional is as much about getting the right kind of press and executing the right kind of tactic. The sooner you can understand why executives make the decisions they do, the sooner you’ll be making those strategic decisions yourself.
5 Sweat the details
I’ve met many people in my life who say things like: “I’m no good at details. I’m more of a big picture person.” Truth be told, I’m pretty sure I tried that line on a boss early in my career.
Unfortunately, that’s a lie you’re telling yourself probably because the detail work isn’t a lot of fun. Few people like doing it. It’s a chore to create a project management timetable, assigning and tracking a million tasks for a large client event. It’s boring to look over the financials column of an annual report for the 25th time. It’s not much fun to compile and synthesize changes and edits from five or more people into a single document.
My advice is to buckle down and do it. Do it well. Learn as much as you can about printing and design so you can confidently do a press check. Listen to the CFO when he or she explains why the double line is used instead of the single line. Focus intently on your proofreading even if you have read it a hundred times. Your ‘big picture’ is going to look so much nicer if you know you got every brush stroke right.
6 Learn to adapt (and recover)
Something is going to go wrong or against your plan. When it does, deal with it. Don’t panic. Take a breath. Think through the options, critically examine each one remembering everything you’ve learned, then pick the one that gets the job done as well as it can be done.