I frequently give informational interviews to future public
relations professionals looking for a bit of direction in their new career.
No matter which soon-to-be graduate or mid-life job shifter
sits across from me, I always have the same advice: start at an agency. That may
sound odd from someone who thoroughly enjoys in-house communications roles, but
by working at agencies—as well drafting requests for proposals for, retaining, even firing agencies—I
learned how to be a better communicator. It all started with practicing the
basics. Let me explain why.
Write, write, and write some more
If you are considering public relations as a career, you had better enjoy writing. Sure, you’ll be recording and cutting video, or clicking
away on your digital camera at times, but writing remains the backbone of public
At an agency, you’ll be assigned to multiple clients with various drafting
needs, including releases, social media posts, op-eds, white papers, and so
forth. Writing multiple releases and drafting a few blog posts every day, may
give you carpal tunnel syndrome, but it’s worth it.
Cranking out copy and having it marked up so that only three words remain is
how you become a better writer. Soon you will learn how to put your voice in
the background and write in specific tones for your clients, your bosses, and
eventually, the media.
My least favorite part of agency life—that I am most
grateful for having done—is drafting pitches. I have not drafted a formal pitch
in years thanks to these experiences. That sounds a little contradictory; let me explain.
The pitches are the little notes you send along to the media
to accompany whatever release, alert, or advisory you created. While usually
short and to the point, these little bits of copy can be all that separate your
story from being read or ignored. Each one is the hook or teaser to draw the
reporter in further. I used to fail miserably at these when I started out
because I couldn’t see what the news really was.
Drafting pitches will help you understand what the heart of
the matter is and how to speak about it succinctly. The process of creating a
pitch will eventually take place in your head so that you can draft better
releases/alerts, put out more succinct social media posts, provide higher
quality conversation with reporters, and generally avoid getting lost in the fluff.
You’ll learn how to be organized at an agency by creating
editorial calendars, listing speaking engagements, and assisting with events, among other items. However, the most vital public relations creation often left
to new or recent hires is the press list. Learning which reporters, bloggers,
thought leaders, authors, and news gatherers to approach is not magically
bestowed upon you when you are hired. Deciding whom to write to, call, have
coffee with, or invite to an event takes research and lots of it.
Every campaign for each client needs a foundation and the
press list will be yours. By going through this process of aggregating contacts
you’ll better understand each industry and the personalities behind each
byline. It includes reading more than you probably ever have before and, come
to think of it, really deserves its own subhead along the lines of reading, reading, and more reading. If you write, you need to read everything you
can get your hands or your eyes on to help your clients.
Life at the buffet table
As I mentioned, you’ll juggle more than a few clients. The
average is usually somewhere from four to six, with some agencies putting you on fewer teams as they scout for new business or more clients if they are running low on
By handling multiple clients in various industries, or at
least with different products, you’ll be provided with invaluable opportunities
to learn what really gets your blood pumping. This is the best way to decide if
you want to eventually narrow your focus in one field of expertise or remain a
floater, able to move with ease among clients. If you choose to go in-house
this will help greatly with juggling different departments and personalities.
Eventually, you’ll be asked to help retain new business. This
will involve countless meetings, more research, and the creation of
presentations, culminating with you accompanying your agency
for the in-person pitch with perspective clients.
This is a time for fresh ideas, and you will soon learn when
to speak up and when to listen. If your ideas aren't met with streamers and
confetti, you may want to take notes and mull over a few things before opening
I hope you like talking to strangers. I was lucky to have
been a reporter before going into PR. Approaching people on the street was easy
for me, so I took quickly to picking up the phone and talking. The hard part is
talking with focus.
You'll learn that every conversation has a goal. Sometimes, it
may be obtaining an interview for a client, other times it may be touching
base to see what a reporter is working on. Just remember that whenever you open
your mouth or put your fingers to work, you’re making a connection that will
hopefully last the entirety of your career.
There are many more skills to be learned at an agency that
help those starting out to decide if they want to stay or shift in-house
are the few that left a lasting impression and made me better at my job. What
were yours? Drop me a line on Twitter (@brianadamspr
) with #AgencySkills.
Brian Adams consults with nonprofits, including Komera Project, regarding communications strategy. Brian was previously senior director of communications at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and the head of media and community relations for the MSPCA-Angell. This story first appeared on Medium.