Our public relations industry is expected to grow in the low double digits over the next decade, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, breaking into an agency or in-house PR department directly from college is more difficult than ever.
Gone are the days when entry-level PR job seekers would blindly pitch hundreds of reporters. Today, PR people are expected to know B2B content marketing strategies, SEO, social media campaigns along with traditional media pitching, press release and speech writing, require PR newbies to come prepared from Day One to significantly and professionally contribute to strategic PR work.
To make matters even more challenging for college grads, nearly every entry-level PR opening out there receives dozens, if not hundreds, of applications. It takes ingenuity, perseverance and good old-fashioned sleuthing to make your cover letter stand apart to ensure your resume is viewed.
Our Minneapolis PR agency reviews every application that crosses our transom, whether or not we have an opening. While most college placement offices emphasize the importance of creating a succinct yet descriptive resume (and of course, that is vitally important), what they might not tell you is that many agencies that are hiring will still place more emphasis on your cover note.
Your cover letter is "your best shot at being singular," according to Slate editor Katherine Goldstein in this Fast Company article. What you put in your cover letter will often tell a hiring executive more about you and your communications skills than your resume will.
That’s why, at this time when thousands of soon-to-be college grads are hitting the pavement looking for their first PR job, we wanted to share these five common mistakes we see entry-level applicants make that guarantee we won’t get past the introductory email, let alone open your attached resume.**What PR agencies look for in resumes – that’s another post for another time… coming soon.
Mistake #1: Asking a PR agency, “Do you guys have any job openings?”
There are a couple of things wrong with this question, but we see it posed often by even seasoned job seekers. First, it’s too easy for an agency to simply reply “no,” since we often don’t have a specific job opening on the specific day that someone calls. It would be better to ask for a 15-minute informational meeting (either in person or over the phone) even if there isn’t a current opening at the time. That’s because we are constantly on the alert for our next agency superstar. If we meet someone we can’t live without, we’ll create a position for them.
Case in point: Several years ago, our agency was recruiting for an account executive with (at most) three years of PR experience. Then we met Jean Hill, who came in for an informational interview over a Caribou Coffee. Jean brought to the table nearly 20 years of agency wisdom and expertise, not to mention a client service disposition that is second to none. We quickly revamped our open position to fit Jean’s qualifications and she is now Maccabee’s Senior Vice President. After hiring Jean, we re-launched our search for a more junior staffer.
Other PR agency executives, including senior director of business development and agency marketing at PadillaCRT, Jeff Wilson, concur on the value of informational interviews. Wilson stated in his "15 Tips to Land That First Job in PR (Reloaded)" post:
"Ask for informational interviews at companies where you think you’d like to work or that you want to learn more about. The company might not be hiring now, but could be two weeks from now. If you’ve made a good impression, they’re likely to remember you for the job. Or, they can refer you to others who might have a position that is a good fit for you."
The second thing wrong with the question: the use of "you guys." Remember, you’re not asking to join your buddies in a card game. You are applying to a professional services firm, and using “you guys” is a breach of etiquette that will ensure we won’t take you seriously.
Mistake #2: Addressing your email cover letter to “Dear recipient” ...
... “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Hiring Manager,” or the anonymous, “Hello!’ Nothing is more off-putting than receiving an application from someone who didn’t take the two minutes it requires to find out to whom to personally address his or her query.
This also indicates to us that you likely won’t pay attention to details when performing client work when, so often, mastering details directly results in our helping clients achieve success. Use LinkedIn and other social channels to do your homework and then tailor a cover note that is specific to the individual and the PR agency.
Mistake #3: Using smiley faces or emoticons ☺ 😃 ♥
This one is a bit like using "you guys." If you’re applying for a professional position, your correspondence needs to reflect that. Emoticons and other text-language abbreviations are fine if you’re messaging your BFF. But in professional exchanges, they indicate poor writing habits, no mastery of vocabulary and a level of familiarity that’s not appropriate. When composing a cover note, keep in mind that among the items our agency is looking for is a firm command of business writing skills, laced with creativity.
Heather Whaling of Geben Communications put it very well when she was quoted on Arik Hanson's "Do you really need a cover letter with that resume?" post:
"… I want to know if you can write, whether you took the time to personalize the letter or sent a “canned” letter, etc. I think I learn a lot from cover letters that you can’t get from a resume, but are very telling for how you’ll do in the job … I think cover letters offer a lot of insights about how they approach their writing, which is important in PR and social."
Mistake #4: Typos or grammatical errors of any kind
Also, forgetting to attach documents that you say are attached. It’s astonishing how often both of these mistakes occur. One typo or grammatical error and that’s the end – your application goes directly to the trash. Those sloppy errors tell us that if you can’t represent yourself flawlessly, you sure won’t be able to represent our clients.
Proofread your materials – including, and especially, your cover note. Better yet, have someone else, whose writing you respect, proofread them as well. Take the time to get it right the first time – it’s the only chance you’ll have. For a quick peek at 15 common spelling errors in cover letters and resumes, check out this article and infographic by Scott Dockweiler:
Mistake #5: Declaring: “I’d be a perfect fit for your company.”
It’s great to have a positive self-attitude, but it’s ultimately an agency’s hiring manager’s call as to whether you’ll be a great fit – or not. What’s more, many applicants tell us that they read our website, which causes them to believe that they’ll fit right in. Any agency’s Web presence represents only one facet of its culture and perusing the site is not going to give you enough information to make that kind of prediction.
Before baldly stating that you’re the ONE, ask to tour the agency. Talk with employees. Check out our social media presence. Subscribe to our blog. Research our media coverage. Talk with our agency’s competitors. And then, don’t tell us you’ll be perfect – prove it to us through your intelligent discourse, your superior work product and your winning attitude.
In the spirit of helping entry-level PR professionals earn their first gig, we’d love to invite more advice. As a CMO or other marketing/PR maven, what qualities do you expect in your new hires or in your agency’s staff?