Erika Heald

The Big Question: One Thing You Wish You Knew When Starting Out in PR

By: Erika Heald | February 17, 2017 | 

The Big Question: One Thing You Wish You Knew When Starting Out in PRI’m filling in for Gini this week, and taking you on a stroll down PR memory lane…

Do you remember what it was like when you started your first professional communications job right out of college?

Did you go from feeling totally ready to take on the world to not understanding how those four years of classes didn’t prepare you at all for the day-to-day realities of your job?

I know that’s the case for many of us.

Hence last week’s Big Question: What is one thing you wish you knew about PR when you started your first PR job?

PR is All About the Relationships

We talk about relationship building a lot these days because it’s such an important professional skill.

Sure, if you happen to work for a Fortune 100 brand, you can garner press attention regardless of your relationships.

But most of us have to work hard to build relationships with influencers and journalists long before we pitch them.

And as Sarah Chain notes, that’s not something PR students are learning in their university coursework.

I wish I knew how valuable relationship building truly is for PR professionals. A great ‘media list’ won’t get you far unless you’re actively working to build a relationship with a journalist or influencer and able to demonstrate you understand their beat, focus and needs. I relied on local contacts when I began, but as I learned to expand my network and began more regional and national pitching, I had to learn that a cold contact was rarely enough to place a story. Now I focus more so on first interacting with journalists in their sphere and connecting with them on content and stories they’re producing, rather than rushing to the pitch.— Sarah Chain

Importance of Building Your Personal Brand and Network

A few years ago, I had an intern who absolutely hit it out of the park on the B2B technology social media projects I worked on with her.

When her internship neared its end, I was stunned when one of our executives quickly dismiss the idea of hiring her on full time.

The reason?

Other than me advocating for her, she hadn’t really built a network of advocates within the organization.

Her lack of personal, one-to-one visibility with the executive team took her out of the running for a permanent position.

In retrospect, they saw her lack of networking with them as a sign she wouldn’t be out there building relationships with influencers either.

Build a Network of Your Peers

Similarly, the ability to build a network of your peers—not just journalists—is vital to your success as a PR professional.

The one thing I wish I knew about PR when I started my first PR job would be the importance of building a network, and steps to take to do that. It takes time to build relationships with journalists to become a go-to source and so the earlier you can start that in your career, the better. This begins with identifying journalists, following them on social media and sharing their stories, and then sending them thoughtful pitches.

It’s also important to build a network of other PR pros to help mentor and guide you. When you are starting out, having several people you can learn from and go to for advice and input on career and work-related questions, can help you become a better PR pro. Getting involved in professional organizations and reaching out to people you admire for informational interviews are great ways to start building a network.— Julia Marvin

Do Your Homework

We’re all busy—PR pros and journalists alike.

That’s why it can be tempting to shop a generic pitch around until you get a taker.

But by the time you get to your third or fourth outlet, have you really saved any time? Wouldn’t it have been better to have crafted a pitch that’s tailored to a specific journalist and their publication needs?

Batch and blast pitching simply doesn’t work anymore.

Tailor Your Pitches

Journalists expect you to understand their beat and offer them something that’s tailored to them and their audience.

I wish I knew how critical it is to research and know the reporters/editors you are pitching in advance. Without doing the homework, it is easy to offend editors that are busy and sometimes a bit egotistical. I found that playing to the ego was an effective way to engage and open conversations. I took the approach of being honest about my praise, of course. Since the early days of my career, I continue to research the latest articles written by the reports I’m contacting first.— Kent Lewis

Talk to Your Customers

Doing your homework also includes having first-hand experience with your customers and their problems, as Paula Kiger notes.

If your customer personas are based on third-hand years old information, don’t be surprised when your messaging falls flat.

I think it’s important to recognize early on that you need to somehow capture the experience “real” customers are having vs imposing the message you think they need to hear. This was brought home to me when I was working at Healthy Kids. I was at our PR agency as an observer and as the client, but hearing ACTUAL parents who were struggling with the system and who believed false information they had heard THREE YEARS PRIOR helped me realize all the great graphics and messages in the world were nothing if the PR people (and me) didn’t realize what they thought in the first place.— Paula Kiger

The Next Big Question: Is Thought Leadership Dead?

If you bring up the topic of thought leadership in conversation, someone skewers you pretty quickly for playing buzzword bingo.

Despite the taste aversion to the term, almost every PR program includes a heavy executive thought leadership component.

This brings us to this week’s big question: Is it time to retire the phrase thought leadership? If so, what replaces it?

About Erika Heald

Erika Heald is a San Francisco-based marketing consultant and freelance writer. She focuses on helping technology and specialty food start-ups define their content marketing strategy to drive lead generation and customer loyalty. Erika led and grew high-performance content marketing teams at Highwire PR, Anaplan, and Achievers. You can find her on her blog and , or hosting the weekly #ContentChat Twitter chat.

  • Alli Williams

    I’m still in my first year as a PR professional, and I have to say surrounding myself with other PR professionals who have a bit more experience has helped me with “learning the ropes” so to speak. I joined a my local PRSA right from the get-go and having that opportunity to chat with other PR Managers and how they tackle tasks similar to my own has been very beneficial in my career.

    • Having that support network of PR pros who’ve been there and gone through that is so helpful. That’s part of our inspiration here for our Slack-based community.

  • PR has a vital role in the communications mix, but is so full of nonsensical crap that it does itself a huge disservice.
    A few weeks ago, an occasional client sought my opinion on two differing PR approaches that had been offered by reputable forms in response to a brief. It is fair to say that the brief was also rubbish, but neither PR firm questioned it, simply responded with verbiage that would have done nothing.
    My response to my clients question was this which has been a bit sanitised to protect the innocent.

    • Briefs seem to be a lost art. It’s difficult to get clients to provide one at all at times. I agree that a bad brief needs additional vetting. When a client service team say “no problem” to a terrible brief, the team is unlikely to be successful.

      • Agree. However,in my experience, a poor or non existent brief is not met with the requisite level of push-back from the PR agency. (same applies to any form of communication)
        However, agencies live or die by their reputation to deliver results, so it is in their interest to aggressively seek a working brief that enables a positive market outcome, not just words on a page for which they get paid.

  • I don’t believe its time to retire the phrase since it is something that exists and can be achieved. However, I do believe as a service offered to clients it is passing its ‘use by date’ so to speak. Also, the growth of social media has meant the focus has shifted and precedence has moved to being an ‘influencer’ or interacting with influencers as opposed to interacting with thought leaders. Either way, it is something that can be achieved but I believe its definition has been blurred.

    • I read an interesting article (still trying to digest it all) that says content marketing is a phrase that needs to be retired. But I think, to your point, the tactics remain the same. It’s in how we deliver them that changes.

      • Nice, what is the article? sounds like a good read.
        Yes agreed, tactics remain the same, delivery changes – any thoughts as to a rebrand on ‘thought leadership’ e.g. ‘alternative thinker’ (for the alternative fact world) or ‘mass engager’ (for the social media world)!

  • Roberta Patterson

    Invest in a well tailored jacket and pants that makes you feel powerful and like the “stars” you rep. Starting out in NY, I was broke. I was going after that next level job at an established PR agency. While I had the experience and relationships, I was still dressing for my indie rock label. The interviewer point blank told me that I needed to polish my game if I wanted to work for them. I stop shopping at Urban Outfitters and became a regular at the Barney’s sample sale. Publicists are usually in the background but we need to create our own brand. It builds confidence with your clients.

    • I love this! When I lived in Kansas City (which is where I started my career), I found a consignment shop that sold high-end clothes. There was a woman who was my same size and she took all of her “old” clothes there. You should have seen the suits I got…the same as you got at the Barney’s sample sale.

  • Emma Kaser

    Thanks for this article, I am a PR major in undergrad currently, graduating in the spring. You’re right on that we as students are not conveyed the importance of relationship building and just being a good communicator is not enough.

    • That makes me sad, Emma! But I will tell you that you doing things such as commenting on blogs, helps you build those relationships. So kudos to you!