It’s easy to slap the digital prefix on to any job title and assume the rules are more or less the same. But digital PR means living online and basically trying to stay ahead of the Internet.
There are a lot of tasks to juggle and it requires a special type of person. Digital PR requires social grace and the ability to think on your feet. You need to be able to develop brands, promote them across dozens of channels, and reach out to hundreds of reporters and bloggers. We spoke to some of the most innovative leaders in the industry and asked them for a few tips on how aspiring digital PR pros can land a job and break into the biz.
Education and Internships…
PR may seem glamorous, but there is a lot of hard work, strategy and education that goes along with becoming a top player in the PR world. It’s a given that today’s PR program include digital and social media components, but what you learn in the classroom today could be outdated by the time you graduate. If you are still in school and dreaming of a career in digital PR, it helps to diversify your classes.
Sarah Evans, owner of Sevans Strategy, a public relations and new media consultancy, and self-described “social media freak,” suggests that current students enroll in an bachelor’s degree in communications, take any and all classes related to new media, and try to grab as many intern opportunities as possible where the role you want exists. “Create a professional portfolio to document your experience. Future employees will love it. Call, email or tweet someone with your ‘future job’ and interview them about it,” she suggests.
Likewise, Dave Levy, a senior account executive at Edelman Digital, advises PR hopefuls to take writing classes, and anything that focuses on digital. Levy said that one of the best classes he ever took was in “innovation management,” which was more about understanding the changes of the business world. “You can take a class on how to use Twitter () or Facebook (), but soon there will be something else to come along and replace it. So understanding technology shifts can give you some insight to how things may change. It’s about forward thinking, but understanding the history of how it happened can be a big help.”
Levy also stresses the importance of doing internships in the industry. “There are many students right out of college or grad school who have the skill set to jump into a job, but aren’t ready for the pacing or the work environment, and you want to get to know the industry.” To jump right into a job could mean making mistakes, and it’s better to make those mistakes during an internship that’s more of an educational experience.
But it’s not always about where you’ve gone to school or how many internships you can list on your resume. Chris Perry, president of digital communications at Weber Shandwick, says that landing a job in the field today is less dependent on pedigree and more about what candidates are doing. “It’s about their DNA structure and curiosity, more than an Ivy League education to a certain degree. There is a far less structured approach than we’ve had in place when trying to find traditional talent.”
Read Up, Meet Up and Tweet Up
Nowadays everyone considers themselves a digital expert. Sure you might have social accounts across the board, but it’s what you do with them that matters, not how many you can acquire.
Levy says that you need to immerse yourself in the industry you want to break into, so hopefuls should read everything. Being well-read is a competitive advantage, he says. Asking “what do you read, is a great interview question.”
Levy says interviewers can learn a lot about candidates this way. “If you read constantly, and you can discover one new blog a day and be able to talk about why it’s interesting, then that’s great. It means that you’ll have something to share, and it shows that you want to be involved.”
And don’t get too comfortable with the things you think you already know. “Always be willing to embrace innovation,” he says. “Don’t settle down because you understand Twitter, because something else is going to come along and you are going to have to think on your feet.”
Likewise, Jason Winocour, social and digital media practice leader at Hunter PR, says that job hopefuls need to be reading key industry sites every day and keeping up on what is going on in the industry even if they aren’t in it quite yet.
“Sprinkle your knowledge of cases studies throughout your interview. Everyone thinks they are an expert, but someone who can really talk the talk, and knows day to day what is happening on social media news sites, establishes credibility.”
Even if you aren’t an “expert,” show that you want to become one. Evans says that a genuine curiosity about all things new media is a plus, and that she is more likely to hire (and has hired) candidates with the passion for the job but not all the technical skills.
Perry agrees that passion is really what PR companies want when they hire. “When we look at portfolios, we like to see how they connect around a particular interest,” he says, “If they are a giant music geek and they have a blog and have built a reputation as a prominent music blogger, that is the type of thing we want to see.”
Perry says he’s less impressed with the focus on building a personal online brand, and says that the number of followers or friends you have is overrated and not actually helpful to clients. What is valuable and helpful, however, is simply common social sense. “We want people who are organizing meet-ups or tweet-ups, for whatever their specific interests are, be it sports or crafts. Taking a leadership role in a specific interest is appealing to us. It shows that they have relevant experiences, that they advocate for something rather than just being the thousandth person to retweet another link.”
With hundreds of thousands of hopefuls vying for the same positions you need to stand out from the crowd. Easier said than done, but a talented PR person knows how to get the right attention.
“Use an online tool like a blog or website to share insight or offer commentary on digital PR. Create a permanent ‘workshop’ blog dedicated to what you would do for specific brands and companies if you were part of their digital PR team. When it comes time for an interview you’ll have great content to share, with specific examples,” says Evans.
Creativity definitely plays a part in landing a job; in fact, it’s a requirement. “It’s important to be creative, in the same way that you use the digital space. Expertise coupled with creativity goes a long way,” says Winocour.
He offered up Alec Brownstein as an example of how being clever can get you noticed. Brownstein had the brilliant plan to set up an ad so that when top ad execs Googled themselves, the first result they got was a message from him asking for a job, along with a link to his resume. It was creative, and it showed off skills that he’d be using on the job.
Winocour says it would be a great idea to do a social media audit of the company you are applying to; audit in terms of SEO, for tonality of messaging and mentions, but he warns not to offer too many concrete suggestions. “We know what we are doing and we are on top of that, but it looks great to have an outsider perspective and it shows they took the time to really research and care.”
One thing to keep in mind, however, says Levy, is that applicants shouldn’t over prep for the interview. The person interviewing you knows the Google () results better than you do, so make sure you aren’t just listing off Google factoids. “Go in there and be honest. You aren’t going to find the answer that is going to get you the job a half hour before the interview.”
Show that you know how to apply what you’ve learned not just that you know how to perform a Google search. “Top results are at the top because a lot of other people have seen it too, think about that,” reminds Levy.
Know Where to Draw The Line
While you may think you need to reach out and promote yourself to your would-be employer, understand that there are boundaries even on the Internet (), and there is etiquette you should follow. You wouldn’t cold call an exec and ask if they have any job openings and the same logic applies online. While many companies will post job opportunities on Twitter, and that is definitely your cue to reach out, other platforms are not as appropriate.
“If someone is looking for a job and I don’t already have a relationship with them, or we’ve only met in passing, and tries to add me on LinkedIn () — a cold LinkedIn request — that’s a little pushy,” says Winocour.
Pushy isn’t another word for determined, so be careful when trying to connect. You might think you are being social media savvy, but it could backfire as well. “I wouldn’t just friend someone on Facebook,” says Levy, “It might not be the right person, and if you reach out to the wrong person it could really throw your job search off.” Instead, he says, reach out to recruiters, who want to hear from you, especially if you have the skills they are looking for. “Reach out to recruiters, if you can identify who they are, it shows you know how to research and identify things, which is what we expect from interns and entry- to mid-level staff. We want to see that you recognize influence and who the influencers are.”
It’s a fine line, but it goes back to what Perry says about having social common sense: “I’m visible online and the way to connect with me is to use social skills to get on my radar, but not so much to say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a job.’”
“You need to strike up a conversation,” he says, “there are a lot of people who are trying to just build a personal brand instead of using the actual tools.”
What is most important is that you research the company you are interested in. Try to gauge if they’d be impressed or annoyed with your inquires. Evans says that if you notice an opening at a desired company, find them and let them know you are out there. “We’re moving past the days where Human Resources were the gatekeepers of an organization’s hiring process. When recruiters, employees and other professionals engage via social media on behalf of the organization, it’s an open invitation for you.”
That said, striking up an authentic conversation, not just a plea for a job, is key.