How to Break Into the Communications World

Ever wondered how to get started working in PR, entertainment, finance, or another profession? Over the next two weeks, we’re putting together a guide to breaking into these cool fields and more, brought to you by those who know it best. Keep checking in for an inside look at how to launch your dream career!

Interested in the communications field? Whether you love to write or you’re amazing at bringing people together for grassroots marketing initiatives, there are dozens of interesting paths and options—it’s a matter of finding where you fit best (and, of course, landing the gig).

So, we sat down with a corporate communications expert, a PR pro, a public affairs manager, and a marketing guru to get the full picture of what it takes to get hired in the communications world. Read on, then, once you’re inspired, head over to The Muse and check out some open positions!

Jessica TaylorJessica TaylorSenior Manager, Corporate Communications

Company: Apollo Group, Inc. (University of Phoenix)

Years of Professional Experience: 10

Brief Description of Job: I manage employee-facing communications for C-suite executives as well as change management efforts for an organization of more than 12,000 employees. I also work closely with our external affairs team to ensure messaging to different audiences stays consistent. My days involve lots of writing, editing, strategizing, and putting out fires.

Why did you choose this field?

It sounds cliché, but I think this field actually chose me. My undergraduate degree was in journalism with an emphasis in public relations, and I always thought I’d work in an agency setting, until a college internship opened my eyes to other ways to leverage a love for writing and building relationships.

I enjoy this line of work because it’s rarely boring—the pace keeps me motivated and on my toes. I have the opportunity to write everyday, which I love, and I can see the value my work adds to an organization by providing people with the information they need to be successful.

What did you want to do growing up and in college?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a veterinarian, which is quite a stretch from communications. At any rate, my love for writing soon surpassed my love for science, which led to a degree in journalism. I graduated college in 2005, just as the digital world began to surpass print media, and social media was surging ahead. It was an exciting time to launch a career in an area that was seeing unprecedented growth and evolution.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

My first job was as a public information officer for the local county government. Glamorous? Not so much. But I learned more than I ever could have imagined about all sorts of things that make great cocktail party conversations.

I applied for this position after interning for several months in a similar capacity for another municipality. In reality, this job was a bit over my skill level at the time, which pushed me harder than ever before to learn and succeed. The most surprising thing I learned in this position was what it was like to really fail at something. I wasn’t able to coast as the all-star I’d been in school, and quickly discovered that humility goes a long way.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

The most surprising thing about this field is the amount of knowledge one can amass about a completely foreign topic. When you work in communications for a large company, you may be required to learn a lifetime’s worth about something completely unfamiliar in order to perform your role effectively. I’ve worked in the fields of drug prevention, pet specialty, and copper mining before arriving in my current position, and it’s strange to constantly become immersed in new areas as your career evolves.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

Engage in informational interviews on a regular basis, because this is such a diverse and constantly changing line of work. You can learn a great deal about the opportunities that exist and how to prepare for them by speaking directly to seasoned professionals.

I also would recommend becoming overly familiar with the current Associated Press Stylebook, as this is a bible of sorts for professional writing. And to leave your ego at the door; this is probably good advice in any field, but it’s particularly valuable in communications and PR.

CassieCassie Goldberg, Manager of Public Affairs

Company: The Partnership at Drugfree.org

Years of Professional Experience: 6

Brief Description of Job: I write and edit copy for the web, draft and edit press materials, manage and edit blog content, promote the organization’s events, activities, and programs through the media and on web properties, field and respond to all media calls and inquiries, and handle logistical details and promotion for events.

Why did you choose this field?

I knew I wanted to work in the nonprofit field as soon as I realized that it was possible to spend 40 or more hours per week getting paid to help others. Working for a cause is extremely fulfilling for me. It makes each day that much more worthwhile when you know you’re working toward a greater good—or, at least it has always felt that way to me. As a writer and someone comfortable with public speaking (apparently a rarity among those from my generation), the PR field is comfortable and the associated skills are ones that have always come somewhat naturally to me.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

After a series of waitressing and clerical jobs after graduating (hey, the market was tough!), I finally landed a job working at The National Kidney Foundation in the PR department. A very close friend worked in the HR department at the organization, and passed my resume along. Three interviews and a few trips to Manhattan later, I had landed my first nonprofit PR job.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

The most surprising thing about working in the PR field is how different working in an agency and working in-house can be. I have contacts and friends who work for PR agencies, and while their core responsibilities are the same as mine (pitching the media, writing press materials), their lifestyle, office hours, and even dress code differs greatly.

Often, agency hours are grueling and a fair amount of pressure is applied by clients to the professionals working within. You may work on a variety of accounts, and some people enjoy that ever-changing climate. When you are employed as an in-house professional, however, you typically get to know your company extremely well, as you work solely for it. This may be boring for some, while the agency life may be too hectic for others. I truly enjoy working in-house at a nonprofit, but many agency professionals I have come in contact with love the hustle and pressure that a large-scale firm provides.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

I don’t believe you can truly succeed in the field of PR if you aren’t a decent writer. It is important to hone your writing skills first, and worry about everything else second. It’s also important to decide whether or not you want to work as a company or organization’s in-house PR professional, or work at an agency for more than one client.

What is different about the interview process in your field than in other fields?

Often, you’ll be asked to take a writing test in an interview. Many times, this information was not provided to me before the interview, so it’s important to prepare for a writing “pop quiz” of sorts. If HR or your potential supervisor didn’t ask you for a writing test in your interview, you may not be off the hook; many will ask for a writing sample afterward.

What industry-specific job search resources would you recommend?

If you are interested in working for a nonprofit organization—in PR or another field—I recommend Idealist. It’s a fantastic updated database displaying thousands of nonprofit jobs across the country.

Melanie WallnerMelanie WallnerDirector of Public Relations

Company: DateMySchool

Years of Professional Experience: 1.5

Brief Description of Job: I do anything possible to increase brand awareness about the most awesome dating site ever, DateMySchool.

What did you want to do growing up and in college?

I wanted to be a playwright, and sometimes still do, but playwriting can get lonely. I love meeting new people and initiating conversations with strangers. So, socially speaking, I needed a job where I could be paid to talk to people I don’t know.

But I also wanted a job that could relate to my college degree, previous internships, and extracurricular activities. While concentrating in “The Power of Sexuality from Motown to the Millennium,” at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I wrote for Time Out NY’s Sex & Dating section, worked for sex activist Nancy Schwartzman, and often wrote plays that questioned the culture of sex and relationships in the 21st century.

Plus, I’m obsessed with first dates and always hoped I could find a job that would introduce me to intellectually stimulating guys.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

My mom sent me a New York Times article on DateMySchool and said, “Melanie, this sounds interesting. Maybe you should try this to find a straight guy and get a job.” (Studying sex at NYU meant the prospects for employment and a heterosexual boyfriend were pretty limited.)

Anyway, immediately after joining DateMySchool, I scored a date with a hot Columbia University Business student who knew the co-founders personally. Bingo! We went out, flirted about tech startups, and strategized how I could land a job at DateMySchool.

I emailed my resume and cover letter, and the next night, attended a DateMySchool event to hopefully convince the founders to hire me.

It was more challenging than expected—one of the co-founders, Balazs, told me, “We’re not hiring.” I said, “Totally understand, so here’s how I can add value,” and then he’d respond, “Seriously, we’re not hiring, we don’t have the money.” I told the guy, “You don’t have to pay me! I just want the experience!” Balazs refused the free labor, but eventually agreed to meet for an interview.

The rest is history—though, I recently found out that my first DateMySchool date had put in a good word, too.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

1. Break into the field with a company that’s breaking into the market. Startups are tight for cash and can’t always afford to hire some socialite-spokesperson or a fancy PR firm to raise brand awareness—but, if they’re committed to generating users, then they will negotiate a cost effective and experience-packed deal with you.

2. Reach out to the founders if you dig what they’re doing. Try their product, get to know it well, and craft a solid pitch about why you’d love to be the person to make their company famous.

3. Be persistent. Similar to how editors may not respond to your press release or story idea, your dream job’s founders may be too busy to ping you back. Follow up, offer to take them out for coffee, and understand that you may have to negotiate your terms to benefit their needs.

JocelynJocelyn Haugen, Marketing Manager

Company: Holiday Retirement

Years of Professional Experience: 4 years

Brief Description of Job: I’m responsible for grassroots marketing initiatives, local outreach, and interactive marketing projects for over 300 independent senior living communities in the U.S. and Canada.

Why did you choose this field?

I am the person who points out billboards while driving along the highway, adds clutch words to slogans and jingles I hear on the radio or TV, and keeps a portfolio of marketing collateral (ads, flyers, direct mail pieces) that I feel strongly about. I am also the person who will never fast-forward through commercials, cries at Google Chrome’s 2010 SuperBowl commercial, and is completely impressed by Nike’s Find Your Greatness campaign. My brain seems to be hardwired to think “marketing.” It’s what I am passionate about—identifying a product’s competitive advantage and leveraging it through a creative integrated marketing campaign to strengthen its market positioning and create a need with customers makes me tick. I love to be creative, and the marketing field provides me with a blank canvas.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

My first job in this field was a Marketing Coordinator position with Archstone Apartments. I was determined to break into the marketing industry and refused to believe that the economy was too “bad” or that I was too “young and inexperienced” to get the job I really wanted.

One night, I deleted my cookie cutter cover letter and wrote a very honest and forward one in its place. I expressed my passion for the field and outlined my eagerness to learn and my willingness to work hard. Then I bluntly asked about internship or entry-level opportunities for little or no pay.

I Googled marketing agencies in my area and mass sent out my resume and cover letter, then applied to what felt like a gazillion jobs. When I finally got an interview with Archstone, I went in there confidently and with nothing to lose. I went on to work for the company for over two years.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

1. Trust your gut. If marketing is something that you are passionate about and have an eye for, then go with it. This field is so subjective and everyone thinks they’re a marketer, so you have to assert yourself and be confident in your opinions and ideas.

2. It’s okay to fail, but fail fast. This is advice that an old boss of mine gave me. He said it was okay for us to fail because it meant we were pushing the envelope, taking risks, and testing new ideas, but that it was essential that we fail fast. If something doesn’t work, don’t let your pride get in your way; accept defeat and move on to another test.

3. Have fun. Marketing is fun, it’s creative, and it’s innovative, so act accordingly.

What is different about the hiring or interview process in marketing?

One big difference about the interviewing process in marketing is that you have to convey creativity in any way possible. I made sure that my resume and cover letter exhibited creativity, I created (and maintain) a portfolio of marketing pieces I gathered or worked, I started a blog, and I always present myself in a specific way. All of these elements are my way of conveying a creativity that I can’t concretely show on paper.

Another very important thing is that you must know the product and the company’s target customer in a way that the company itself does not. If you can offer an interesting new idea to reach additional customers or position the product in a new way, then you’ve shown the company you’re interviewing with your ability to think outside of the box.

By Daisy DeMasi
Daisy DeMasi Daisy DeMasi