Want a career in PR? Here are some skills you really need in your toolkit


A few months back, I had an opportunity to speak to a class of soon-to-be PR graduates.

I was impressed. They asked lots of insightful questions, and more than a few were already demonstrating all kinds of hustle, like starting their own side businesses while they were still learning the trade.

It reminded me of the interns and fresh new hires I’ve worked with over the years. The vast majority of them were smart, ambitious and looking to get ahead at top speed. It’s that last part that can trip them up, however. Having the right hard skills and strong work ethic are definitely important, but will only take you so far on their own.

There are certain qualities that employers are seeking that are may not show up on paper, but that will be always be critical to a successful career. So, for those looking to make the transition to their first job, or who are trying to break through a career plateau, here are the five less-obvious skills that will help you stand out from the herd.

Consume news like an addict

It’s simple: if you find current events boring and mostly avoid it, you’re in the wrong business, full stop. It doesn’t matter if you're interested less in public affairs and crisis and more in talent publicity, experiential or digital strategy. Not keeping up with current events leads to huge blind spots. It’s one reason why brands suddenly seem to spit out tone-deaf tweets. Analyzing headlines and staying attuned to what’s top of mind with the general public (and the mood they’re in!) is mandatory and will ensure you the ability to steer your client or employer away from trouble. So, get those alerts set up right away.

What’s more, by being able to connect the dots between cultural trends, news headlines and macro themes affecting your client’s business, you’ll be able to spot opportunities that others cannot. That’s as good as gold in this line of work, and is a top reason why you should acquire a news addiction as soon as possible.

Network like crazy

This is something I didn’t do enough of when I started out. If I had, who knows how many new clients I could have secured, job prospects I have could have uncovered or fascinating people I would have met who would later make a big difference to me, personally or professionally?

If you’re leaning toward agency life, networking is the cornerstone to virtually all aspects of career success. If you’re considering corporate, then at very least you’ll need a deep well of industry contacts and smart “outside the office walls” people you can turn to for objective advice as you run into challenges or seek new thinking.

Maybe dashing home every night to watch Netflix is what you want to do after a hard day. But don’t make it your every-night habit – get out there and build some valuable, long-term relationships.

Don’t rush to judgment

I once had a client that was one of those brands everyone wanted to work with. People cold-called the agency looking for open positions just so they could be part of the team who served this client. The client, too, was regularly inundated with intern hopefuls. And yes, the work was rewarding, but the small budgets limited what we could do, and much of what did happen was guided by executives sitting in a different country.

At about the same time, I had a B2B client with very deep pockets, a keen desire to innovate and a willingness to give their agency a lot of latitude to test and learn, and drive real results. The problem was staffing it. The brand just didn’t have the same appeal. But the people who did get it learned a great deal, formed close relationships with very senior executives, and carved out experience in a more niche industry that ultimately made them more attractive to future clients and employers alike.

Believe me, others will notice and remember if you have a valid point of view and the confidence to share it. Put yourself out there.

The lesson here is to judge the work based on the work itself and the opportunity that’s on offer, not on pre-conceived notions of the brand. You know that cliché about how growth and success live outside of your comfort zone? Thing is, it’s true. Stay open, and don’t judge too early!

Speak up

Contributing your ideas and advice – whether in an agency or corporate setting – is the very thing you’re paid for, yet many newly minted PR people can be shy about speaking up. It’s tempting to simply nod and agree with what you’re hearing while you learn the ropes. And sometimes you have to go along.

However, I’ve been on teams where we desperately needed a point-of-view from the youngest person in the room – someone who, because of where they were in life, had an insight on things that I and my colleagues lacked. Too often I just got nervous smiles in return. Yes, there are people out there who abide by the tiresome rule about being new and shutting up, but that’s more about them than you. Believe me, others will notice and remember if you have a valid point of view and the confidence to share it. Put yourself out there.

Don’t be a jerk

I know someone who works in sales. He’s born to sell and always got results, but by his own admission he was a terrible team player in his early years. It even got to the point where he felt pressure to leave or  shown the door. But each time he was able to start over again selling at a new company in a new industry, practically anonymously, until he ultimately matured.

That’s kind of repeated rebound is a lot harder to pull off in this industry, at least in Canada. The marketing/PR/advertising industry here is big, but not that big. People move around a lot, memories are long, and your reputation will follow you more often than not when you switch jobs. I regularly joke that if I don’t know someone in this industry, I can learn everything about them with one phone call. Only, it’s not really a joke.

If you’re a jerk, word will spread, and you’ll quickly find yourself having to overcome negative perceptions before you even have a chance to look someone in the eye, whether they’re a client or a colleague.

Have any other skills worth sharing with those just starting out? Share them in the Comments below.