Hey New Grad… Here’s The Secret to Landing a PR Job

First JobOK… that was a little mean. There is no secret… no step-by-step formula. But there is a mix of art and science in the process. Most of all it takes hard work, persistence, passion, creativity and a little bit of luck. Here’s what happened to me and a Top Ten List of what I’ve learned from everyone’s experiences over the years.

The search for my first real job began in the Spring of 1981, my final semester in grad school, and lasted several cruel months — which felt like years — and finally came to fruition in the late Fall.

My first plan was to send out cover letters and resumes by mail (you remember snail mail) to the top 25 advertising agencies in the industry’s RedBooks…. a directory — that still exists today — of all the ad firms in the country, including their client lists. It was very handy and I diligently sent out my resume and tailored my cover letter according to each agency’s industry specialty or key services. This approach actually got some results. I landed three interviews with top ad firms in New York City. I was thrilled, and felt I was on my way to an amazing Madison Avenue career.

Not so much. I flamed out on the interviews. Not enough prep, a few too many nerves, and a lot of competition for those $22K salaries. (A relatively decent wage in the day.) I did actually make it to the 2nd round of Compton Worldwide… I was fighting for an account slot on the Crisco business (seriously)… but lost out to some Ivy Leaguer with better resume — and better teeth. On to Plan B.

I decided to head to Dallas, stay with my Uncle Bob and see if they’d be impressed with a Yankee fresh out of college toting a Master’s Degree in Marketing Communications. I arrived with 3-piece suits in tow… in August. Since I hadn’t ever been south of the Mason-Dixon, I really wasn’t mentally prepared nor properly dressed for the putridly hot, wet blanket weather that makes you want to vomit every time you step outside.

But aside from being ill-prepared for the weather, things did start out on a positive note. Uncle Bob leveraged his connections and got me an invite to a local ad club luncheon. Met some nice folks, toured a really small ad firm and handed out some resumes. But after 5 days and not a whiff of interest… or perhaps my targets were catching their own whiff of my “Eau de Poly-Blend Suits” — I became desperate. On perhaps the hottest day of August (that’s saying something in Tejas), I found myself dropping off my resume at a car leadership that had advertised for a marketing assistant. After a 5 minute interview in the dingy office of the dealership’s GM, I was politely told that I would have better luck taking my Master’s degree and… and I think he said “shopping it”… elsewhere. Back to the Big Apple for me. And on to Plan C.

With my checking account dwindling to about a buck ten-fifty and my confidence lagging, I came up with a brilliant (read: desperate) plan. I would take all of the rejection letters (yes, firms actually mailed out rejection letters), hop the train from Poughkeepsie to Manny Hanny, and literally call from the street corner (on a pay phone) outside the offices of each cruel rejection and lie.

After a very long day of pounding the NYC pavement and pounding pay phones with my fist (being careful not to catch Ebola), I was about to drag my sad sack self back to the Harlem-Hudson line and call it a day. But I did have two more rejection letters and figured I’d play out my hand. The first was a two-sentence rejection note (two sentences does not qualify as a letter in my book) and was from Marsteller Inc., a firm that was at the tail end of the top 25 ad agency hit list but still had some brand name clients. From somewhere… maybe it was the homeless guy camping out in the adjacent phone booth, I got a second wind, and mustered up my most courage and best professional, demeanor for the call.

When I was transferred to HR, I told the young recruiter that I had not heard back from anyone at Marsteller Advertising, but I was right down stairs and could come up lickety split to talk to whomever was available… including the janitor, mail room clerk or receptionist for that matter. Hell, just let me through the door and I’d dance the electric slide if that would help. I heard the recruiter opening the squeaky steel file cabinet (in my imagination it was overflowing with rejection letters) and then returning to the phone he politely informed me that they had already sent out a rejection letter and that I should have received it by now. No kidding slick, I was holding it in my hands! He went on to say that he was sorry but that I should check back in a month or two ( or three or four). As I was preparing to test the strength of the phone’s receiver against the solid casing of the phone box, I heard a faint “BUT” and I put the grimy thing to my ear again. “We do have some openings at our sister agency, Burson-Marsteller, which is a PR firm, (whatever that was I thought)… and if you’d like, I could have someone from the agency meet with you for a few minutes… since you’re right downstairs.” I tried to remain calm. “Sure, that would be great,” I said in a way that didn’t reveal my utter shock and surprise. “I’ll come right up.”
So I went up, interviewed and one week later got my first job offer. Not that I knew anything about PR and nearly got fired in my first 3 months… but that’s another story. I hung in there, learned some things, and had a career underway.

Soooo…. to distill this story into Cliff Notes form… and yes, this will be on the test… here’s my advice on landing that elusive first gig:
1) Persistence (it’s a job to get a job.. gotta work at it every day)
2) Creativity (come up with your own ways to break through… be creative in ways that are apropos for the job/industry)
3) Research (Google your interviewers and also check out their profiles on LinkIn, paying to attention to their entire career, where they went to college — and even where they might have grown up. Prep for the interview like you would a Final Exam!)
4) Don’t forget you’re in competition with thousands of fellow grads and probably the previous year’s grads — and maybe the year before that. Compete to win. Play by the rules but understand you’re competing.
5) Make sure it’s a gig you really want to pursue or at least think you want to pursue (it’ll show if you’re not that into it).
6) Fish where the fish are (if you want a career in PR, digital or marketing you need to go to big markets. The career is not going to happen in Hopewell Junction.)
7) Don’t be shy. Call in the favors and use every friend or contact you have (twice); including Aunt Mabel’s brother Moe who is an analyst at Apple.
8) Remember that the first job can lay the foundation for your entire career… and accelerate your growth that much quicker. You are who you work for.
9) Build alliances, mentors… and find yourself a good recruiter who can keep an eye out for you.
10) Sunscreen… it’s important.