In 1998, I was one of many eager college graduates who proudly marched across the stage with a bachelor's degree in my hand and lofty career ambitions in my head. At that time, there wasn't a major in public relations so I ended up with a degree in communications. Nevertheless, I stayed focused on my goal of using my college degree to jump start my career.
Prior to graduation, my college advisors encouraged me to gain as much real life experience as I most possibly could. They recommended working at a news studio or radio station, but I decided to pursue a newspaper internship instead.
Looking back, I can honestly say the internship was one of the best career decisions I could have made and helped jump start my career path. As an interning news reporter, I wrote obituaries, covered court trials, generated my own story ideas, worked with my editors and had to learn how to write on tight deadlines – all of which are very valuable skills for PR professionals.
After completing my newspaper internship, I did another internship at my college relations office where I clipped newspapers, wrote press releases and had the rare opportunity to write the commencement speech for my own graduation.
Shortly after graduating, I ventured out into the workforce on the search for an entry-level job in communications. My first stint was working as a marketing associate at an integrated marketing firm, where I wrote copy for direct marketing collateral and proofread ad copy. While this was not how I envisioned starting out my career, I remained positive and tried to learn as much as possible. After a year in marketing, I realized that I wanted to aggressively pursue a career in public relations and would need to make another career move.
With limited options and virtually no PR agencies in Virginia Beach, I had to really think hard about my skill sets. Why did I want a career in public relations? How could I become successful? And, more importantly, where did I see myself in the next 5-10 years?
Furthermore, I had to be surrounded by PR professionals who had deep industry knowledge and expertise. I had two choices. I could either move to California or New York. I decided to move to New York, researched and identified headhunter agencies that specifically placed candidates looking for careers in public relations and with my internship portfolio in tow started making my interview rounds.
For each interview, I tried to extrapolate something I learned in college. Eventually, I started to change my perspective on the whole interviewing process. I thought to myself, "This is a self- branding campaign". My first step was to rearrange my portfolio. Instead of presenting it in chronological order, I presented it by accomplishments that correlated to the requirements for the position.
During my presentation, I would consistently provide specific examples of why I was the perfect candidate for the job and how I was different. Because I wanted to jump start my career, I also provided examples of why I should be considered one step above entry level. Following each interview, I sent personalized, notes that reinforced my skills but also further differentiated me from other applicants.
One particular follow up note featured a fire-breathing dragon that simply read, "I enjoyed meeting you and hope you will seriously consider hiring me. After all, I have a fire in my belly."
Within a few weeks, I landed my first dream job in public relations and was able to start one level beyond the original position for which I had interviewed. Two months later, at a company meeting, the PR agency's CEO mentioned that he was looking for PR professionals who had fires in their bellies!
For graduates planning to enter the exciting world of PR, my best piece of advice would be to view yourself as the final marketing exam in college.
Create a unique selling proposition (USP) and make sure that every aspect of your interview is centered on it.
Develop Your Own Brand
Before developing your portfolio and hitting the interview circuit, take the time to develop your own PR campaign. What is your objective? How do you want the world to see you? Why are you different and what does it take for you to break away from other graduates vying for the same positions?
Keep It Personal
The next step is to take a targeted, personalized approach in your interview process. Don't just assume that you can send out a bunch of cover letters and resumes, and your phone will start ringing off the hook with job offers. Do your homework to identify the right PR firms for your skills, and make sure to follow up on every single interview.
As I look back on my career, there's no doubt that my college degree gave me both the skills and confidence to land my first job.