Decoding the employer: How to find and keep a job in PR by Derek Lothian

This week, DASH Communications caught up with Derek Lothian. Here’s what we asked him:

Derek, students in the PR program learned your name very quickly. Professors raved about you, as do professionals in the field. Other than producing good work, what tactics do you use to gain recognition as an all-around PR guy? Is it social media presence, ambition, diversity, or what?


(Twitter: @dereklothian)

When I was first approached by Dave to contribute a guest post to this blog, I have to admit: I was humbled. I’ve never considered myself to be an overly insightful person, and believe what I’ve accomplished in my seven-year career has been the product of good old-fashioned hard work and knowing the right people.

But success in public relations – particularly amongst young professionals – is about more than simply staying late or handing out business card upon business card at networking events. More importantly, it’s about aligning your skill sets with the needs and expectations of the industry.

In preparation for a speech at the upcoming 2012 CPRS National Conference on this very topic, I thought it would be interesting to conduct a survey comparing (and contrasting) recent GenY communications graduates and employers. And, while I won’t spoil the presentation by revealing the results prematurely, I will tell you that students and those hiring them don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. As the great Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame once said: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

This trend creates a vacuum of opportunity for new practitioners who can adapt their personal brands to stand apart from the crowd.

Take social media, for example. Three years ago, this function was – in many organizations – the responsibility of an intern, deemed proprietary from other areas of operations. Now, however, the industry has shifted; and social media is highly integrated throughout the entire organizational structure, layered into a variety of departments such as marketing, customer service, business development – even human resources. Knowing how to manage a Twitter account or edit a YouTube video is no longer enough. New graduates must be much more well rounded, and be able to tailor a tactical plan and an overall social media framework to any one of those business dimensions.

And notice the word business. Granted, some students will choose a career in not-for-profits, others in government, and many in private enterprise, yet if the global recession of 2008 and 2009 taught us anything, it’s that we are not autonomous. Governments are linked to corporate tax revenues, tax revenues are linked to business sales, and jobs in the not-for-profit and association sectors are directly tied to the fiscal prosperity of both. Although these concepts may, unfortunately, be foreign to the majority of students in public relations programs, that does not mean they are without merit. The terms value and ROI have crept back into the vocabulary of hiring managers, regardless of sector, and candidates must be able to demonstrate incremental benefit to land or keep a job. No one’s position is secure when it’s viewed – correctly or incorrectly – only as a cost centre.

So in light on these ‘startling revelations’, let me suggest five tips that I’ve adopted in my own career to help you maximize your employability and ensure you remain an indispensible asset to your organization:

1.     Help others. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. I’m continuously shocked by how few young communicators truly grasp the importance of becoming a trusted resource. In my mind, it is the single greatest missed opportunity for new hires to climb the organizational ladder. That doesn’t mean you have to be the go-to on everything. It means you ask questions and volunteer to lend a hand on tasks that might extend beyond your normal work environment. Personally, I’ve babysat kids, painted offices, proofread presentations at 2 a.m. and fixed computers while on holidays – not because I needed the brownie points, but because it shows I have a genuine care and interest for the people I work with. Be known as a problem solver. Colleagues notice; and so, too, do supervisors.

2.     Hone your non-PR-related skills. Now, when I say non-PR-related, take that with a grain of salt. In fact, every capacity, every skill, every insight you bring to the table can, in some way, be tied back to public relations. What I am implying is that your career does not stop within the traditional confines of PR. One of the most successful communications practitioners I ever met graduated university with a degree in kinesiology, and was originally hired at an agency only because of his experience coaching a local high school football team. All of your experiences matter. Keep that in-mind when submitting your résumé or jockeying for a promotion.

3.     Polish, don’t sandpaper your social media presence. Employers aren’t dumb – they know you have a personality and realize you have a life outside of work. When your social media accounts are locked or are stripped beyond a notion of ‘reasonable use’, the question arises: Whom or what are you hiding from? Absolutely, if you’re applying for a job with an oil conglomerate, your Twitter profile likely shouldn’t provide a minute-by-minute account of your weekend exploits with Greenpeace. And if you’re hoping to work for the Canadian Cancer Society, your Facebook photo should not be of you smoking a Cohiba. But don’t be afraid to show who you are. Personality is the most hirable (and retainable) trait.

4.     Buy your boss a beer. Your boss is your boss for a reason. Either she has more experience, more education, or – hate to say it – is more skilled. Take every opportunity you can to pick her brain. Learn how she got to where she is, and how you can emulate some of her successes. This is also the perfect chance to garner some insight as to where she plans to take your department or the organization as a whole. Wayne Gretzky once said, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” There is no better career advice out there. An informal, after-hours draught is a perfect place to start.

5.     Know when other people are better than you. I wrote this in another blog post a while back and thought it was so prevalent it warranted rehashing. Nobody is good at everything – it’s the reality that makes the team dynamic so powerful. The key to effectiveness, however, is being able to acknowledge when another person is, without hesitation, better than you at a particular task, and then having the strategic foresight to leverage those abilities to meet a common set of goals. This is perhaps the most difficult skill in itself to master, but one that will solidify your network and make you absolutely irreplaceable.

Join the conversation! Use the hashtag #CPRS2012 and tell me what you think of GenY communicators and the future of the communications industry.

Derek Lothian is a 24-year-old public affairs executive based in Ottawa, and currently serves as national manager, communications, with Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) – Canada’s largest trade and industry association. He also directs editorial content for CME’s award-winning magazine, 20/20 – recognized as one of the top five publications in Canada by the Canadian Business Press. 

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About davegauthier

I am a student of the public relations program at Algonquin college.
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