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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?

Here’s what it takes to succeed in PR

28 Apr

Class of 2015We’re at that time of the year when graduates start worrying about jobs and careers and students are looking for summer work experience. So I’m reading lots of regurgitated advice on what it takes to succeed in PR on blogs and magazine sites.

At the risk of over-simplification, I’d suggest it comes down to just three things.

  1. Aptitude: Can you do it? Writing, social media, data, interpersonal skills, presentation skills and a nose for news are all examples of the skills you should be able to demonstrate.
  2. Achievements: So have you done it? You should be able to talk about your previous placements and jobs and say what you’ve learnt. If you’re light on experience, then you should at least be able to show what you’ve done for your personal brand. Major accolades can help too, even if they come from your hobbies rather than your work.
  3. Attitude: Do you love doing it? Fanatical about Formula One or obsessed with shoes? This is where you can turn your interest into an asset. But please avoid burning any bridges since that dream job in fashion PR may prove elusive and other sectors may be more interesting than you think as well as more lucrative. Employers will expect you to be interested in their business, not just your hobbies.

So if you’re looking to get a foot on the PR career ladder, I suggest a skills audit, a CV or LinkedIn makeover and a workout for your motivation. Remember, it’s a test: the successful PR practitioner will be able to find a point of interest in even the dullest-looking widget.

If you can gain early experience of working in-house and in a consultancy, in marketing PR and corporate PR roles, in external and internal communication then you will be open to a world opportunities and well-placed to succeed. Even short-lived and unsuccessful roles can build your experience, self-awareness and resilience.

Students and young people may feel that the odds are against them, but employers see it differently. They’re constrained only by a lack of suitable candidates. So you can get ready to succeed by focusing on your aptitude, achievements and attitude.

On references and relationships

9 Nov

Let me speak some home truths to the students I teach.

You think your modules and your assessments matter. And they do – to an extent.

But something matters more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships matter in public relations. But let me spell it out.

Your module grades may matter to you, but they don’t to anyone else. Yet your degree stays on your LinkedIn profile for ever, and I’m often asked to supply references for graduates, even years after they’ve left university. I’ll decline sooner than write a negative reference, but what does it take for me to write a positive reference?

  • Do I remember you? Did you attend my classes? Did you do well? Do I follow you on Twitter or Instagram? In other words, have we formed the basis of a professional relationship?
  • Do I have anything positive to say about you? I’d be happy to report that you did well in assessments – but I’ll be even happier if I know something about your work experience and your initiative.
  • Are we still in contact? It’s limited if I can only comment on your achievements as a student when you’ve graduated years ago. So are we still in contact? It’s never been easier – and LinkedIn is the place for following people’s careers.

I was invited to a lunch to celebrate my university tutor’s thirtieth year at the same institution. I can’t claim to have ever used him as a reference, nor had I sought to keep in contact, and I’ve not done anything to make him proud of me. But it’s a reminder of the enduring value of a university education.

It lasts a lifetime – and you’re not forgotten!

How to be a student

12 Oct
Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

There’s a good piece in today’s Observer newspaper on the marketisation of higher education.

The paradox is that as universities have become more expensive, they have managed to recruit higher numbers of students.

Yet a more expensive does not necessarily mean a better education, in part because of the transactional expectations of paying consumers. ‘I’ve paid. Just give me my degree!’

As a public relations lecturer, I’m comfortable with the expectation that a pricey education should result in above average earnings. There’s a strong story to tell in terms of employability – for the right candidates.

Yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of university simply as a vocational training course. For one thing, it’s an expensive and wasteful way to be trained, since most lessons learned in the first year will be forgotten by the third. More important, do 17 year-olds have an infallible instinct for what they will be doing as 30-year-olds?

I certainly didn’t, and spent part of my 20s doing things I was already aware of (teaching and publishing) before finding my feet in areas I’d not previously known about (technology journalism then public relations).

Training has its place, but you can only train people for existing industries. You cannot train people for the jobs of the future – but you can build this flexibility into a broader education.

So a university course has to provide a greater focus on education than on training. Students have choices: they do not have to go to university and they do not have to study specific courses.

If a school leaver is set on public relations, they have the option of an apprenticeship that will allow them to earn while learning.

University suits the open minded – those who’ve yet to settle on their future career, and those who are willing to learn. It’s about the journey, not just about the destination. It takes time.

Being a student is a full-time activity, even if classes only take up a small proportion of your week. Don’t moan about this – but celebrate your freedom. Look at your parents: I’m sure they have very little free time between the demands of jobs and the commitments of a family. You’ll be busier than you can imagine for decades to come, so do please revel in your new-found freedom.

As a student, you may be cash poor but you’re time rich. Here are some suggestions of how to use your time to invest in your future:

  • Make friends for life
  • Learn to cook
  • Try to manage your finances
  • Travel (lengthy journeys, not just short holidays)
  • Learn additional skills (eg languages, computer programming)
  • Dream up an idea for a new business venture

This overlaps with some more specific things that public relations students should be doing to help them stand out to employers:

  • Develop an online brand (across your blog, website and social media accounts)
  • Follow industry leaders and employers
  • Participate in online chats and attend industry networking events
  • Gain specific work experience
  • Volunteer for a cause, campaign or charity you care about

Not having a degree may exclude you from even applying for some jobs, as might not having achieved a 2:1 or above.

But please don’t become solely focused on your degree classification. Employers don’t hire you for what you’ve learnt at university: they take your good degree as an indication of your future potential. There are more and better ways to demonstrate your potential than your grades.

CIPR Fellows’ lunch

4 Aug
Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Confession: I’m an imperfectionist

24 Apr
Shipwreck, Ireland (John O'Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Shipwreck, Ireland (John O’Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Here’s the problem.

University is a tidy environment that suits tidy minds. Hard work is often rewarded and perfectionists tend to thrive. And if at first you don’t succeed, there’s usually another opportunity to try again.

Yet those same perfectionists with their first class degrees tend to hit the rocks early on in a public relations career. Here’s why.

Most public relations jobs cannot be done perfectly. Some try to do so by extending the working day, but this is not a recipe for success. It adds to emotional exhaustion and in a consultancy environment leads to over-servicing. Our always-on world of mobiles and social media have made ‘office hours’ a redundant concept.

The tidy planning and to-do lists that work so well at university (and also in junior roles) become a problem as your career advances. How do you adequately respond to a crisis if it’s not on your to-do list or in your plan?

So what’s the solution?

Each individual will develop their own approach, but it surely must involve some amount of imperfectionism. If there are no perfect outcomes, you need to stop worrying about them and focus instead on good-enough. Rather than fighting battles you can’t win, put your energies into tasks that are achievable and which contribute to your direction of travel.

There’s another approach; it’s the one I used in my consultancy career. Just as there’s a role for imperfectionists in a team, they should surround themselves with tidy-minded completer-finishers, combining agility with solidity. A flexible approach works best if you want to survive the storms ahead.

Under pressure

6 Mar

I’m busy.

I’m working for two universities in different corners of the country and currently teach first, second and third year undergraduate classes; full-time and part-time postgraduate classes and a professional course. I’m a placement tutor and a dissertation tutor among other student-facing responsibilities. Time in the classroom means less time for emails, paperwork and meetings, though the demands don’t go away.

I’m odd.

In my experience most academics seek to negotiate away classroom commitments in return for more administrative or research responsibility. I’ve only ever met two people who seemed perfectly able to balance the conflicting demands of teaching, administration and research – and they’re both now professors.

I’ve been here before.

This level of busyness reminds me of my peak in corporate and consultancy public relations two decades ago. The work and the demands were relentless: fun in the short term, very hard to sustain over a long period.

I observe.

Back then I used to wonder how the busiest business executives I worked with also managed to have the shiniest shoes. Was it that they could afford many new pairs, or was it that their efficiency extended itself to small matters of personal presentation?

In the past week, I’ve heard from the chairman of a large plc that employs 300,000 people. He appeared calm and considered. I’ve met a former high-flying BBC executive and a former university vice-chancellor and both were charm personified. They made time for additional meetings in the evening and at the weekend.

I’m busy, but my work does not involve life-saving surgery or decisions of national importance. I should put it in perspective.

Busy people are often the most productive. Stephen Waddington is a PR consultant, a family man and this year’s CIPR president. He publishes one of the best PR blogs and has co-written or edited five publications in the past two years (but I may have lost count). He seems to be everywhere. That’s properly busy.