Public relations professionals can best enhance their careers by seeking opportunities to broaden their experience outside of the traditional communications discipline, said panelists at a PRSA/Philadelphia breakfast on March 31.
Speaking on the topic “Taking Charge of Your Career: Making the Most of Your Opportunities,” the panelists provided a broad spectrum of communications career experience, from an executive recruiter to a new professional in an agency setting, to a seasoned corporate director of communications.
Communicators need to incorporate in their personal career plans elements of continuing learning, challenge, growth, and above all, marketability, said Janet Long, president of Integrity Search, a retained executive recruiting firm.
“It’s a market where hiring managers often lament the lack of core skills among up and comers, yet at the same time frequently miss opportunities to hire skilled veterans who are able and willing to work as independent contributors and mentors,” said Long.
Communications professionals should “map out a plan, to really embrace the market’s contradictions and hedge your bets,” said Long. “You want to consider picking up some areas of concentration where you can stand out from the pack.”
Get close to the business, Long said. “This may sound radical, but even consider a stint in a line function, even if it’s a six month assignment you can grab at a company where you already have equity, but a role which will increase your credibility and your vantage point as a communicator. We’ve really seen that stand out with our clients that they like seeing communicators who’ve taken a risk and gotten another kind of experience.”
The biggest challenge for new professionals is juggling multiple client projects and managing time, said Mary Kate Breslin of The Brownstein Group. “Learning your clients’ personalities, what their business is like and being able to switch on command is definitely a hurdle, and we certainly look to our managers to help guide us,” she said.
Enhancing professional credibility with colleagues in other business disciplines can pay career dividends, said the panel.
“It didn’t get me a promotion, but it let me learn and get some different experience,” said Brian McPeak, director of corporate communications at Rohm and Haas, a chemical company headquartered in Philadelphia. McPeak spent two and a half years running an environmental remediation project, an experience completely outside the communications career path. “I knew nothing about cleaning up landfills, it was a financial, legal and political issue. I learned an enormous amount about construction, about labor unions, about all those things that I never in my life would have imagined. What I learned there I have used regularly in the Rohm and Haas Company. The most important thing is to just do something else.”
Long related the experience of a colleague who was having difficulty getting a communications budget approved. The colleague decided to engage in a closer relationship with the chief financial officer of the firm. The closer collaboration led to greater understanding of the role of communications on the CFO’s part, and resulted in a tripling of the communications budget, she said.
Junior staff members need to be given opportunities to participate in the information-gathering phase of managing an issue, not just in the writing process, said McPeak. “Don’t burden them with a lot of work, let them go out and learn,” he said.
The panelists agreed that continuing education was a plus, although they said they didn’t see significant value from advanced degrees or the APR credential.
“I wish that more employers and more hiring managers did ask for the accreditations, because people work so hard to get them, and they are so important, and there’s such rigor in the process,” said Long. Sometimes Long will add APR as a requirement in position specs for clients. As people move up the ranks, they are less likely to report to a communications professional, she said, noting that such managers are usually less familiar with the credential.
Where employers ask for a master’s degree, they are more likely to be interested in an MBA, she said.
“That signals to me a ‘learning person,’” said McPeak. “Have you been or are you interested in challenging yourself to learn new things?”