Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Looking for a job in PR? Your cover letter is your first test.

If you’re applying for a job in PR, your prospective employer may be evaluating your cover letter and résumé in more ways than you realize.

There are many different approaches to résumé writing; two of the most popular are the “chronological” approach, which is self-explanatory, and the “functional” approach, which organizes experience according to the skills or accomplishments it demonstrates.

While proponents of the “functional” résumé will tell you that presenting your material this way will help you play down gaps in your work experience or, even, your youth (?!), any potential employer who is on the ball will be asking the right questions either way.

So, what’s the right résumé for a PR job?

Over the course of my corporate career, I posted a number of PR jobs and likely reviewed a couple thousand applications. Here are a few things that, for me at least, were red flags:
  1. Typos or grammatical errors – If you can’t get your own cover letter or résumé right, I have no confidence you’ll write well in my shop, no matter what your previous experience might be. Red flag.
  2. “To Whom It May Concern” – Take the time to find out to whom your application should be addressed; or, at the very least, say “To the hiring committee.” (On a related note: why do people capitalize each word in that phrase? See red flag #1.)
  3. “Objective: anything that isn’t the job I’m advertising” – Personally, I think providing an objective at the top of a résumé is a waste of your time and mine – I’d rather see you take the time and space to show me why you’re the right person to help me meet my objectives. (If your objective isn’t to get the job I’ve posted, why did you apply?) If you must, fine… but if you list a generic objective or even worse, an unrelated objective, it tells me you’re too lazy to revise your document. Red flag.

As anyone who works in or even has studied PR knows, the key to success in any strategic communication is a focus on what the audience wants.

We carefully craft articles, news releases, event plans, presentations, and everything else we do, to make them as persuasive as possible to our intended audience. We structure our communications to make them easy to receive, accept and act on. We answer that all-important question “what’s in it for me?” because we know that’s what people respond to.

So why would you send out a résumé and cover letter that don’t do the exact same thing? Especially if your target audience is a communicator, who wants to hire someone who can show they’re able to put theory into practice?

What a hiring PR manager wants

Your cover letter and résumé will be the first test your prospective employer puts you through; (s)he wants to see whether you “get it.” If your application materials show that you do, and can apply the principles of good strategic communication, your application will be far less likely to hit what a former boss of mine called the “circular file” (i.e., the recycling can).

So, let’s do a little audience analysis. Your target audience in this case is likely:
  • reading many applications from people who aren’t qualified at all (“All my job experience is in retail, but people tell me I’m a people person, and I’m a good speller, so I think I’d be great for PR!”)
  • reviewing a large number of applications, so doesn’t have a lot of time to hunt for the relevant information in each one
  • wanting to see evidence of strategic communication and technical accuracy (that means proofreading!)
  • hoping against all hope that the right applicant is in this pile, so (s)he doesn’t have to go through this process again anytime soon.
That’s a good start. But how do we find out what this target audience wants to hear?

Between the job ad, the employer’s website, and your friendly Google machine, you have all you need – though knowing someone on the inside never hurts.

First, the job ad.

In the job ad, the employer has likely told you what (s)he will be looking for – so structure your letter and résumé accordingly. Open your letter with an expression of interest in the position because of what you can bring to the employer (not what the job will do for you), and then match up what you bring with what they’re asking for. You can even use bullets, or put it in a table format if you want; believe me, the employer will appreciate a straight-to-the-point, easy-to-follow demonstration of how you meet their requirements.

"Experience working with the media: I acted as the media liaison for ACME Clothespins Inc. for two years; in that role, I wrote media advisories, news releases, and backgrounders and developed media kits which led to significant positive coverage. I also organized and ran successful news conferences, and acted as the company’s media spokesperson."
If you clearly show how you meet each of the criteria listed, the time-strapped employer doesn’t have to go looking for it – and knows that you know how to tailor communications to meet your audience’s needs. Check, and check.

As for your résumé, again, let the employer’s needs tell you how to structure it. I never cared that much whether the information was provided by function or by chronology – what mattered to me was whether it showed abilities and aptitudes to do what I’d need an employee to do. So organize your information in whatever way makes the most sense to you; just make sure the information you choose is related/appropriate/helpful in showing you meet the employer's needs.

If you're just graduating from college and all your paid jobs have been in retail or food service, that’s fine – everyone in this industry once had a first job. Just make sure your application materials focus on the communications-related volunteer work you’ve done and education you've had. As a hiring employer, I’m less concerned with whether an applicant got paid to do PR work than the fact that they’ve done it and been successful at it.

Secondly, the Web.

You have my advice on how to write your cover letter and résumé. But what should you include other than your clearly-organized, well-written evidence that you meet the employer’s minimum requirements?

This is where you have another chance to shine: do some research on the organization. Look at its own website, and look at what its competitors/opponents/mainstream media and bloggers are saying about it (and its industry, if applicable).

By researching what’s going on with that employer, you’re in a better position to understand its overall PR objectives – and then to show how you can help meet them. For example, the job ad may not have asked for experience dealing with environmental issues; but if a scan of the media coverage on your employer shows it's been the target of some activism and you have experience that could help them build bridges with the activist group, you may be able to set yourself apart from your competitors. At the very least, the employer will know you’re the type to scratch below the surface of an assignment – never a bad thing.

Final advice?

Don’t lie, and don’t stretch the facts.


You may fool an employer in the short term – you may even get the job. But if you’re not qualified for a job, you won’t do well at it, and your reputation will pay for it in the long run.

There are lots of PR jobs out there; find the one that’s right for you, and make your best case.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's AGM season!

In the corporate world, PR and IR (Investor Relations) departments work around a schedule of required legal filings and meetings aimed at ensuring investors have timely information on which to base their investment decisions. One of the key elements of this schedule is the Annual General Meeting of Shareholders, or AGM.

In Canada, the AGM for a publicly-traded corporation has to be held within six months of the end of its fiscal year; since many public companies' fiscal years end on December 31st, hotels and convention centres in larger cities tend to come alive with AGMs in the spring.

If you watch the business section of a major city's newspaper, you'll see official "notices" (that is, ads providing the date/time/location/agenda) of AGMs. [Some people actually scour the papers for these notices and plan to attend the ones known for their catering. One event organizer here in Winnipeg once told me about two regulars he used to see at AGMs; he (kind of) affectionately referred to them as "Mr. Cheese" and "Mr. Crackers," as their "investment interests" only involved companies whose AGMs offered lunch.]

Anatomy of a corporate AGM

A corporate AGM is generally divided into two parts: the "legal business," and the executives' report.

The "legal business" of the meeting is called that because the company is required to conduct it at a public meeting, of which investors have received a set length of advance notice. The legal business includes: the acceptance of the annual report and auditors' report; the election of Directors; the appointment of auditors; and shareholder votes on any issues put to them by the company or individual shareholders (within specific legal parameters). Unless there's a particularly complicated vote taking place, the "business" of an AGM often takes less than 15 minutes.

Once that's out of the way, many public companies take the opportunity to speak directly to their investors in a presentation about the last year's performance, what's going on in the industry, and an outlook on the year ahead.

Sizes and tones as diverse as their companies

For some publicly-traded companies, an AGM is a meeting in a boardroom with fewer than a dozen people physically present (with potentially thousands of other shareholders represented by mail-in votes called proxies). For others, it's a large-scale to-do in the ballroom of a big hotel, or a convention centre, in front of hundreds of people (also with potentially thousands of other shareholders represented by proxy).

At some AGMs, there are blow-your-socks-off graphics and a/v presentations; at others, just an executive and a microphone (or, no microphone). At some, fancy luncheons; at others, no refreshments. At some, product displays, giveaways, demonstrations, etc. etc. etc. You get the picture. A company's approach will depend on a number of factors, including the locations of its shareholders and the nature of its business.

Widespread broadband access has made it possible for companies to open the online "doors" to their AGMs to a far wider range of investors and interested audiences (e.g. customers, employees working in locations other than the company's "home" city, etc.). Visit the investors' section of any major publicly-traded company's website, and you're likely to find a link to the webcast of its most recent AGM.

Others, like NIC, whose slogan is "the people behind eGovernment," are taking the online AGM to another level by simulcasting their AGMs in Second Life.

Boring, stodgy, stuffy? Not necessarily!

Done well, an AGM can be a great communication vehicle for audiences well beyond a company's shareholders. It can inform, motivate, inspire, entertain, energize, and galvanize loyalty and support.

And because the media tend to be interested, a company's opponents will sometimes choose the AGM to bring public attention to their causes, bringing another level of "excitement" to the meeting. For instance, here's Greenpeace hijacking a Nestle AGM:

OK, maybe not so exciting.

In other cases, groups of activist shareholders with enough votes behind them will replace the Board of Directors at an annual general meeting -- though the drama usually takes place behind the scenes. If you read a news release about an AGM that saw the election of a group of new directors and the resignations of a group of existing directors who were supposed to be up for election at the AGM, it's fair to suspect a hostile takeover. You may not see much in the way of drama from the podium, but you can trust that it's playing out in the boardroom.

While I've never had to deal with activists in the rafters (note to AGM planners: involve security!) or a hostile takeover attempt, I've seen a few memorable AGMs; at one, arriving shareholders were greeted by throngs of picketers in the streets.

CreComms: want to attend a corporate AGM?

Manitoba Telecom Services Inc.'s Annual General Meeting is scheduled to take place the morning of Thursday, May 6th at 11:00, at The Hotel Fort Garry in Winnipeg. MTS has offered to include any CreComm students who would like to see how an AGM works; if you would like to attend, please email me and I will have your name added to the guest list.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NEW Chicago trip itinerary (CreComm)

Here's the updated itinerary for the PR & Ad majors' trip to Chicago.

Can't wait! If you have any suggestions on things to do/see in the Windy City, please let us know in the comments. Thanks!


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nike: move on.

Today, on the eve of Tiger Woods' long-anticipated return to professional golf at the Augusta Masters, Nike released a television commercial.

The ad, called "Earl and Tiger," uses the recorded voice of Woods' late father questioning his son's judgment, over an image of Tiger looking ashamed. In "On Par," The New York Times' golf blog, Richard Sandomir reports the ad first ran this evening at 6 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, and will run only until tomorrow afternoon.

I think it's awful.

Move on.

I and I'm sure hundreds of others in the PR industry have blogged at length about the need to get out in front of an issue that is destined to become a PR problem.

Think David Letterman vs. John Edwards. Letterman admitted to his infidelity before it hit the media, and the story was short-lived (and, frankly, was mostly about how well he handled the PR). Edwards denied, ran, denied, hid, denied, mocked the media outlets uncovering the truth, and denied some more before being spectacularly dragged into admitting it, creating a media circus for himself in the process.

"Tell the truth, tell it first, tell it all" is what we say in issues management. It hurts in the short term, but makes for a much longer long term.


Once an issue has been beaten to death and into the afterlife, as the Tiger-Woods-is-a-no-good-philanderer story surely has, you let it go. You move on to your messages.

For Nike, that means you let Tiger be a golfer again.

Sandomir's "On Par" post quotes Bob Dorfman, the executive vice president of Baker Street Advertising, as saying that "Nike had to address, or at least, allude, to Woods’s personal problems. “They’d take a lot of flack if they didn’t,” he said."

I disagree.

Tiger was decked out in what The Guardian's Lawrence Donegan called his "his Nike-branded sackcloth and ashes" at his news conference at Augusta earlier this week, as he addressed reporters' questions about his return to the game as well as the scandal.

Nike's continued sponsorship of Tiger throughout recent months has communicated the company's commitment to Tiger, the golfer. It doesn't need to make any more comment than that.

Woods' return to golf is the opportunity to turn the page, to re-build Tiger's brand as much as is possible. Sure, the media are likely to keep flogging the sex addiction story -- but by now, it's lost its shock value. People are tired of hearing about it. People want to move on; and as soon as the tournament begins, they may just be more interested in how he plays than how humiliated he is.

That's where Nike should be focusing.

Generation gap?

My three-year-old looks for her

If you want to feel old and soon-to-be-obsolete, watch a three-year-old use an iPhone or navigate YouTube.

Kids are sponges for information. We don't have to show them how to fasten a button or choose the right puzzle piece. And that's by necessity: because just about everything in their world is new, they are masters of "figure it out." They observe, reason, and replicate behaviours, learning by trial and error what works. That, combined with their total lack of concern about potential embarrassment or failure, among other things, makes them far more efficient learners of languages than adults.

It also makes them perfect little candidates for social media.

A couple of weeks ago, Fisher-Price launched three new iPhone apps targeted at two-year-olds, prompting Mashable to ask, "How many 2-year-olds do you know with an iPhone? Fisher Price seems to think there’s a fair few out there..." Kidding aside, Mashable's Amy-Mae Elliott recognizes the market for these apps is really parents who may want something to occupy a busy toddler for a few minutes in a grocery store line. And while the prospect of a toddler with her own iPhone sounds nuts, the fact is, today's toddlers are so surrounded by technology that they adapt to it naturally.


Today's kids live in a digital world: there's no arguing it. They help their grandmothers with the TV remote; they understand touch-screen, finger-pinch technology (or, at least, how to use it). They "get" website navigation and how to use a mouse; for a great example of online content aimed at toddlers, check out Sesame Street's website. They instinctively know that swiping the screen of a handheld device will advance the pictures. That touching an icon in a menu will open a game. That if you click on the triangle inside the circle, you'll get video; and if you click on the little square at the bottom right, the video will fill the whole screen.

They live in a world where special YouTube channels and blogs built just for them are a quick destination for entertaining, safe content... even if you're not old enough to spell out a URL on a keyboard.

So, what does this have to do with PR?

Today, maybe not that much, unless our clients are in the youth or education markets.

But as babies like my daughter grow into tweens (God help me, a mere decade from now!), teens and young adults, their habits, tastes, and expectations will increasingly form critical mass -- and will drive how we communicate.

So. If you're hesitating to "go 2.0" and join the online conversation, now's the time to get going. Because if you think online communication is growing rapidly today, just wait till these kids are old enough to become consumers. There'll be no turning back.