Four Lessons from 4 Years Running an Agency

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In my opinion, the best way to sum up anyone’s story is to pretend like you’re writing their obituary.

So here’s mine: coffee-crazed workaholic started an agency in Pittsburgh. Experienced moderate success.

It seems like just yesterday I was skipping classes my senior year of college to meet clients in the city. Back then, it was just me and a handful of contractors making it happen. It’s hard to believe that four years, countless clients and some awards later that we’re now a bunch of full-time employees. I’m mostly surprised I haven’t keeled over from drinking too much coffee yet.

Since Top Hat’s celebrating its fourth year, four seems like a magic number. So here are four lessons that I’ve learned along the journey:

Sometimes You Have to Put Yourself in the Microwave

In the past four years, there were two times I doubled-up on full-time opportunities. In 2014, I joined an inbound marketing agency as their director of inbound partnerships while still running Top Hat. The second time was in 2015 when I served a software as a service (SaaS) startup as their head of communications while (again) still running Top Hat.

There are crockpot and microwave experiences—both can be useful. These were the latter. Life was a bit chaotic and out of a balance for a while. To this day, however, these are two of the most significant experiences I’ve ever had that significantly catapulted things forward.

A microwave cooks things faster. So, if you’re looking to develop a certain skill or resume-lifter, a microwave experience can help you get ahead faster. Look for entrepreneurial opportunities or work on your side hustle to boost your overall momentum. Just be sure not to keep that microwave on for too long!

Build a Recipe Book of Interdisciplinary Techniques

Communications is becoming more integrated than ever. It’s critical to study, evaluate, experiment and understand not just public relations, but marketing and advertising too. To understand those disciplines a bit more intimately, you might have put yourself in the microwave. Ultimately, it will enhance your career, sense of direction and perspective in ways that will surprise you everyday.

You Must Understand How Business Works

The single biggest mistake communicators make is not understanding how business works. We as communicators need to prove our relevance at the business table. At the end of the day, what we do must support the goals of whoever we’re working with—client, employer or partner.

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You Must Be Business-Objective Focused

One of the earliest lessons I learned is that the impressions, click-through-rates and other metrics don’t mean anything if there’s no real return-on-investment. Some of the most blunderous client relationships early on were because I didn’t help the client establish tangible business objectives. The moment that changed, the entire business changed as well.

As communicators, the hard truth is that we’re often the first budget item cut when the going gets rough. We need to be in a business-objective mindset. It might not be revenue in all cases, but it must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable and Time-Based (SMART).

Want to hear more from Ben Butler? PRSA New Pros Opportunity:
TELESEMINAR 4/19

Join PRSA’s New Professionals Section as we talk with three PR pros from different industries about just a few of the different career paths public relations and communications have to offer. You’ll hear from Ben Butler, APR, founder of Top Hat IMC, on what it was like to start his own PR firm as a new pro, Sean Cartell associate media relations director for the University of Texas, on game day communications and managing media for multiple teams, and Brittney Westbrook, assistant director for marketing communications at The University of Southern Mississippi, on developing strategic campaigns for a university of 15,000 students and more than 120,000 alumni. Learn more about the opportunities out there in independent agency, sports and non-profit PR and how to get started on whichever path you choose.

register

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Ben Butler, APR, is the founder and client services director for
Top Hat—an award-winning marketing communications firm in Pittsburgh. In his past life he served as a public relations guy for a motorsports complex, director of inbound partnerships for an inbound marketing agency and head of communications for a software startup. He’s been named a Top Under 40 Communicator and is Accredited in Public Relations (APR)—a distinction held by less than 20-percent of all practitioners.

My PR Story: Evan Martinez

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The public relations industry has a vast array of career options and the opportunities for professional and personal growth are endless.

Like many PR professionals, the above is one of the primary reasons I chose to enter the public relations field. My love for communications is rooted in the passion I have for understanding people – what makes them tick, why they act a particular way – and while the curiosity is mostly natural, I have only become more intrigued over time.

I am currently the Communications Associate at American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. Working on the Hill allows me to combine communications and politics, which are the two subject areas I am most interested in building. Regardless of the type of PR you work in, I have found three things to be vital for a successful PR career.

1. It’s okay to go off the beaten path

If someone had told me when I graduated from college I would be working for a trade association that represents the steel industry, I would have told them they were crazy. But everyone’s PR story is different, just like mine is different from many of the people I graduated with. Whether you are passionate about working for a firm or a nonprofit or a hospital, communications is everywhere. The sooner you realize it’s a variety of experiences that create your PR story, the sooner you will end up in the job you have always wanted.

2. Develop a professional routine

I wake up, go to the gym, make a hearty breakfast, pour the coffee in my travel mug and head out the door. On my morning commute I read Politico Playbook and The Skimm, which provides the perfect synopsis for happenings around the country. It is our job to know about world events and to educate others about those events.  Every organization has go-to publications every employee should read and be able to hold a conversation about. Developing healthy professional habits (having a good breakfast, reading, etc.) will ultimately make you a better and more productive employee.

3. Keep building on your PR story

It might be a cliché, but it is true–our stories never really end. No matter the amount of internships you completed, what degree you graduated with or what title you have at work, your PR story does not end. My current role is merely a stepping stone in a long PR path that will continue to grow with time and experience.  Make sure you are putting yourself out there and meeting new people who can introduce you to new professional opportunities.

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Integrating any portion of this advice into your life will hopefully help you like it has me. Find work that you are passionate about and master it.  Ensure that you are constantly learning and challenging yourself because that is how truly great PR stories are formed.

HeadshotEvan Martinez is a Communications Associate at the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. He graduated from American University in May, where he served as Vice President of AU’s PRSSA chapter. Evan has also been featured on PRNews Online. He will be attending Georgetown University in the fall for his Master’s where he will study Public Relations & Corporate Communications.

From Post-Grad to Professional: How to Jump into the PR World in 2017

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Just do it. And no, this isn’t a blog post sponsored by Nike. Just do it. Dive head-first into the pool of opportunity that is the public relations world. Its waters are deep; you will want a life jacket. And as you have already concluded, there is no lifeguard on duty. Have no fear! You will not sink… as long as you abide by these two policies this year:

Maintain enthusiasm. Seek opportunity.

Structure. It is defined as the process between components of something complex. As students, we developed a habit to systematize our lives around class schedules and the daily routines which coincided with college life. Before you knew it, it was over. What now? Uncertainty is intimidating. The structure you unknowingly relied on is no longer defined by your next class assignment, mid-term paper or upcoming PRSSA meeting. Where to next?

Consider this reality check:

You are the navigator. This is huge. What a wonderful place to be – at the starting line of the real world. There is potential at every corner. Apart from the support of your family and friends, the defining factor of what will push (sometimes pull) you along will be your enthusiasm. This is essential not only for how you conduct your professional life, but also your inner persona.

“Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Success does not happen overnight, but becoming self-aware about your attitude can. If you are feeling discouraged, know that some of the strongest leaders were not knock-out superstars on day one. It was through the lessons learned by making countless mistakes that, over time, sculpted the greatest trailblazers in our industry. How did they make it? They were passionate about their work, they thought creatively and most importantly, they were enthusiastic about the “lessons” they learned from failing. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Next, Opportunity

Whether you’re interning at a branding agency, working part-time within a company’s marketing department, taking on freelance work, or still trying to figure out your next steps – know that being fresh out of the graduation cap and gown leaves a door open for the unimaginable. You have the time to invest in yourself outside of what you have done to earn your degree.

This year, make an effort to:

  • Become involved with your local PRSA New Professional section and surround yourself with a community of individuals who also want to invest in themselves. It is an empowering experience.
  • Seek mentorship through the PRSA Mentor Match. There are few words I can use to explain how important it is to find a mentor that can give you valuable guidance during your first steps into the industry. In one word: necessary. Anticipate an awe-inspiring moment when you see exactly what you want to do in your career. Your mentors will open your eyes to this.
  • Conquer the available PRSA training courses online through the PRSA website. These are essential skills and strategies that will prove themselves handy in times of demand.
  • Find inspiration by reading the best sellers in public relations and marketing and by watching webinars. Gain an insight on how industry leaders think. These are unparalleled resources for devising successful campaign strategies and sparking remarkable ideas.
  • If you want to do work in social media, work on earning native social media platform certifications through Facebook Blueprint and Twitter Flight School. Become Google certified in Google Analytics and Google AdWords if you are interested in online advertising. The more you know, the more you grow. Having these certifications under your belt can give you a level up on your resume.

Taking advantage of your resources is the greatest graduation gift you can give yourself this year. Remember, enthusiasm sparks curiosity which introduces opportunity. How did you jump head-first into the public relations world? I would love to hear your story!

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Anne Deady is a social media specialist at MMI Agency in Houston, TX and a member of the PRSA Houston Chapter. Her professional interests include influencer marketing and social media strategy. In her spare time, Anne’s favorite activities include attempting every BuzzFeed Tasty recipe and teaching her German Shepherd tricks. She graduated from the University of Houston with a corporate communication major and business minor. You can follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

Four Ways to Stand Out (In a Good Way) at Your First Job

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From navigating the lunch scene to navigating office politics, a first job can be tricky. You want to find just the right balance of doing your job well without seeming like a suck up. I’m no expert, but I do want to share a few tips I’ve found to be helpful as I navigate my first real job:

Have an opinion

This piece of wisdom floated my way from a mentor who’s worked in communications for over 30 years. Just because you’re the new guy or gal doesn’t mean you have to be quiet. There’s a time for speaking and a time for silence. While it’s extremely important to embody a sponge sometimes — taking in all the newness and expertise around you — recognize that you were hired for a reason. Your insights, thoughts and opinions are company assets, so don’t let them go to waste by being unspoken.

Get to know your coworkers as people

You’re likely spending 40 plus hours in the office each week, sitting next to the same people every day.  Take the time to find out what your coworkers’ lives are like when they’re off the clock. What do they love? What do they hate? What’s their favorite way to goof off or relax? By asking these questions and more, you’ll have a better understanding of who your colleagues are — not just as fellow workers, but as fellow humans. I think you’ll find that this has a catalyst effect when it comes to building trust and empathy. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to gain a little extra social capital by remembering someone’s birthday or wishing them well before they leave for vacation.

Keep a work/life balance

Plenty of people throughout your career will tell you to “say yes to everything.” In my opinion, it’s not the wisest way you can live and here’s why: If you keep saying yes to everything, you’re going to find it harder to flex your crucial muscle of discernment. Instead, you’ll find yourself automatically accepting job assignments and social invitations that are going to wear you out with no substantial gain. To function at your best, you have to create space to recharge and connect. Don’t believe me? Check out this handy PR Daily infographic that explains even more benefits of keeping your weekends free from work.

Do the right thing

At Lockheed Martin, “Do what’s right” is one of our three ethical mottos. (I’m fortunate that it’s also a life motto for me, too.) Lots of times it may be easier to purposefully overlook a small error or choose to end a task before going the extra mile. Hey, nobody’s even going to notice, right? Wrong. The trouble with that thinking is that it doesn’t matter if nobody notices. If you’re not doing the right thing and making choices out of integrity, then you’re not only cheating the company, but also yourself and your coworkers. Instead of “advancing the profession,” you are choosing to take the whole ship down with you.

What advice has been helpful to you at your first job? Or what advice do you wish you would have been given to you?

lauradaronatsy_headshotLaura Daronatsy is the Immediate Past President of PRSSA and currently works as a Communications LDP Associate at Lockheed Martin. She graduated from Biola University with a public relations major and biblical and theological studies minor. Connect with Laura on Twitter @lauradaronatsy.

Three Tips to Take the Jitters Out of Networking

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People who work in PR are known for being social butterflies who can drum up a lively conversation with just about anyone. But I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, I work in PR, and yes, I still get a little anxious right before I walk into a networking event. It can be intimidating to attend a luncheon or conference by yourself. There’s that first long minute filled with nervous energy while you look for a friendly face, and then everything melts away after you start your first conversation. And by the end, you’re glad you went. This quote from Kristin Newman’s memoir perfectly sums it up:

“I was a shy little girl and an only child, so on vacations I was usually playing alone, too afraid to go up to the happy groups of kids and introduce myself. Finally, on one vacation, my mom asked me which I’d rather have: a vacation with no friends, or one scary moment. So I gathered up all of my courage, and swam over to the kids, and there was one scary moment… and then I had friends for the first time on vacation. After that, one scary moment became something I was always willing to have in exchange for the possible payoff. I became a girl who knew how to take a deep breath, suck it up, and walk into any room by herself.”

One scary moment is almost always worth the trade-off. Here are three tips to get you through that one scary moment and become an expert networker.

1. Geek out together

The good thing about attending PRSA networking events is that you automatically have at least one thing in common with everyone else there: you work in PR (or aspire to work in PR). So bring up industry news that your regular social circle doesn’t get nearly as excited about, like Snapchat’s new glasses or the latest brand in crisis. In addition to industry news, it’s helpful to be up on the latest global and national happenings, always, but especially before a networking event. My go-to resource is theSkimm, which presents the news in a quick, easily digestible format. It’s ripe with conversation starters.

2. Go beyond small talk

Based on the idea that we’re not defined by our job titles (although I would argue a career in PR results in a serious work/life blend), I recently stumbled upon this great list of questions to ask people instead of “What do you do?” from Fast Company. Some of my favorite questions are:

  • Do you have any side hustles or passion projects?
  • Are you working on any exciting projects right now?
  • What’s your favorite emoji?
  • What was the highlight of your week/weekend?
  • What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?

These are guaranteed to spark conversations that won’t fizzle out after the first minute.

3. Volunteer

If you’re new to an organization or city, the fastest way to make connections is to raise your hand and volunteer. For example, in PRSA you can join a number of committees, from new professionals to membership to communications. Choose a volunteer opportunity based on your strengths, whether that’s planning events, running the check-in table, or helping with promotion on social media. When you get involved, it allows you to build deeper relationships with members. Plus, you’ll know a few friendly faces when you go to the next event.

What are your tips for becoming an expert networker?

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Caitlin Rebecca Ryan is a PR writer for Eric Mower + Associates in Charlotte, NC, with a passion for live music, snail mail, and novels. Connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog.