Friday, August 26, 2011

PR cover letter advice part 2: describing your experience

A Creative Communications grad recently asked me to look over a cover letter he'd written to apply for a job in PR, and it raised a topic I hadn't thought to include in my previous post on writing a good cover letter: how to position work you did as a volunteer or as a student.

When you're applying for a job, you want to put your best foot forward. You want the potential employer to know about all the things you can do that are relevant to what (s)he is looking for.

If you're a student or a recent graduate of a hands-on program like CreComm, much of your "evidence" is in the form of assignments completed in class, or on internships, or as a volunteer -- and you need to ensure you make it clear what was volunteer work what was paid.

What difference does it make?

A hiring manager reads more into the work experience you describe in your cover letter (and which you share in your portfolio) than the quality of the work: (s)he also makes inferences about how other professional communicators may value your work.

For example, if you say you created a media kit for a Red River College corporate announcement (which you did, for a fictional scenario in an assignment), you are technically telling the truth. But the statement is misleading: you are inadvertently suggesting that Red River College actually used your media kit, which implies that it met Red River College's corporate communications standards. It may have been of a high enough quality for the college to have used it -- but the college didn't use it. You don't want your cover letter to inadvertently imply that it did, and take credit that isn't due.

Similarly, work you do as a volunteer for an organization is much appreciated -- but it isn't paid for. Your hiring employer won't think your work any less valuable upon seeing that it was done as a volunteer (in fact, (s)he might think more of you for offering your skills and energy to a deserving client free of charge), but it's important (s)he doesn't think you did the work as a paid consultant. Again, that could lead to assumptions about how the client valued the work -- which, again, could be true, but you don't know it to be. So you shouldn't leave the door open for the employer to assume it.

What to say

A hiring manager looking at your resume will (or should, if you've written it well) know exactly how much professional experience you have or haven't had. If the organization is looking to hire someone right out of school, it's expecting candidates to have work samples that originated in school assignments or volunteer work -- there's no reason not to confirm it.

Further, if you do have work samples representing paid work you've done, either as an employee or on a freelance basis, make sure you point that out too. All that information comes together to give the hiring manager a complete picture of what you bring to the table.

In being clear and up-front about the nature of your work samples, you signal to the employer that you are open and honest, and proud of your work... and those attractive personal qualities will shine through your cover letter, along with your skills and experience.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When should a charity refuse a donation?

One of my students in this fall’s PR Major tweeted me last week with a suggestion for a blog topic.

Her link led me to Lindor Reynolds’ column in last Wednesday’s Winnipeg Free Press, “Hooters, cancer drive a bad business combo.”

In a nutshell (this is my summary, but click the link for the full story), Reynolds feels the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation shouldn’t accept donations from Hooters, and that doing so will turn supporters against it.

Monique Levesque-Pharoah, Development Officer for the CBCF’s Prairies/NWT Region and a friend of mine, clarified a number of points in Reynolds’ story for me. For example, while Reynolds' column suggests the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation approached Hooters looking to “team up,” in reality, Levesque-Pharoah says Hooters simply entered a team in the upcoming CIBC Run for the Cure, which benefits CBCF. The Hooters fundraising activities Reynolds discusses in her column are in support of the Hooters Run for the Cure team.

At any rate, regardless of how casual CBCF's involvement with Hooters actually is, this post is about Pamela’s question, and whether accepting a donation from Hooters (even if it’s just money raised by their team in the CIBC Run for the Cure) is “bad business” for CBCF.

My opinion

I dislike Hooters. I agree with Reynolds that Hooters encourages the objectification of women, and that that objectification does a disservice to women in general, not only breast cancer survivors and patients.  I hear Hooters serves excellent chicken wings, but I won’t eat there – it’s my personal choice.

I am also fortunate enough not to have suffered from or lost anyone close to me to breast cancer (yet). But that doesn’t stop me from being terrified of the disease, or appreciating any fundraising done to support the fight against it and all other fatal illnesses. I've been lucky, but millions of others haven't. And every penny counts.

Do I personally like Hooters? No. But if Hooters is going to be in business anyway, am I just as happy for some of its energies and resources to be spent fighting a disease that kills people every day? I don’t even have to think about it: of course.

But that’s just my opinion.

Whose opinion matters?

Lindor Reynolds predicts that “many” CBCF donors will feel “ill will” toward CBCF as a result of the Hooters donation. While some may find it distasteful that an organization that promotes such positive things for women accepts money from Hooters, I hope many would feel the way I do: we may not like Hooters, but we’ll take the money to fight breast cancer, thank you. I assume this is how CBCF predicted its donors would feel, too.

OK, this is still my opinion. Time will tell who's right, I suppose.

Know your audiences

In fundraising, like in all other areas of PR, there's always the chance someone will be unhappy with what you do. Sometimes that person will be a columnist whose opinion gets wide distribution, sometimes not. 

What matters most is how your audiences will see the issue.

Reynolds’ column accurately points out that fundraising professionals “walk a tightrope without a net.”  

In everything they do, they have to be creative enough to break through the noise of all the competing messages out there, and persuade us to give our donation money to their cause. 

While we don't think of charities being "in competition" with one another, in a way, they are. We only have so much money to give, and there are endless worthy causes. So the question of where "the line" between aggressive and offensive lies is important: they need to raise as much money as they can, but without doing anything that could risk donor support in the long term.

And it isn't just about whose donations to accept: everything charities do goes under the donor microscope. Is this the right celebrity spokesperson? Can we be sure he/she won't be involved in some embarrassing scandal next month? Is this marketing campaign too edgy? Will we draw the wrong kind of attention? These questions are discussed and debated in non-profits every day, as they try to find a way to capture our attention, and be compelling, and do the best fundraising job they can, without offending badly enough to lose our donation. 

To do that well, they need to know their audiences: both what makes them tick and what ticks them off.

I hope Lindor Reynolds is wrong, and that most current and potential CBCF donors see the organization’s efforts to raise money for what they are: an aggressive fight against an even more aggressive disease.

And that they open their wallets.

If you would like to make a donation to the CBCF, please click here.