My First Six Months in PR or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Job by Heather Sliwinski

About one week into my job, I wondered if I oversold myself during my interviews. I’m not saying I lied—no one should ever lie in an interview—but I had to question if I made it clear that I had zero PR experience when I landed my first position at a PR agency in August.

I took the advertising and PR classes in college, toiled at the obligatory unpaid internships in marketing and promotions and gained more than two years of marketing experience after graduation. With that said, I still didn’t know what a media list or subject matter expert was.

I had a lot to learn, not only about our clients’ businesses, but also the business of PR; I was terrified.

I had more than a few sleepless nights in the beginning, worrying about how I was going to tackle my projects. But in the past six months, I’ve embraced agency life and realized that, when it came to my early fears, there was more than met the eye:

Phone pitching is daunting.

I’ve never been a big phone talker. Calling up complete strangers (reporters) and telling them to cover a story idea made me feel like a telemarketer. I couldn’t believe that this was a common practice in PR. Why would a reporter care about me, someone they’ve never met, and my client, a company they’ve never heard of? Little did I know, with a good story idea, a knowledgeable expert and some flexibility, reporters do care.

Phone pitching is part trial and error and part knowing your stuff. I still get intimidated by phone pitching, but when we have a great idea, know our client’s expertise and go into the call with the intent of having a conversation, the results are always positive.

Plus, reporters are just people, too.

Media lists are crucial.

If you start with the wrong reporter, your pitching will get you nowhere. My first media lists were terrible. I relied on Cision to tell me who to pitch, rather than going to the source and figuring out who would want to cover our story. Having reporter history and past articles is great ammo for pitching and makes having an intelligent conversation with a reporter much easier.

My colleagues had me work and rework the early media lists, partly because I didn’t know Cision could be wrong (I would say it’s 50/50 on being right/wrong about a reporter’s beat). I feel that I am getting better at gauging who would cover a story, and I still edit, add and delete as I get on the phone with folks.

Seeing red doesn’t make you a bad writer.

My roots are in journalism: up until sophomore year of college, I thought I was going to be a reporter. I have adequate knowledge of AP style and proper grammar. I’ve been published in a few outlets. I thought I was a decent writer. When I started writing for PR, I lost most of my confidence.

My press releases, emails, media alerts, pitches—anything I wrote, really—came back with red ink all over the page. Seeing all the edits was definitely a blow to my ego. In time, I’ve seen that seeing red actually makes you a better writer. Considering I came from marketing, I wasn’t expected to know how to write a pitch. My writing style was much more focused on sales for marketing purposes, where PR is more about featuring news. My writing evolved. I learned to dig deep into a pitch and figure out where the story is, and I see less and less red as a result.

Social media isn’t the devil.

After coming from a few corporate cultures where using social media at work is frowned upon, I was excited to see that not only was I allowed to use social media at work, it was encouraged! The transition was difficult in the beginning. I felt a little naughty, checking Twitter for updates, retweeting during the workday and actually responding to messages between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Social media is part of my job, and I’m expected to stay on top of the news, retweet important content and interact with journalists during the day. I’ve had a handful of pitches that have sprouted from a breaking news tweet or friendly correspondence with a reporter. You never know what future opportunity can come out of social media.

You always have something to bring to the table.

When I joined my agency, I didn’t know what a ProfNet was. I didn’t know how to use Cision. I didn’t know how to write an expert available pitch. I knew nothing about my clients. Having every task in your job be completely new can weigh heavily on you.

However, not knowing the PR ropes didn’t mean that I didn’t have unique skills to contribute. Being a relative news junkie, I was able to spot breaking news stories and find angles where our clients could comment. My background in marketing has lent to assisting one of our clients with a website revamp. Having knowledge of graphic design programs allows us to offer additional design services to our clients, if needed.

And, we all have ideas. I was reserved in meetings, reluctant to share my thoughts. What do I know? I’m the new kid—my colleagues are the experts. But, we all read different publications and have different skills, experiences and approaches to thinking. I try to share my opinion more now, since there is no ‘wrong’ in brainstorming. No matter your level of PR knowledge, the next big idea could be yours.

My first six months in PR were definitely a roller coaster. I’m still adjusting and always learning, which I don’t think will ever go away. If we’re lucky, we’ll keep adding new clients, changing the game all over again. PR is never dull, and much like snowflakes, no two days in PR are ever the same.

While the unknown of each day used to stress me out, I try not to waste my energy worrying about what I don’t know and instead revel in the small victories that make it all worthwhile: being ahead of breaking news to land our client in the New York Times, securing an interview with a Reuters reporter, watching our client on live TV at 7 in the morning.

Don’t you just love PR?

What were some of your biggest challenges when you started your first PR job? Did you recently transition to PR from another field? Share your experiences below!

Heather SliwinskiHeather Sliwinski is an account executive at KemperLesnik, a Chicago-based public relations agency, providing media relations and social media services to a variety of B2B clients. She has held positions in marketing and event planning for corporations, nonprofits and higher education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications with an emphasis in strategic communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sliwinski is the blog co-chair for the PRSA New Professionals Section. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Take a risk to get out of the rut! by Brianne Bromberek

Think you’re in the minority when you dread going to work on Monday morning? Think again. In fact, a recent study shows that nearly 84 percent of Americans are unhappy and restless at work, itching to find a new career for more money, more responsibilities, or mere satisfaction. And just a few months ago, I, too, was grouped into that statistic. In fact, I wouldn’t even call what I was feeling unhappiness or restlessness – I would call it downright disgust. Disgusted that I had worked my butt off to answer calls at the reception desk and remind my boss that he had a 2:30 conference call with someone who would later refer to me as the “nice girl who answers the phone.” Sure, every company needs an administrative professional, I thought, but that’s not me. In college, I was the girl who skipped class – but not to participate in homecoming festivities or get a head-start to the tailgate party. I spent my time networking with the Women in Business leaders, attending professional luncheons and talking to pretty much anyone that would give me 10 minutes of their time. So when I finally walked across the stage and headed out into the “real world,” I received a nice slap in the face when I landed a fancy position answering phones and making coffee. Let’s just say I started my job in July and was already looking in the wanted ads by mid-September. 

I spent two long years not only dreading my 9-5, but also making excuses – “everyone hates their job, I’m not a quitter,” or the infamous “quitting now will look bad on my resume.” What I didn’t realize was that my dissatisfaction wasn’t affecting just me – it was spreading to everyone and everything that surrounded me. People got sick of listening to my story, sitting on the other end of the line while I complained about how unfair the world was. I became cynical about the professional world and even started to resent anyone who actually enjoyed their career.  How had I become such a negative person? It’s only a job, I thought to myself. Why am I letting it affect everything around me? And that’s when it finally hit me. I wasn’t looking at this as a career, but merely a job. What’s the difference? The mindset of a job holder is focused on security and money while the mindset of a career person is focused on development and risk-taking. So instead of complaining about my job, why wasn’t I taking any risks to secure a real career?  Simply put, I was afraid.  

“Fear is a double-edged sword,” says Barbara Stoker, author of Positive Risk: How Smart Women Use Passion to Break Through Their Fears. “On the one side it keeps you safe, but it usually holds you back from doing those things that really matter.”

I was afraid to take a risk and open myself to new opportunities for the possibility of, once again, being disappointed with the outcome. So when I finally realized that making progress often involves taking risks, I not only had a new outlook on life, but I had a new found confidence in my ability to succeed. Aside from the uncertainty that comes with taking risks, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that you went for your dream, whether you achieve it or not. The regret of never trying can often be harder to live with than tying and failing.

How many of us can say that fear has limited us from achieving our fullest potential? We spend years exploring our options, talking with guidance counselors and taking specific steps to map out our future. And although this approach is a good way to find a career that suits us best, it’s not the only way.  Sometimes taking a risk is exactly what we need to do to figure out what we want – or don’t want. We might take a huge risk and fail…or just maybe, taking the biggest risk of our lives, can often lead us to opportunities we never knew existed.

So when I finally took a risk and left my position, I realized that life is really all about taking risks. Each and every day we all take risks that could great affect our future – moving to a new city, beginning a new relationship, or in my case, quitting a job to start a new business. Think about every great success story you’ve ever heard – nearly every one involves a little risk-taking.  

Brianne Bromberek is the owner of Studio 213, a full-service graphic design firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She also works as a marketing coordinator at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside, Wisconsin.  Before launching her business, Bromberek graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communications and a Certificate in Women’s Studies.  She can be reached at

career advice… Real People Think This is OK When Job Hunting, but It’s Not by Janet Krenn

I’ve been completely astounded by the way that people act in networking and job-hunting situations; and I start to wonder, how could any rational person think that this is OK?

The only way I can explain it? These crazy interactions must be the unhappy result of someone misapplying generic advice. Here are real stories of bad networking behavior that I have witnessed along with the four bits of generic networking and job hunting advice that I want to bring to your attention. By all means, apply these pieces of advice, but please do so with a healthy amount of restraint!

Generic Advice #1: Don’t be afraid to take a risk.
How much “risk” should you as a job hunter take? Risk can indicate that you are a leader or that you are confident. But if the risk turns out to be a disaster, you may come off as arrogant or reckless.

Bad Application: Taking a risk without considering whether the risk will give you the desired outcome.
Once I was at a trade show with our CEO. A newly minted graduate and now intern planted himself in our exhibit space. While the CEO was off talking with someone else, the recent grad indicated to me that he thought our company was interesting and inquired whether we were hiring. We weren’t right now, I told him, but if he’d like to drop off a resume, we’d hold onto it. He walked away, but when he came back, he didn’t have a resume–He had redesigned the company logo and started pitching his unsolicited redesign to the CEO.

Generic Advice #2: Don’t be afraid of networking! Get your name out there. Show your face.
When I lament to my boyfriend that my bike needs some work, but I didn’t know where to take it. He says in reply, “Oh, if only there was some international network of information that you could use to find this out!”  There is no excuse for walking into any prospective partner, employer, or client’s office as if you were conducting a “cold call”.

Bad Application: Contacting an individual about whom you know nothing.
The other day, a job hunter walks into my office and asks, “Do you know who the expert is in XYZ?” and then “What can you tell me about him?” This gent wanted to establish a partnership with someone at my company, and assumed that just because I had a desk on campus that I was going to have answers for him. When I told him I didn’t know who he should talk to, he asked that I look into it and email him. Which brings me to #3…

Generic Advice #3: Ask for help.
Finding a job is work. You can probably look to your close friends and colleagues to help you drum up business or interviews. Be careful whom you ask for help.

Bad Application: Asking others to carry you.
When you ask for assistance from someone who doesn’t know you better, you run the risk of looking unambitious or lazy, and once you’ve made that impression, you have a slim chance that that connected individual will want to recommend you for an interview.

Generic Advice #4: Contact the hiring manager before you submit your resume. Ask questions during your interview.
The questions you ask a hiring manager could make you appear thoughtful and intelligent. The caveat is: In order to appear thoughtful and intelligent, your questions need to be thoughtful and intelligent. Walking into a networking situation or a job interview, you should already know why you want to be there.

Bad Application: Asking a company to tell you how you could benefit from this position.
Don’t contact a hiring manager and ask her to justify why you should want the job. This seems obvious, right? I’m only bringing it up, because I’ve seen it happen more than once. If you don’t know why you should want the job, don’t waste anyone’s time. Don’t apply, and don’t bother the hiring manager. You never know when that hiring manager will be posting a job you are interested in, and you don’t want to have that first negative interaction hanging over your head.

JANET KRENN has never been a hiring manager, and even so, she’s seen some job hunters doing some wacky things. She is also the 2010 Chair of the New Professionals of PRSA. You can contact her at janetqs(a) or @janetkrenn.

personal branding… My Personal Branding Experience by Brittney Gillison

Unlike most PR/Communication students, I did not complete any internships while in college and as we all know, the key to obtaining an entry level position is experience. Because I didn’t have any real work practice it was very important for me to build my personal brand. I needed to demonstrate professionalism and capability that could overshadow my lack of experience, and I needed to promote myself through networking.

After graduation, I took advantage of the discounted rate for recent grads and joined PRSA and the local PRSA chapter.  I attended as many networking events as possible (most chapters offer student and recent-grad admission prices).  I researched online for free business cards and got them printed through Vista Print. I developed business cards with my contact information so that I could hand out something at these events and more so to stand out and be memorable.  Although, I didn’t have a job or own my own company, I had business cards.  Pretty impressive!

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in PR, but I didn’t know what route I wanted to take, and I knew it was important to maintain my networks and build new relationships. The summer after I graduated was filled with informational interviews, internship interviews, full-time interviews, and volunteer positions because it was important to build my resume and get my name out in my area.

As summer came to an end, my professionalism and relationship-building paid off.  I was offered an internship in the PR department of a local advertising agency.  It was a perfect match–I was more mature than your typical intern; however, they didn’t have to pay me an entry level salary, and I was treated as an extension of their team. I had accounts and projects of my own to work on. It was a great resume and portfolio builder.

One key thing I learned that summer is that it’s important to develop your own brand to show companies just a taste of what you can do for them!

BRITTNEY GILLISON (PR Coordinator, University of Pittsburgh) is a graduate of Slipper Rock University with a bachelor’s degree in communication.  Brittney currently serves as the public relations coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Institutional Advancement, where she supports the communications and marketing program for the University’s $2 billion fundraising campaign.

getting the pr job… The Toughest Interview Question that Shouldn’t Have Surprised Me by Janet Krenn

After I heard my interviewer pose the question, I felt stupid at not having thought of it during my interview practice. This question might easily be called a “classic”… or was it?

The Question

I was interviewing to work with an environmental agency, and I just told the interviewing committee that I was drawn to the mission of the organization. In short, I lobbed one at them.

“Clearly, you sound like you’d make a great advocate of our organization. But as a PR person, how do you balance advocacy with nonbias?”

For the first time during the interview, I sputtered. I should have seen that one coming, right? Journalism walks the nonbias line, and so PR does as well, if only by proxy.

Bias never became a problem with my PR activities in the past, but why?

I reasoned out an answer, admitting I was an advocate and adding I suppose bias never was a problem for me in the past because I don’t try to deceive anyone.

But I went home wondering, was there something in the question that I was missing? Did this question contain some trick that I missed, being a recent convert to the PR industry? This seemed plausible, as this was my first interview for a PR-specific position.

Consulting the Professionals

I decided to seek advice from our National PRSA LinkedIN group. The members of the National PRSA Group are very active, and very eager to help new professionals sort through their questions. I’ve posted to that group before and was never disappointed with the volume and quality of helpful responses.

Several professionals were kind enough to respond, including Alice Hohl who said, “I don’t think it’s really a valid question to ask of a PR person. Someone who is totally objective is not advocating for either side. That’s not really our role. That’s the role of the reporter…”

Other professionals confirmed her view, and made me feel better about the situation.

So, What Did We Learn?

How valuable is it to remain relaxed during an interview! Sure, I was nervous–and working on 4 hours of sleep on an overnight flight–but I was in control of my anxiety, and when the question of advocacy vs. nonbias came up, I showed I could think on my feet. (In the end, I was offered the position.)

You simply cannot predict every question you will get in an interview. Sometimes, you might think you should tell your interviewers what they “want” to hear. By the way the question was phrased, I was on guard, wondering if I soiled my integrity. If I was too nervous, I might have started backtracking. But remaining calm and relaxed allowed me to respond this left field question.

What Was the Toughest Question You Ever Got in and Interview?

I’m sure I’m not alone in getting tough questions during interviews! Leave some of the toughest interview questions you’ve ever received in the comments of this article. Between us, I bet we could build quite the list of interesting questions.

JANET A. KRENN is Communication Co-Chair of the New Professionals Section of PRSA. If you’re a member of the New Professionals Section, and you’d like to contribute to the New Pros’ blog, email her at janetqs(at)gmail dot com