15 top tips for a successful PR career

One of the things I enjoy most nowadays is having the opportunity to speak to the future leaders of the PR profession when they’re starting out. One of the questions I often get asked is “what tips would you offer to get ahead in this field?”

Now that spring has sprung (at least, it’s trying to) and students are turning their minds to life after school, I thought it might be timely to offer some of that advice up here.

Here are 15 top tips for success in a public relations career. Funnily enough, I’d give the same advice to someone 10 years into their career, like me, too:

Keen student

Never stop learning.

1. Be a sponge

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it made the PR pro. Whether you’re just starting out or if you’ve been in the business for years, it’s incumbent upon you to constantly learn in order to stay on top of our industry. Never stop being curious.

2. Stay on top of the news

Make time to stay on top of current events. Read a newspaper (online or offline). Set up news alerts for your company and/or your clients. Listen to the radio or to podcasts about industry news. Watch the news in the morning. Whatever approach you choose, it will make you more interesting and it will make you better at your job. Consider it an investment.

3. Focus on details

Nothing hurts the credibility of a pitch, a proposal or a program like sloppy mistakes. Meanwhile, people who become known for outrageous attention to detail become go-to people in a team. Be that person. Read and re-read your work. Be your own devil’s advocate in order to think things through and make sure you’ve covered all of the angles. Double-check your calculations. Question your assumptions.

4. Learn to juggle

This one applies especially to agency folks, but it goes across the board. Learn how to prioritize, how to focus when you need to and how to manage your time. Life in PR is a juggling act, and you need to know how to manage your workload and the expectations of your clients – however you define them.

5. Learn to write

Zombies have crappy grammar.

Zombies have crappy grammar.

Take the time to learn how to write well. Practice. Learn from others. Take a course if you need to (I recommend the eight-step editing course by the Editors’ Association of Canada, but there are many others).

Critically for many new graduates, you may need to unlearn what your professors taught you in university. Short paragraphs, short sentences and clear language help you to convey your point much more easily than the reverse.

Oh, and if you could put “by zombies” at the end of a phrase, it’s passive. Make it active.

6. Embrace numbers

Measurement has been a weak point in the PR profession for a long time. Nowadays, companies demand more. This is especially the case for social and paid media programs. The days of output-focused measurement are numbered, and outcome-focused measurement is on the rise. You don’t need to be an expert in dissecting website traffic (especially if you have a measurement team supporting you), but you should know the basics and know how to coach clients and people within your organization on how to approach measurement effectively.

7. Measure through the lifecycle

Measure throughout the program lifecycle.

Measure throughout the program lifecycle.

Measurement is so much more than reporting, and companies are demanding more from PR measurement nowadays. Know how to take full advantage of the potential that measurement holds throughout a program:

  • Inform your objectives (setting realistic goals, fueled by insights from past programs)
  • Fuel your planning (again, with insights from past work)
  • Identify and help to address issues mid-flight
  • Measure results and generate new insights to fuel future work

(more on this in my  recent presentation on Social Media at Scale that I gave at PodCamp Toronto)

8. Provide solutions

Tough challenges are a fact of life in the PR industry, where the role of communications is often to help to change behaviour or perception. That’s difficult. Few things will endear you to your boss more than this: become the person who comes forward with solutions alongside their problems. It doesn’t have to be the solution they choose (that helps, though), but the fact that you’re thinking it through and considering solutions demonstrates the kind of mindset that managers adore.

9. Learn to stay level-headed

PR pros have to deal with difficult situations come up all the time, many of which can’t be predicted. These are moments where you can distinguish yourself and improve your reputation, or the reverse. Be the person who doesn’t lose their head. Stay calm and focus on solutions (per the earlier point). Remember: frantic doesn’t mean effective.

10. Know what you don’t know

Self-awareness is a valuable trait, regardless of where you are in your career. Be humble enough to know when you’re out of your depth, and to learn from those who have experience in areas you don’t. Whatever you do, make sure that when when you find yourself in that situation you don’t sit, paralyzed, until it’s too late for anyone to help you.

Bonus points for thinking things through ahead of time and coming prepared with a suggestion: “I’m not sure of the best approach here… here’s what I’m thinking… what do you think?”

11. Learn the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics

Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing people confuse objectives, strategy and tactics with each other.

Simply put:

  • Objectives are what you need to accomplish. They should relate to business goals.
  • Strategies are how you plan to accomplish them. They should drive toward the objectives.
  • Tactics are the actions you take. They should funnel up to the strategy.

Learn it. Preach it.

(Read more on how to set better objectives or download my ebook on communications planning for more pointers)

12. Become a trusted advisor

Whether you’re dealing with executives in your company, or with clients at other firms, strive to become a trusted advisor to them. Go beyond what you “have” to do and become a partner. Flag opportunities and threats. Offer strategic opinions. Learn to empathize with them. Have difficult conversations when you need to. Push them to take the right approach (but know when to accept their decision).

Don’t just take orders.

13. Learn from your mistakes

Accept that you’ll make mistakes. We all make them, and they’re a key piece of how we learn and improve.If you don’t make mistakes then you’re not trying hard enough or not trying enough things. The key is to make them at the right time, in the right setting, and to learn from them. Conversely, people who constantly shirk responsibility for mistakes, or make excuses, will never learn.

Some of my most valuable lessons, and most beneficial experiences, have come from making mistakes. They weren’t pleasant at the time, but I learned from them and I’m better for it. What’s important is owning them and figuring out what to do differently next time.

14. Think outside your bubble

It’s easy to get caught-up in your day-to-day routine. Instead, look around and proactively identify ways to expand your expertise. That could be by finding new ways to get better at tasks, or by getting involved in a project that stretches you, or by learning more about a relevant field.

15. Understand converged media

This point began life as “understand social media” but nowadays it’s broader than that. Start with understanding social media – monitor and participate in relevant conversations; think about how your programs might play out in social channels and so on. Social is just the beginning now, though. The key nowadays is understanding how earned, owned and paid media play together. You don’t need to be an expert in all of them, but you do need to understand how to leverage them.

There you have it – 15 tips for success in PR. What would you add to the list?