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!


  1. This is awesome advice Melanie - thank you for taking the time to write it! I've bookmarked it!

  2. I've also bookmarked it. I remember Chris Petty telling me that "to whom it may concern" is one of the worst things to put on a cover letter. It basically shows that you didn't even try.

    Until then I had no idea that it gave that poor of an impression.

  3. I agree. Thanks a lot for the post.

  4. I found this very helpful, thanks for the excellent advice :)

  5. Thankful I stumbled across your wisdom as I start writing my cover letter. Thank-you!

    1. Haha. It's an old post, but I stand by it! :)

      Glad it was helpful.