What makes someone a good candidate for a job at a public relations firm or a role in communications or marketing at a business or non-profit? As the nature of work and careers continues to evolve, it turns out that the "obvious" answers to this question aren't always the best ones.
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk about the essential skills for anyone seeking to work as a "modern-day communicator" and what it takes to be successful in a PR or communications role, whether in-house or at an agency.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Creativity, Curiosity, and Craft – what you need to get a job in public relations"
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Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Arizona.
Public relations, as a profession, falls somewhere on the spectrum between glitz and glamour and words and hard work. A lot of folks might be wondering, "How do I get into a field where communication, storytelling, client services is part of what I do?" On this show, we're typically talking from the public relations agency perspective, trying to give insights and strategies to executives and directors of communication on the industry or nonprofit side. We thought it would be kind of fun to put those two things together and talk about what it is to be a communicator as a career path. Whether you are going to work for a PR firm or whether you're going to work for a company or a nonprofit, these skill sets, some of them are timeless, some of them are changing. Here to talk about that is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. Abbie, that means you've seen a lot of folks come and a lot of folks go. What's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, it's interesting you should ask, because as I talk about how my career journey evolved and if I'm honest and say it actually started when I was back in sixth grade when the elementary school that I was going to had taken away our graduation dance and I didn't think that was very fair. So I staged a picket in front of the school, called the media, and did an interview with one of the local television stations, and shortly thereafter the administration gave our dance back. Now, I wouldn't have called it public relations. If you ask my mother, she would say it was because I was a busybody and had to stick my nose where it didn't belong. But if I forward that now and all these years later, that was advocacy and that was taking on the side of a principled side that we wanted to make happen. We stated our point. We created our very valid argument. We took it to the people, and we were successful. And that's really what relations at its basic form, is about taking a piece of information and sharing it out with your potential audience to get them to take action. It took me a long time to realize that could be a career and then what I needed to do in order to have that be a career, but I've never looked back once I figured it out through college and things that the things that I enjoyed and the things that I like doing, writing and organizing and planning and things were really critical skills in becoming a public relations professional. After a lot of angst and anxiety over what I was going to do and found that, I learned that these things that I enjoyed doing were actually something that I could turn into a career. Back when I was in school, it was a relatively new field by name. There were certainly publicists and things like that, but this idea that it was a strategic part of a marketing strategy is a relatively new concept. It has evolved tremendously over the years. In fact, the graduates from where I went to school, the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University and other reputable programs across the country, the knowledge base now is so dramatically different in terms of what's available to them and access to technology and things like that. But what hasn't changed is the basic skillset of taking an idea and putting it out to your community to elicit some kind of response or action. We just have different ways of doing that now.Adrian McIntyre:
It really does seem to me that the skills of the modern day communicator, the person who can find the blend between the facts, the fun, the angle, the hook, and put it together in a way that engages the public, the market, sometimes through the media, the traditional newspapers, radio, television, et cetera, and sometimes through the ever evolving digital platforms, but that core skillset is a keen understanding of what's the story here. In some ways, it's the same skill set that makes a great journalist. In other words, it's not just about facts and figures. The worst press releases that have ever come across my desk are ones where they're not telling me what's the story. They're just giving me the what, where, who, when, what, how. That's all important stuff, but I need to know what's the hook? Why is this interesting? That's hard to teach, but it is something that can be learned and developed over time. What do you think are some of these core fundamental skills? Whether someone's working for a PR firm, whether they're a freelancer, whether they're working for a company or a nonprofit or government agency, or what have you, what's underneath all that? What do they all have in common?Abbie Fink:
Well, I think one of the things that all of us that have chosen communications as a career path, and when I say that, I think there's a lot of ways that we come into that communications role, but I think there's an inherent sense of curiosity. We want to learn and we want to investigate. We enjoy digging in a little bit and finding the story, as you say, about what we're talking about. We have this ability to organize and extrapolate what's important and put what isn't to the side and determine how best then to put that back out into the masses. Again, we have so many more tools to do that now, but the bottom line is we still have to have a story to be able to tell. And so, that part of the skill set that... You're right, you really can't teach curiosity. You can embrace it and you can nurture it, but if you don't have it, you can't... I can't tell you, "I need you to be curious about this." You need to have to want to learn about it. If you're find that you are someone that enjoys doing those kinds of things, then this career path may be a good place to go, but there's a lot of the other things that go into what we do. Common sense, we have to understand what's happening. We have to be able to be cool under pressure. A lot of what we do, and I'm not talking necessarily about a crisis situation, but we have to be able to manage multiple things, a day like today, where a couple of client meetings, and then I've got to answer the phone on a couple non-related work things, and I've got to be preparing for the recording of the podcast. What else is happening in my staff is needing to reach me. And so, you just have to have this... And I don't do it great every day either. There are plenty of days where I'm not at my best, but the bottom line is the recognition and the understanding of that. I think one of the things that makes this type of work so interesting is it's different and unique each and every day. I may be working on the same project for a couple of weeks, but every day I'm working on into something different. I've been doing this work for quite a while, and I'm still learning something new and I'm still getting to do something different, which still fascinates me sometimes when I'm working on a project like, "This is the first time I've ever had to do this, and I've been doing this work for a really long time. How is there still a first that I get to do?" That's, to me, one of the reasons that I continue to stay in this and why I love talking to up and coming professionals that are either getting ready to graduate or are newly into the workplace, that whether you choose to go into public relations, if you chose to go into the journalism side or broadcast media, all of those things will serve you well. You will be great at what you choose to do with that sense of curiosity and that ability to see to the core of the information and to react appropriately, react well under pressure and find that story that needs to be told.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that I think is so critical for young professionals and seasoned folks alike is a self-awareness of what your real strengths are and how you can best contribute. That self-awareness demonstrates itself in your ability to say no and to turn down work or projects or things that really aren't a fit for you. I think there's a place in this field for generalists and for specialists. We really do need both. I'd be interested to get your thoughts about this. I'll give you a personal example. I have worked as a journalist. I reported for Newsweek during the invasion of Iraq. I have worked as a press officer, a media spokesperson, whose job it was to communicate on behalf of a nonprofit agency with every media outlet in the world and the biggest news story of that year. And then I went back to work as a strategist and a policy advisor, and that was where I discovered that I had to be honest with myself that I'm a talker, not a writer, and that some of the strategic planning, and certainly translating those plans into spreadsheets and log frames and some of the tools we used to use to try to coordinate this stuff was really not my skillset. I didn't know that until I tried it and found out I was terrible at it and what I needed to do was be in a talking role. It's why podcasting is such a good fit for me. I'm at home here. Do you think that people today have a sense that it's okay to either go deep into something that they are good at and really just own that, or are they pulled in a lot of different directions? Do they need to be good at all of them? What are your thoughts on this generalist versus specialist kind of dichotomy?Abbie Fink:
The simple answer is they're both right and it really is about what makes more sense to you. In an agency environment, where I am one of four or five, 10 people, we have 20, 30, 40, 50 clients. We are all doing the same work, but we're doing it for different organizations and different approaches. For some of us, we thrive on that creativity, the different stuff every single day, that nothing is the same day in and day out, and that's where we get our energy from. And then there are others that go into the profession that really want to be focused. "I am really good at media relations. I'm really good at being a spokesperson. I want someone to hand me my message points, and I will tell you what we need to be talking about." There's room for both of those in the world. You've mentioned being self-aware. You have to recognize where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are, but maybe even more so where you want those strengths to apply. You may come out of school or you may be re-careering, or you're making a change and you look at public agency, like mine, and like, "Oh, that would be great. They have so many different clients and it's a lot of fun. It's this and it's that." And then you come in and you're like, "I can't. I need a different kind of structure. I need everybody working towards the same goal. I just don't do well." And that someone else might look at that corporate structure and have... where there's a 10-person public relations team and everybody's focused on the same thing, "Oh my gosh. That would be boring. I can have all of that." And so, recognizing where not only what your strengths are in terms of what you're good at, what your skill sets are, but how that applies to the workplace that you're going into. I do a lot of mentoring with young professionals. I do a lot of conversations with the journalism students, public relation students at the universities. I tell them to write their own job description before they go out and look for a job, right? What do you need to have in order to make that position the best position that it can be? Think a lot about what not just... Now that many of us are in a remote workplace, you can think about where you want your work to come from, but what does the atmosphere of the office need to look like? Is it clients that you want to work on? Is it nonprofit? Is it healthcare? Pick. What drives you? If you graduate and you've got your degree and you've done well in school. You are an even playing field with everyone else that's getting out of school at the same time. There's really no points of differentiation. What sets you apart is how you apply that to the places that you want to go. And so, I would rather you write a job description and say, "You know what, agency, world, not for me. I really see myself as an in-house corporate communications person." Fantastic. Let's find you a place to do that. Or conversely, "This kind of frantic way of working and the stuff that's going on day in, day out, that's where I want to be. That's what I want to do." Because you will not be successful no matter how amazing your job skills are if the environment that you're working in doesn't fit. It's like you said, you're good at communicating, but your way of communicating best is in the spoken word and delivering the messages versus the strategic part of it. How do we get there? There's plenty of people that would rather stay behind the scenes and be the one that puts all that together and then puts forward the spokesperson. Fortunately, then, there's room for all of us. There's room for all the types of things that we do in this career.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that I think would be really helpful, again, whether you're a young, emerging, professional, rising professional, or whether you're re-careering, as you said, that's a great word, I like that a lot, is to really understand that there is a lot of room to do things that might not be immediately obvious and there are skills that you're going to have to translate into a hire-ability or sale-ability. Certainly, if you're working as an independent or a freelancer, you're going to have to show clients, prospects that you are capable of delivering whatever it is you say you're going to do, but the best way to discover these things is by doing work. One of the wonderful things about the world we live in now is that your opportunities to do interesting creative work, even as a side project for yourself have never been greater. So you think you might be interested in podcasting, start a podcast. You can do it tomorrow with your phone. You don't need a bunch of fancy stuff. You will have a better podcast if you have good stuff, but you don't need it to get started. You think you might want to be a writer, start a blog. It's still relevant in 2021, start writing on Medium, start doing all these things. You think you like video and social, then start creating pieces of content on various social platforms. See if you can actually begin to understand what is probably the most essential part of this equation, and that is the relationship between the story or the content and the audience. Because at the end of the day, if they're not connecting, you haven't figured it out yet. You got to get better at this. There really is something to be said for the 10,000 hours or probably the 100,000 hours in some of these cases. You only get good at this by doing it and you only discover what you're not good at and don't want to do anymore by doing it. So, you got to do stuff.Abbie Fink:
Well, there's plenty of things that I have done that incredible opportunities, once in a lifetime. Some of them have real legitimately be in once in a lifetime opportunity. They will not come back again, or they were the first, or they were the only. And then there are some things that I do regularly and consistently. And then there are those things that if I never have to do them again will not be soon enough. I know that, and sometimes I still have to, but I do know that. That, again, is one of those things that makes what this is so amazing is that there is that. Now, I was having coffee with a friend the other day, and he has probably had... I would comfortably say he would say he's had four careers in the last 30 years. I met him, I was a young PR professional. He was a director of marketing at a hotel company. They were a client of ours. And so, he was the guy that was in charge of making you want to book meetings at their hotel or their resort. I was the one helping get the word out. He was very good at it, very, very good at it, very personable, great sales person, had a fantastic way of getting the potential client to really envision themselves at the resort, but he got to a point where it's kind of the same thing day in and day out. It's still a hotel. I could go to another hotel, but it's kind of the same thing. So he decided he was going to be a stockbroker. He went and studied for all the different licenses that you had to get. I'm like, "What a complete departure from selling hotels to..." He said, "But selling hotels or selling stocks. It's sales. It's still the same thing. I have a different product and I have a different delivery, but I still have..." Since then, he's become a podcaster and he's become a small business owner and he's helped other entrepreneurs. What we were talking about is although he has reinvented or re-careered, the skillset each and every time falls back to communications and the comfort level in sharing with others and getting others to take action. He's just doing it through different mediums. What he said was at almost 60 years old, he sees himself with another two or three careers ahead of him as he just reinvents what he's doing. I'm like, "What a great way to stay true to the things that you like to do, but apply them to other things and putting aside what doesn't work for you anymore and being successful not based on necessarily the financial part of success, but being able to keep doing what you like to do and creating it in such a way." Again, I think you can create that opportunity, whether you are mid-career, end of career, or you're just beginning. You can create what your workplace needs to look like. I really encourage people to do that, that you're going to be spending eight to 10 hours a day in this environment. It better be someplace you want to be. And so, even if at the most amazing job offer, you still have to take a step back and see, can you see yourself doing that for that organization, for those clients in that environment? Because if you are, if you can, then all the rest of that falls into place. I like to say that I would rather make less money and love what I do than make more money and hate what I do, because it's no fun in spending money that you're making if you're not enjoying how you're making it. I think that, again, applies to... I'm not necessarily giving career advice here in a sense, but I think that answer is the same regardless of where you choose to be. Right now, across the country, we are hearing consistently how difficult it is to find good quality employees. I think it's because a lot of people are taking that step back and really analyzing what they want this next phase to be, what kind of work is meaningful to them and make sense for them and their families and the restructure of their life that they've done. I think for those of us that are in the position of employing individuals, we have recognize that what we were out there offering or how we were creating a job may not be the same and may not work anymore. Again, it's not just about money or benefits. It's really about flexibility and my commitment. Am I doing something that I can be fulfilled about and can I offer that? I think we have to ask ourselves those questions as we are putting our jobs descriptions together, and I think the potential employee who's interviewing has to think the same way. That is how I think we solve this, where all the workers thing is when we both come to it with this idea of what's really important beyond the basics of salary and benefits and two weeks’ vacation and things like that.Adrian McIntyre:
There really is a core of creativity, curiosity, and craft that underlies all these things. I would just say, if you're somebody who likes to write or likes to take pictures or likes to make audio or make videos, the best thing that you can do is just do more of those things, really give yourself permission to find the fulfillment in the creative process and you'll discover things along the way. You'll be able to say that not only where your tastes develop, but your skills will develop as well. If there's something that you see that you like, you might try to recreate it. As with painting, for example, you might take a watercolor class and you're trying to paint your own watercolor version of some master art, and it's fun. Maybe you have a glass of wine and good friends and whatever, but in the process, you're doing something creative. That's a natural expression for you. When those things come together, when the needs of an employer or a client and your creative self-expression come together is when you are happy, when you can flourish. Your craft is the center of that. Don't forget, there's such a tendency, I think, to talk about some of these skills as commodities, like check the box. Well, can you write? Can you use word or PowerPoint? Can you use the software? Can you write? Yeah. Okay. But do you love it? Because if you don't love it, then you shouldn't be hired to do it, even if you're okay at it, because there may be somebody else who's going to fit that role better.Abbie Fink:
Right. I love that idea of just do more of it, right? There's so many places in which to do more. You can do it for yourself, certainly. There's plenty of organizations that are open to volunteer photographers and videographers and event planners and whatever other things to determine if those are skills and areas that you want to get better at and eventually become part of your career. I think you can do that at any point along the way. I was another conversation earlier this week with someone that is really taking a different look at what she wants to do. She still wants to be able to use her communication skills and she still wants to be able to use her digital knowledge, but she's not sure she wants to do it in this traditional way. We didn't come up with an answer yet. I mean, we're still talking about what that could look like, but she also knows that she's at a place right now where she can think about creating something that fits better with what she wants to do. Again, if I go back to what I said about this, this sense of curiosity and this willingness to take chances, then let's just take them and see where we go with that. Yes, I recognize we have to make money and we have to be able to support our families so I'm not trying to be just let it be, but there are ways to do that and still be fulfilled and successful and not be afraid to take a risk when you're doing that. I put this out for those of us, again, that are in this position of creating positions for individuals and have openings within our companies to be open to this idea of something may be a little bit different, that we aren't stuck in the box of what the person has to be, and that for those that are applying for these positions, don't let my job description dictate what your resume needs to look like. Tell me how what you do fits with what I'm talking about and force that conversation. So I think some of the best opportunities are the ones that we weren't really thinking about in the first place, either by what I think I need or what you bring to the table. We need to figure out if we can make that come together successfully for both of us, and then we can do the rest, all the paperwork stuff to get to that place.Adrian McIntyre:
Let's end this conversation by talking about that for a minute. From the hiring managers perspective, if you're the executive or the small business owner or the agency president and you're recruiting for a position. You've just heard this conversation, where Abbie and Adrian are waxing poetic about your craft and creativity and all these. Still, at the end of the day, you're trying to find somebody who can get the job done and meet the requirements and do the work, whether it's, again, in-house or for a firm or an agency, et cetera. So how do you, Abbie, as a seasoned PR professional, working for a well-established firm that has seen a lot of folks come, a lot of folks go, how do you hire these days? What mindset and what specifics are you looking for?Abbie Fink:
Well, if you would've asked me that question two years ago, I'd had a very different answer, because my answer then would have been I placed the notice in all of the PR trades and I use LinkedIn and Indeed, and all the traditional places. I look for someone with X number of years’ experience or recent college grad, or whatever it was. Now, those are all still important, but I think the difference today is I need to look outside of the norm to create a different kind of work environment. So if I am pigeonholing myself into these specific individuals, then I will get a very good qualified individual from that specific line of requirements, but I might be missing out on some other things I hadn't thought about. Some of the things that we do haven't changed. We still put our notices out in those types of things, but we're looking at what might be non-traditional communications channels. For example, say, an attorney, someone that goes into law, sense of curiosity, ability to write, understands how to make an argument, is comfortable speaking in front of the public, with courtroom or clients, transferable skills. Just because their degree happened to be in law versus journalism doesn't mean they wouldn't be good in my work environment. Someone that, again, might be recareering and has management skills and organizational skills and may not call what they did special event management, but maybe that's exactly what they did in their other positions. So, it's on us to think differently about what that job description looks like and allow those outside of the norm to be able to feel comfortable about applying and seeing themselves working within our environment.Adrian McIntyre:
I just realized, as you were talking, I have a really great personal example of exactly this, which is rare because my temperament and experience, I haven't worked in a lot of traditional organizational environments. But 16 years ago, when I was working for one of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world and was the field-based spokesperson in Darfur, the height of the Darfur crisis, 2004, 2005, I was burnt out. I was exhausted. I was struggling with all of the emotional impact of that crisis, and I decided I needed to leave this job and go back to the United States. I had had a great relationship with the country director. And so, she came to me one day and said, "Adrian, we've got 16 resumes. We're trying to replace you. Would you look them over for us?" I looked through the whole pile of resumes. I'm not an HR person. I would be the last person that you would ask to make any actual decision about this, but she was looking for my input. "You've been doing this work for 14 months. You help create this role. Can you give us some insight?" I went through the whole stack of resumes and one of them jumped out. I pulled that one out and I said, "This is the only person in this whole pile that I think we should talk to." It was a young woman in her mid-20s, who had no relief experience. She had never worked for a nonprofit. She had no war zone or conflict-related experience, but she had been writing for the Lonely Planet, which is a guide for backpackers and scrappy solo travelers. She had written Lonely Planet stuff from Pakistan and other places, and I said, "This is the person you should talk to." "So, what do you mean? She doesn't know humanitarian work. She's not one of us. She's not an aid worker. She doesn't understand our ethics and values. There's a lot of specific bodies of knowledge you need to know." And I said, "That's fine. Now, that stuff is easy to learn. This is the person who has gone alone into a strange place and found her way around and written about it. That's the person to talk to." They ended up hiring her because she was great, not because I recommended her, but because she was awesome and she really flourished. She was amazing in the role. She went on to be the emergencies director for one of the biggest UN agencies in the world 10 years later. So, it was the nontraditional, non-obvious thing that made her a great candidate for that job and then someone who was willing to give her a chance. That wasn't me. That was the country director. She's shone in that role and has gone on to do great things. It's an exact... what you're exactly talking about. Sometimes what you're looking for isn't in the job description, but you need to be aware of that.Abbie Fink:
And that she was comfortable enough in her skillset that she could see herself doing that job and submitted herself for consideration. Again, I need to take my own advice in this conversation, right? Because I will find myself slip... The simpler path is the path that I know that has worked and worked well, and it may be where we end up. But what we are doing today and how the workplace exists and the skills that we need and what our clients are asking us to do and I think what the clients are also looking from within their own organizations is forcing us to think a little bit differently. Again, there are basics that all of us need. We need to make a living. We need to be able to support ourselves and our families. We need a roof over our head. Those are all those things that inherently come with needing a job and what that job does for you, but if we want to look at career or life's calling or something that kind of... That is a benefit of having this other thing. And then we get a better sense of what we can do and enjoy it a little bit differently. I think we work harder and we're more committed when those other things are there. I've been having lots of conversations with my colleagues, again, around the country as we're all trying to figure out how do we hire? Who are we looking for? What does it need to be? We don't have the final answer as we're all evolving, but the consistency and it is that we just need to be thinking a little bit differently about how we do that. I think I understand that in a different way now, but I know that my clients are asking us to think differently as well about how we do what we do because they're in a different space as well. And so, this all sort of feels like it all goes together. It's not unique to our industry, and I don't think it's unique to the size of business that we are. I think an entrepreneur that's ready to make their first hire is probably thinking, "I need to hire somebody that's just like me." Well, maybe no. Maybe you need somebody that is exactly opposite of you. Large corporations with hundreds of employees are going to just stick everybody on the same track, or do we need to think differently about it? So, it's going to be interesting. You know what, we should probably make a note to ourselves in a few months as we continue these kind of conversations to see what it looks like at that point and what's evolved. The world as we continue to live in with the changes that are happening and access to things and how we're doing things, I just suspect that the workplace continues to evolve, and smart businesses, smart business owners will evolve with it and continue to see and experience the success that they hoped when they started their business in the first place would be coming down the pike.