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Is PR The Career For You?
by Kay Ross
[Note: I wrote this article in December 2007 as part of a series of articles for the Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong. Copyright belongs to that organisation, and I have permission to reproduce it here.]
Do you have an interest in people, an aptitude for writing and communications, and an ability to pay meticulous attention to detail? If so, a career as a public relations professional could be the right option for you.
Opportunities abound, because businesses, charities and government departments need to promote themselves, protect their reputations and manage their relationships with their stakeholders, including government bureaucrats, politicians, the media, their staff, volunteers, lobby groups and the general public.
Mr David Ketchum, CEO of Upstream Asia and the Chairman of the Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong (the cPRf/HK – a not-for-profit independent body that represents the public relations consulting industry in Hong Kong), said: "Career opportunities in public relations range from entry-level positions to senior counselling and management roles. Many professionals from other fields also choose to make a mid-career leap into the public relations field. Suitable backgrounds include journalism, government, sales, hospitality and event management."
A day in the life
Addressing a common misconception about the industry, Ms Geneviève Hilton, Senior Vice President of Ketchum Hong Kong and a director of the cPRf/HK, stated: "Public relations is not about schmoozing with celebrities and drinking Champagne."
Hilton and her fellow directors of the cPRf/HK reported that a typical "day in the life" of a professional practitioner in a public relations firm could include anything from writing a news release to seeking a quote from a vendor for a banner; meeting clients for breakfast, lunch or dinner to brief them about campaign strategies; monitoring newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs for mentions of a client's company or products; informing a legislator or a lobby group about industry issues; arranging media interviews for the visiting CEO of a client's firm; coaching an intern, and attending an industry networking event. Underlying all of that is the need to be endlessly curious about people, consumer behaviour and societal issues, and to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to build and protect a client's reputation.
Just one element of a public relations practitioner's work is event management. "It's about juggling a thousand and one tedious details, for instance updating the checklist again and again, and ensuring that enough corsages have been ordered. Are the nametags right? Do we have the correct Chinese translation of the guest of honour's title? Is the company's name spelled correctly on the backdrop?," commented Hilton.
Most of the directors of the cPRf/HK did not formally study public relations, and had no idea, early in their working careers, that they would end up where they are now. However, they did show an interest in and an aptitude for writing, communications and selling.
"I studied business administration, then worked in sales and event management, and eventually found myself drawn more and more to communications," reported Mr Joel Laykin, CEO of Laykin Communications. "To be in this business, you must be interested in everything – languages, history, psychology, behaviour…"
Hilton added: "It's not absolutely necessary to have a degree in communications, though that's nice to have. You should study as many things as possible – don't just limit yourself to communications." Her childhood ambition was to become a firefighter, but she studied theoretical linguistics at university and went on to work as a radio advertising salesperson, travel-guide writer, nightclub manager, sign painter and English teacher before discovering the world of public relations.
When Ms Mary Devereux, now a Managing Director of Burson-Marsteller Asia Pacific, first left university in the UK, she couldn't find a job. "So I took a job as a secretary for a year. Then my boss introduced me to someone who owned a public relations firm, so I moved there, and worked my way up the ladder from the ground up."
Ms Suzie Setsuko Wakai, Managing Director of B & W – Far East Publicity Limited, shared her experience: "I didn't study public relations; I worked in sales and event management. I do think you have to be outgoing and good with people, and you have to be able to produce results. You also have to understand many topics deeply, so that you can speak intelligently to your clients and the media."
A predilection for action is also valuable, revealed Ketchum: "In our business, we look for people who show initiative and who have the confidence to take action and make mistakes. So in people's CV's, I look for evidence of initiative or an ability to handle projects."
Mr Rick Allen, President, Asia Pacific of Brodeur, was previously a technology sales and marketing guy. He offered his insights: "Since getting into this profession, I've always been conscious of the fact that diametrically opposing skills or attributes are needed to be a fully rounded professional. You need to be a good team player but also be able to work alone; you need to be creative (right brain – able to come up with ideas, angles and concepts) but also business-focused (left brain – able to understand clients' businesses, budgets and ROI), and you need to be able to think big but also attend to detail. In addition, good PR practitioners not only need good communications skills, they also need to be good at counselling and mentoring."
All of them agreed that the essential characteristics of prospective public relations practitioners are: good writing skills (that's absolutely number one), passion, energy, a sense of showmanship, curiosity about people and the world, an ability to sift through large amounts of information to find the "angle" that will appeal to people, and an ability to "translate" complicated information into something that's both interesting and easily understood.
Practical experience is also essential, in Hilton's opinion. "I would rather hire someone with a bit of practical experience and no degree in public relations than someone with a degree but no practical experience. That experience doesn't necessarily have to be with a public relations firm – it could be volunteer work or something you did at school."
In Hong Kong, Baptist University, Chinese University and City University offer formal courses for prospective public relations practitioners. Dr Mike Yao, an Assistant Professor in the Center for Communication Research in the Department of English and Communication at City University (but not a director of the cPRf/HK), stated: "Baptist University has the longest history in this field, but City University has a stronger public relations programme. Our goal is to speak to the convergence of all media, so our students study much more than just the hands-on skills of writing a media release – they also study consumer psychology and behaviour, the latest communications technology, and marketing and communications theory. In future, we'll be co-operating much more closely with the university's Marketing Department to integrate the study of marketing, business, communications and media. Last year we had over 800 applicants for only 100 positions, and we accepted students with backgrounds in business, communications and psychology. Applicants also have to have good writing and English-language skills."
Most public relations firms offer short internship programmes, in conjunction with local and overseas universities. "It's a very good deal for both the intern and the public relations firm. At Upstream, our interns do all kinds of tasks such as photocopying, event logistics, updating databases and so on, and in return we give them the opportunity to work on at least one good project that they can put on their CV," said Ketchum.
Moving up the ladder
Once you join a public relations firm, you can expect to receive regular in-house training, coaching and mentoring. Devereux said: "Talent is our most valuable asset; without it, we're worthless. It's our people's creativity and strategic thinking which generates our revenue, and it's harder to recruit and train people than it is to find clients. The impact of the digital age means we need people who are smarter and faster than ever before. We need people who have both the right aptitude and the right attitude. We can have formulas and incentive plans, but we also need to ensure that special individual talent – which sometimes comes with eccentricities and idiosyncracies – is accommodated and nurtured. I believe there always has to be room for some square pegs in a few round holes. So every employee in a public relations firm is a head-hunter, a talent-spotter and a mentor."
Hilton outlined the various steps in the career ladder within a public relations firm: "At a junior entry level, someone would be doing a lot of simple record-keeping, liaising with vendors, getting prices etc. One level up from there, instead of merely typing up the headlines from press clippings, they'd be analyzing the clippings, coming up with good angles and helping to sell stories to the media. A level up from there, they'd be advising clients about which angles would work. And a level up from there, they'd be advising the client on their overall campaign. Then there's the management side – they might be advising the client about the most effective venue for a press conference, and working with the team to devise the overall theme for an event."
However, as you move further up the ladder, you will probably find that the skills that served you well early in your career (writing well, understanding the nature and role of the media, understanding government and how decisions are made, being on top of all the details of organising an event etc.) are no longer enough. Ketchum noted: "You really need to be a good business person if you're going to advance. You may not have an MBA, but you do need to know how to read a balance sheet, run a P&L, hire and fire staff and collect accounts receivable."
Many people move from a role as an account executive in a public relations firm to an in-house role as a corporate public relations manager. However, the dynamics are quite different. As Hilton said, "If you're working in-house, you have only one client, your boss, but in a public relations firm, on a single day, you might be working with several different clients in different industries and pitching stories to the media about a wide variety of topics, and you do a lot of cross-selling. Also, in a public relations firm, what you do is an integral, essential part of the firm's operations, whereas if you're working in-house, the public relations/communications department is often viewed as a cost, not as something central to what the company does."
So a career in the public relations field offers lots of challenges, and can be immensely rewarding. Hilton shared: "The most satisfying aspect of my work is using my experience to make things easier for the client. For example, I've lined up a thousand media interviews in the past few years, and that means I can really help someone who is today doing it for the first time."
Get noticed and win that job
The directors of the cPRf/HK offered the following tips about how to stand out from the crowd (for all the right reasons) and win an internship or a job as a public relations professional:
- Check your covering letter and CV meticulously to ensure there are no typographical errors.
- Address your letter to the right person, and find out their name and correct title (don't just write "Dear Sir/Madam").
- Do some research about the public relations firm beforehand – read their website and find out what clients they serve. If the firm specialises in the technology field, look at some of the current issues in that industry, and be ready to answer questions and make intelligent suggestions.
- In your covering letter, highlight something particularly relevant or unusual that you've done. What were the results? What did you learn from that experience?
- Be persistent – if you haven't had a response within six months, try again, as the firm's needs may have changed.
The Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong serves as a voice and as a forum for the Hong Kong public relations consultancy practice and promotes public confidence in the industry. The Council represents 25 leading consultancies that have combined estimated fees of some HK$360 million, and employ some 450 people.
© Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong
Kay Ross is a Hong Kong-based marketing consultant & coach, editor and copywriter. She devises creative marketing strategies and crafts compelling English-language marketing communications messages that translate into bottom-line results for her clients. To learn more, visit www.kayross.com.