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The Top Three Things I Learned While Trying to Break Into Public Relations

By: Joanna Coker

In 2011, like many recent grads, I embarked on my career journey without a clear picture of what I really wanted to do with my life. Today, I work in public relations and public affairs for Cox Enterprises, a $20 billion media, telecommunications and automotive company, with over 60,000 fellow employees worldwide. As I work on establishing my personal brand, becoming connected to the industry locally, other women often approach me to inquire about my career journey, searching for tips and tricks to “make it” in the PR industry. Looking back, I realize that while I was trying to get my foot in the door, most of the advice that I received was watered down and slightly unhelpful. Therefore, I don’t believe in most of the traditional advice on how to break into this industry. Although it is important to acquire the fundamental skills of the job, you won’t land your dream PR role by simply being a good writer or by knowing how to navigate social media platforms. Here are the top three things I learned while trying to break into public relations:  

Don’t sit around and wait. Always do something.

My job search started when I completed my undergraduate degree in 2011; however, after college, I decided to go straight for my master’s degree. This meant that I wasn’t technically under pressure to find a full-time job immediately. The reality of job hunting didn’t hit me until I completed my masters in 2013 and I couldn’t find a job in my field. Speaking of ‘my field,’ after some soul searching and downright confusion, I finally figured out that I wanted to work in Public Relations but I had no idea where to start. Quite frankly, I went to school for something slightly unrelated to PR – international affairs. I met so many dead ends and closed doors while job hunting but my personality and drive didn’t allow me to sit around and do nothing. In 2013, I went back to the drawing board and interned my butt off. This gave me the opportunity to test the waters with several areas of public relations, learning what aligned with my skills and interests. At that time, the variety of experience on my resume made me uncomfortable because I assumed employers would be turned off, thinking I was confused and inconsistent. Instead, I soon learned that employers were impressed with the scope of knowledge that I would be able to bring to the table. Little did I know, by staying busy and diversifying my resume, I made myself more marketable as an ‘employee of choice. ‘In her book, The Power Playbook, LaLa Anthony discusses the power of persistence. She writes`, “You do seem way more attractive to people when you’re not standing still waiting…No one wants to get on a train that’s not moving.” Based on my personal experience, this is my favorite piece of advice to offer. No matter how stuck or confused you ever feel in your career, never allow yourself to be idle. Do something. During my time in limbo, I worked in retail management, did some style blogging on the side and interned for several PR firms. Retail taught me how to build relationships, blogging taught me how to create and manage content, and my internships gave me the industry knowledge that I needed. You never know where that something will be beneficial to you in your future.

Photo by Joanna Coker

Photo by Joanna Coker

Establish your personal brand

It is important that you identify those gems that make you stand out from the hundreds – maybe thousands – of other equally qualified candidates/professionals in your field. This advice stands even after you’ve hit the jackpot and landed your dream role. If you want to continue to grow and thrive, you must establish your personal brand. Ask yourself these questions:

1)    What three words would my friends use to describe me?

2)    What knowledge do I have to offer?

3)    What are my top three values and do I exude them to people around me?

Recently, a top female executive at Cox shared some insight on her phenomenal 35-year career with the company. She discussed a difficult boss that she reported to when she started her career with the company. She explained that she had to establish her personal brand and leverage that identity to help her overcome the situation with that boss. By demonstrating her values and her worth within the company and staying true to her authentic self, she could establish and maintain meaningful relationships. If you wear your brand as your armor, you are bullet proof to negativity. It doesn’t matter where I work and what the functions of my job are, people will always know that I am fashionable, always willing to help where I can, I am obsessed with social media and I love to eat! A big mistake professionals make is pretending to be something they are not at work. In no way does this mean one should throw professionalism out of the door, this means allowing yourself to bring your authenticity to the table. You never know where those quirks that you are hiding can be helpful to you in your career.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon via Unsplash

Photo by Jeff Sheldon via Unsplash

Revisit your idea of mentorship

When most of us are asked to seek mentorship, we envision a formal relationship, in which we schedule weekly check-in meetings, accompanied by very defined agendas. Although this cadence is extremely beneficial, for most, it can be daunting. It often feels like a weekly job interview or performance review. Personally, I’ve had several mentors throughout my career - some who probably didn’t realize that I recognized them as a mentor. I have mentors for different aspects of my life – none of which I have a formal mentor/mentee relationship with. I’ve accomplished what I have so far by observing and soaking in knowledge from women – and men – that I’ve been blessed to work with and for. I believe there is value in the traditional mentor/mentee relationship, but the truth is, most professionals are busy and lack the time for those frequent one-on-ones. Get creative! Follow your mentor on social media and take notes. How is he/she managing their personal brand, what type of events are they attending, what brands are they following, which blogs are they reading and what news are they following. While I don’t think we should debase the importance of building and maintaining personal relationships, I strongly believe that there is also significant power in simply observing and taking notes.

The secret sauce to a successful career in PR is to always remain a doer. The very nature of the job requires that one is constantly in the know and on the go. Seek new opportunities, manage your personal brand and learn as much as you can from peers and leaders around you.


Joanna Coker_Six Degrees Society Contibutor

Joanna Coker, M.A. is a communications professional who has worked across various industries, developing compelling content and creating communications strategies that connect a brand to its target audience. A Hoosier girl turned Georgia peach, Joanna enjoys exploring the City of Atlanta’s many great resources and amenities, including its parks, shopping centers and constantly evolving restaurant scene. As a textbook Millennial, Joanna enjoys taking selfies, engaging in gif conversations, and rooftop dining with friends. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest