Seven ways to secure your first role in PR

By David Alexander

Getting your first job in PR – or many other professions for that matter – is never easy.

Even when I started out as a journalist 20-odd years ago, it was a case of playing a numbers game, researching whoever looked interesting and worthy of an application. And that was pretty much everyone.

During my time as owner of Calacus, I’ve interviewed and met so many young people, some graduates, some not, who claim to want a career in PR.

Some – those most likely to catch the eye – have some relevant experience. But it is the tone of the letter, the extra-curricular activities and the basics of letter writing and grammar that really stand out.

Then, when it comes to an interview, can they can cope when put under pressure? Can they think on their feet even if they don’t know the answers to challenges set for them? 

How much do they really want to work in PR and how much do they think it’s just marketing or advertising or about long lunches with media, glamorous parties and freebies?

But the real challenge I’ve found in many of the young charges who have done internships with me is the lack of initiative.

Of course, guidance is needed, but so too is a willingness to learn, to challenge, to ask questions, to prove your worth and make it extremely difficult for your agency to ever want to let you go. An internship is an extended job interview as much as anything else.

Showing why your skills and potential are worth holding onto should be the name of the game.

And even if there is no chance of being taken on as an employee at the end of your internship, at the very least, in this small world where PR operates, do enough to remain front of mind both in case your employer wins the business that requires an extra pair of hands, or who hear of someone who is also looking for the next young star of the industry. 

So here are my tips on how to stand out when applying for an internship, particularly but not exclusively, in PR.

1.    Make your CV and covering letter relevant and not too long. “Dear Sir/Madam” shows you haven’t even bothered to identify the M.D or decision-maker, it’s impersonal and sloppy, especially when most agencies have a roll call of staff. Explain not only why you’re interested in the company specifically but also what skills you can bring, how this would benefit the agency as much as you. Oh, and spelling the company name incorrectly or using cut and paste (which invariably shows up in different fonts on an email) will kill your application stone dead.

2.    When being interviewed and undertaking tests, stay calm, show attention to detail but make sure you stand out. That means researching your interviewer, preparing some challenging questions of your own and proving why your personality, your life experience and breadth of personal and professional experiences make you a perfect fit for their organisation, large or small. And send a follow-up email shortly after the interview.

3.    Ensure your verbal and written communication is impeccable. PR is a communications business and if you can’t use the apostrophe and rely on spellchecks to manage your written materials, you’re in trouble. Be able to write or quickly learn how to do so in a variety of different styles, be it a snappy tweet, a punchy press release or a longer report. 

4.    Use your initiative. Understand the processes of both junior and senior people within the organisation. Write everything down so that there’s little room for doubt but ask if you’re unsure. Keep everyone appraised of your progress on tasks set and speak up if you’re struggling. Intellectual curiosity is one of the most impressive traits you can exhibit. So try and solve problems, use your own experiences to be creative and don’t make the same mistake over and over again. Agencies want someone dynamic that can multitask and perform well in a variety of situations, so find a balance between asking relevant questions and trying to problem-solve for yourself.

5.    Absorb the media. Be an avid user of social media beyond posting photos of cakes, cats or catastrophic nights out. Show you can contribute to your agency and its clients by tapping into the news agenda or the latest trends in digital platforms. Understand the latest tools to analyse audiences or evaluate coverage and try to demonstrate that you know things your agency may not, even if that’s just due to your age or specific experiences.

6.    Show you have a business head on you. Some people think PR is all about brainstorming and media relations. And the savvier realise that data and digital play a huge role these days. But PR is a commercial business. That means winning new clients, finding ways to grow existing client accounts and identifying services and opportunities that target companies and organisations may need. And being able to understand budgets. 

7.    Go the extra mile. Enthusiasm for learning and contributing will help you a lot more than either acting as if you know it all or only doing what you’re told. Not everything you do will be fun or exciting, but that’s the same for all of us, not just the juniors. This is your chance to impress. So don’t take 90-minute lunch hours, don’t get in late or leave early and in this connected world, try and research projects your employer is working on to add some value, even after office hours. That means the industries your agency’s clients work in as much as just the world of PR itself. Public relations is not a 9-5 profession so show yourself to be flexible, agile and able to meet tight deadlines without compromising on performance. Leave the agency in no doubt that you see this opportunity as a career, not a box-ticking exercise. If you leave tasks unfinished because you had other plans with friends, don’t expect to last too long.