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Graduates: why B2B is the place to be

19 Sep

You want your work to be interesting. You want it to be rewarding and to open up possibilities.

Many students and graduates make the assumption that interesting work involves products or brands they’ve heard of. So this means consumer brands (FMCG – fast moving consumer goods – in the marketing jargon). Many start out with ambitions to work in music or fashion.

By contrast, business-to-business companies are invisible and ‘boring’. Corporate work sounds too, well, grown-up.

Here’s why many are making the wrong call and limiting their career possibilities.

There are some high profile and award winning consumer PR campaigns (everyone cites the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty). But it’s hard to separate out the PR role from marketing. You’ll most likely be working for a boss or client who sees PR as the promotional P in the marketing mix.

This can be fun. It can be creative. But it’s not always well paid and it is potentially career limiting.

Contrast that with ‘boring’ business-to-business or corporate clients. They will usually adopt a PR-first strategy. This isn’t just about money, it’s about effectiveness. When you can name your existing and potential customers, and be specific about who influences them, PR can go beyond broad promotional activity and become much more personal. You’ll already be beyond the awareness-raising level and adopting a thought-leadership approach.

With corporate clients, the language shifts from concerns about promoting brands to concerns about protecting reputation. Target groups include employees and local communities. You are now speaking the language of PR, not of marketing, and learning lessons about the wide variety of corporate PR roles available.

You will start out as a hired writer – of media materials, website and blog content. Finding content requires you to become adept at taking an issues-led rather than product- or company-led approach. You will need to be able to explain and justify this approach to those who seek to change your copy into a crude advertisement.

You may continue in this role into senior posts and become a speech writer for senior executives. Or you may become a leader who can advise senior management on strategy and manage colleagues to deliver the tactics.

But how do you find interest in niche products with no broader appeal? You have to consider the business environment and the impact on jobs. Stop thinking of the product as the story, and start focusing on the issues.

There’s a sweet spot of course where business products crossover into the consumer space. This has happened with computers and telephones and is about to happen with battery technology in cars.

In a word, change is a great driver of PR activity. What’s boring about that?

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Looking back on a golden age in PR

11 Sep

I have been a member of the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR) since early 1998. That’s almost 20 years – and long before it achieved the Royal Charter in 2005. A Fellow since 2013, I am attending the Fellows’ lunch in the House of Lords this week. So now is a good time for a moment’s reflection.

The rules have since changed but when I became a member I did so the basis of having worked in the business for ten years. So my twenty year anniversary also marks a thirty year association with public relations (longer than the lifespan of many of the people I teach).

I’m not claiming wisdom simply based on longevity, but I do hope to have achieved some perspective. I am not alone: I see that Cambridge-based consultant Roger Darashah has noted the twentieth anniversary of his business by charting what has and hasn’t changed in that time.

Twenty years ago I was chief press officer within the corporate affairs team of a stock market listed British technology firm. Originally the scientific research arm of the UK government’s Atomic Energy Authority, it had been the last privatisation of that long period of Conservative government that started with Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was surprisingly extended by John Major in 1992, and ended with Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.

Two thoughts on this. One is that chief press officer was an important job commanding a good salary back then. It now sounds marginal and old-fashioned. We had email and the internet in 1997 – but we didn’t have Google, Facebook or Twitter. Media relations meant print and broadcast, not digital or social media.

British innovations in technology were sufficiently rare to merit reports in national newspapers and on BBC national radio and television channels and a firm with projects and personnel from Dorset to Dounreay was guaranteed lots of local media attention.

While my work as an educator defines my career, I can see in retrospect that I had reached a career high in my early to mid 30s – and suspect that’s true of many people in public relations.

The other reflection is that though my expertise was very much the media relations subset of public relations – and I was having to learn quickly the other aspects of corporate communication – context and timing are key to public relations jobs. This was a newly-privatised business complete with a stock market listing and a need for investor relations advice and competitor and market analysis, but most of my colleagues had been there when it was a public sector organisation and worked to different principles and timescales. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act on joining (and subsequently delved into the archives to learn some chilling and heroic Cold War stories).

I learnt that it’s easier to discuss innovation than to effect change. That people, culture and organisations are more complex than machines. That’s why internal communication is so important and so challenging.

I learnt that the future is unpredictable. The share price was soaring in 1997 and there were parliamentary questions claiming that state assets had been sold off too cheaply. Yet that market sentiment later evaporated, the share price stagnated and the firm no longer exists as an independent business. I had chosen to leave by the end of that year, another case of good timing.

In retrospect, I had been living through a golden age for public relations work. The wave of innovation introduced by the personal computer in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s led to a booming technology PR sector. Privatisations and market liberalisation meant this was a good time for entrepreneurs. Startups tended to follow the Microsoft model of a PR-led strategy (Apple, a marketing success story, did not reach its dominant position until much more recently).

In this sector and at that time, public relations was distinctive and it was valued. Media relations was a well regarded specialism (and British technology journalists were notoriously challenging so there was no room for complacency).

PR looks less special and less distinctive today. Fewer people will build a career based on their media contacts and I’d advise graduates to look more broadly for roles from ‘content marketing’ to ‘corporate communication’. Today when people talk about working with influencers they rarely mean journalists.

That said, media relations is still an asset in the world of inbound or digital marketing since Google has been quick to penalise other SEO tactics. In these circles, media relations is shaking off its reputation for spam and returning to the idea that it’s about relationships.

One more change. When I joined the Institute of Public Relations, it was the only professional body representing individual practitioners. I felt this was an important professional step – and am still proud to profess my membership. The PRCA was then a trade association representing large consultancies and had been my natural network in earlier consultancy roles.

Today, I’m also an individual member of the PRCA – now renamed as the Public Relations and Communications Association. It used to be easy to explain the difference between the two organisations, but it’s much less clearcut today.

I have dedicated thirty years to public relations and tend to hold to the ‘stronger together’ argument. But others prefer to define their role as internal communication or public affairs or analyst relations – anything but public relations, it seems. Can the union hold?

I confess

10 Aug

Cocktail lifestyle. Picture by @dubaipartyqueen on Instagram

I’m a male, middle-aged, middle-class university lecturer. There, I said it.

My students and graduates are overwhelmingly young, white and female. They jog, do yoga and enjoy beach holidays and smart hotels according to their Instagram feeds. In other words, they lead affluent and aspirational lifestyles.

And there’s nothing wrong with this: we are what we are. We either have no choice, or we have made choices that seem rational to us.

Except, so far so conventional.

Do our worldviews present a norm that excludes others? Lecturers might scoff at the popular perception of public relations as a glamorous, party-going practice – but it only seems to attract new generations of young women called Kate. Or Victoria. Or Olivia.

You get the picture. Success for some could mean lack of opportunity for others.

My British Asian students tell me that public relations is not viewed like medicine or the law or accountancy. For their families, it’s not a profession to aspire to.

Of course there are outliers. We have role models like Colleen Harris and Yasmin Diamond. But these individual success stories are not typical products of mass higher education.

We need to recruit more widely onto university courses and the profession needs to recruit more widely and sensitively. Age, gender, ethnicity are all problems: in a word, diversity.

But everyone knows this. The question is, who’s doing anything about it? What can I do?

The indefatigable Stephen Waddington and the admirable Sarah Stimson are campaigning to raise funds for the Taylor Bennett Foundation, which has a track record of action in this area.

I’ve pledged my support. Will you do too?

Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.

 

Getting in, or getting on?

13 Jan

Junior doctors have been in the news this week. It’s a reminder of how high the barriers to entry are in medicine. Years of undergraduate and postgraduate study followed by an extended spell working long hours as a junior doctor.

Only then can medical practitioners expect to secure a stable and well-paid role as a hospital doctor or general practitioner.

So in medicine, it’s hard to get in but the rewards for success are high.

Compare that with public relations. Broadly, the opposite applies. It’s easy to get in – but hard to get on.

Students often don’t get this. They assume the challenge is securing the first role. They need experience for this, but how to gain experience when you don’t have any, they ask?

Here’s how it looks to me. The public relations business is dynamic and fast-growing: consider the growth in internal comms and the emergence of ‘content marketing’ – all roles that fit broadly within my understanding of PR.

 

There must be more positions than available candidates because a day rarely goes by without me becoming aware of someone sharing their vacancy or opportunity. Take a look at these sites managed by Sarah Stimson and Rachel Miller for numerous current vacancies.

Then consider that not only do PR people work in consultancies and in-house within larger organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors – but many choose to work for themselves (as freelance or independent practitioners).

Despite the many degree courses that have been offered for the past 25 years, despite professional courses like the CIPR Diploma (over 15 years old), there is no single point of entry into public relations. School leavers can become apprentices; non-PR graduates can apply for graduate roles in PR; digital and marketing teams can offer PR services; mid career professionals can take on PR responsibilities.

Yet there’s still an apparently insatiable demand for new talent. So it’s not getting in that’s hard. The challenge is getting on. Here are some tips on how to succeed:

  • Be curious.  Never stop learning about the media, about different business sectors, about technology. Show that you’re curious and ambitious (graduates don’t have a monopoly on curiosity, but your degree is more useful as an indication that you’re capable of learning than as evidence of what you’ve already learnt).
  • Be strategic. Entry level roles are not often well paid, but they may be worth taking for what they can teach you and and for the opportunities for training and development. Being strategic also means seeing the bigger picture: what does your boss do all day? Is this something you could aim to do too? While your entry-level role may require you to crank out press releases or blog posts, these activities do not define public relations. So are you gaining an understanding of how press coverage or social media shares contribute to business objectives?
  • Plan your own career.  Only the largest consultancy firms can offer interesting graduate roles that give you experience in different sectors and of different PR specialisms across different countries. If you’re not in a graduate programme, can you broaden your own experience and avoid becoming a one-trick pony? You may have to do this by moving between jobs, sectors and even countries. Have you joined a professional body? Are you attending training courses or further study? Are you collecting CPD points?

Remember: graduation should not mark an end of study. Rather, it’s a platform that shows you’re capable of further learning.

There are many opportunities out there; there may be riches and other rewards to a career in public relations. But you will need a plan to get on – not just a plan to get in.

Being strategic means being adaptable and playing the long game.

Let us praise

7 May

Let’s stop to consider a group of people who are widely derided – and assumed to be liars.

Yet they’re natural communicators who take every opportunity to seek public engagement. They live with a high degree of job insecurity, yet they are strategic thinkers as well as doers, managers and activists. They believe in the power of ideas to effect positive change.

They work long hours (the job never stops), having had to put in long stints of voluntary work to build their CVs.

Public relations practitioners will recognise the description – but I’m thinking of politicians.

Most impressive of all, politics is not all about elections. The winners today (and even some of the losers) will have to start work tomorrow to form a government. Those in government will have to work hard to meet the goals of a balanced economy and a fairer society.

They will suffer from external events, from the news agenda, from public derision – and from the claim that they can’t keep their promises.

Yet they only retain their jobs with public approval. Many will be looking for work tomorrow – but you could write the damning article now about the revolving door between politics, business and public affairs.

Who’d be a politician?