Free Advice Friday: Listen Up, Students!

By Posted in - Free Advice on November 18th, 2011

Networking with Mary Deming Barber, Abbie Fink, Gini Dietrich and Shonali Burke at the PRSA International Conference.

Last month while I was attending PRSA’s International Conference in Orlando, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Mary Deming Barber of The Barber Group who just might be one of the best networked professionals in the communications field. We got to talking about how students connect with professionals and use networking to help secure that first big break into PR.

Wait, I should correct myself. We really talked more about how students are NOT connecting and networking. With nearly 20 years of experience, I was honored to get to sit by Mary during lunch. Imagine my surprise when she told me that a friend’s daughter who aspires to enter the communications field ignored Mary’s email introductions to several other established, well-connected and willing-to-help professionals.

During the same trip, I got to have a little fun by celebrating Abbie Fink‘s birthday with her at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Abbie is another networking queen, and she spied the group of students wearing PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) t-shirts. Abbie exchanged hellos with a few of them, and honestly, I wanted in on the fun! As a former PRSSA member,  I was excited to see them, so we attempted to start a dialogue with the larger group of about 10 or 12 students. They were friendly, but not a student out of the group seemed to have the thought that two potential employers were standing in front of them saying, “Hey, tell me about yourself!”

I remember when I was a college junior and attended the PRSSA International Conference, which is held at the same time as the PRSA International Conference, by design. Standing in the buffet line, I found myself in a conversation with a man who had a ribbon on his name badge that read College of Fellows. After asking what that meant, I also learned that he was attending an invite-only College of Fellows dinner that evening.

“Can I go?” I asked. “No. You have to be a Fellow or guest of a Fellow,” he replied. “Can I be your guest?” I asked. “No. I already have a guest,” he answered. “Can you get me a ticket?” I tried again. “Look kid, you can’t go to this event. Why would you even want to go?” he asked. “I thought you might be able to introduce me to some people who might want to hire me next year,” I said, naively confident. He told me I was “nicely assertive” and was chuckling and shaking his head as he walked away. Two years later, he gave me my first agency job.

Mary and I wondered…why do today’s students seem to be missing some networking know-how? Is it not being taught in school? By parents? Is it our responsibility? Like most PR professionals I know, I’m willing to share anything I can to help students and new grads! Let’s start with these three tips:

  1. If you (or your mom or dad) ask a busy professional like Mary to help you, keep up your end of the bargain. Mary took the time to write email introductions, connecting the student with other people in PR she respects. When the student never responded, she wasted Mary’s time and made Mary look bad for making the recommendation in the first place. Not to mention the fact that the student missed out on making some very influential people part of her life that could have had positive outcomes throughout her career. Learn to follow up now, or you won’t make it.
  2. Have a few conversation starters ready to go so that when you find yourself with a networking opportunity — whether it is at a business event or a theme park — you can make the connection. With social media, it should be easier now than ever to exchange contact information. Something that could have worked for the students at Disney — “So you are here for the conference, too? That’s great. Are you coming to any of the student events?” I think this would be a good one seeing as we were all communications people….”Hey, are you tweeting about your day here? What’s your Twitter handle so we can follow you?” It also never hurts to ask someone to say her name again if you didn’t get it the first time (most people don’t)… “What is your name again? Do you happen to have a card on you?” That works in any situation, and people are typically flattered that you are making an effort to remember their names and pay attention to who they are and where they work.
  3. One of my clients and an incredibly smart CMO, Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, says that curiosity and critical thinking are two of the most important things she looks for when screening candidates. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I didn’t know what College of Fellows was all about, but my curiosity about it was what led to the conversations that landed me my first agency job. Prior to my interview, I did as much research on the firm and its clients as I could, and when I arrived I was armed with lots of questions. I asked about how the agency did its work and why the teams had made certain client decisions.

Now it’s your turn. As PR practitioners, what other pieces of advice do you have for students? And students, we would like to hear from you, too! Take advantage of the comment thread as an opportunity to ask questions — we’re here to answer them!



(11) awesome comment(s)...

  • Ron Culp - Reply

    November 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks for the shout out, Gary. Dana and others here offer excellent tips for young people seeking careers in public relations–or any other profession.

    I encourage young people to try to meet speakers at PR events, but I’m surprised with how few actually follow through. I spoke to some 100 college students last week, and only three came up to me afterwards to talk. I remind mentees that they have to make themselves known if they want to stand out from the masses. Don’t be overly aggressive; just show genuine interest and you’ll make a positive impression.

    • Dana Hughens - Reply

      November 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Ron. I agree that there is nothing like connecting live…. and then doing the follow-up required to solidify the connection. Great advice.

  • Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA - Reply

    November 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Dana – You’re so right about informational interviews. Again, know what you’re asking for and make your pitch clear. And, the best time to do an informational interview is when you’re not looking for a job. Then, it’s not a job interview in disguise.

    Start informational interviews when you’re a junior. They will lead to building a great network, provide opportunities for internships as well as giving you personal insights into what type of public relations you might want to pursue initially.

    I’ll send you some names to contact, but students who aren’t reading Ron Culp’s blog ( should check it out. It’s a great resource of tips on finding a job.

  • Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA - Reply

    November 20, 2011 at 2:18 am

    Dana – the first thing I tell every student I meet is to read Keith Ferrazi’s book, “Never Eat Alone.” When I read it I realized what I had been doing right and wrong for years in building and maintaining relationships. If you’re going to be successful in any business, but especially ours, you have to build strong relationships and networks.

    That said, I no longer take business cards from students or professionals that are looking for me to help them. Instead I promise that if they contact me with what they are seeking, i will do my part to continue to build the relationship. You’d be surprised how many never contact me. Those that do, however, are surprised at how quickly we can connect them to where they want to be. (Hey… I seem to think you met with my son, right? HA! HA!)

    The other thing I tell them is to use their Twitter or Linked In profile to send me an email. That way I have their picture and name, which often helps me to connect to who they are. In addition, I tell them to send me where we met, what we talked about and what I promised to help them with. If they can’t send me that information (ultimately a decent pitch), then they either didn’t make a good “connection” with me initially to get that information from me or they can’t construct a decent pitch.

    I know any number of professionals that are willing to help students. I think the bigger issue is the students don’t know what they’re asking for. They need to define it and make their pitch. As long as they successfully maintain the relationship, they will be amazed at the return their small investment will make.

    • Dana Hughens - Reply

      November 20, 2011 at 2:35 am

      Great advice, Gary. Thank you for sharing. I know how much time you give to PRSSA and the development of our industry’s future leaders. I love that you ask them to do the follow-up and agree that continuing the connection through social media has a variety of mutual benefits. As far as the ask, is the concept of an informational interview dead? It seems that it has even stronger possibilities now, because the information could easily be turned into a blog post that could highlight writing skills. (Not to mention potentially earn brownie points by profiling the professional.)

      I can’t say I was ever turned down for an informational interview request. My very last question was always, “Can you please give me the names of three other communications people who might be willing to talk with me?” When I was still in PRSSA, someone in PRSA told me to do that, and it worked!

  • Dana Hughens - Reply

    November 20, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Thanks for your tips, Mary. Great point about social media. With that being such a big part of what we do for our clients as agency people, of course we want to see how prospects are using it.

    To take that another step further, to be able to show as a student that you are using social media for networking or business purposes is a plus. If you haven’t had that chance yet, at least be able to understand the concept of social media as a business application.

    Mary, I really love the last thing you said. Yes, networking and job hunting can be stressful, but it can also be fun! And there are lots of people willing to help. We all remember what it was like starting out in our careers!

    As another semester is coming to a close, we wish those nearing graduation the best of luck.

  • Mary Barber - Reply

    November 19, 2011 at 3:22 am

    Way to make me blush Dana! It was wonderful to meet you in Orlando too. I so enjoy PRSA conference now that we are able to turn our “virtual” friends into “real” friends.

    This is such great advice for students. I think working with students and helping them begin networking is one of the most enjoyable things I do. It’s incredibly gratifying.

    I do have a couple of pet peeves though. First is the one you described above. Students…please follow-up. We are all happy to help but it’s just not acceptable to set a meeting, make a commitment and then not follow-up.

    Second, make sure your social media pages are cleaned up. When I meet a student, I often look on Facebook to learn a little about them. I know employers do before hiring. If there’s a picture of you drinking, carousing, etc., it doesn’t do your application much good so clean those off before you start applying.

    And, make sure you don’t have typos in your resume or cover letter. I know many companies who agree that a typo is a good way to not make the first cut.

    Finally, I’m going to agree with the others. There is nothing like a handwritten note to make my day! After meeting a professional, send a quick handwritten note thanking them for their time. That alone will make you stand out from the rest.

    Most of all, have fun and don’t be a stranger. We want to help.

  • Josephine Butler - Reply

    November 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Even though I am not too far out of school, I feel like I have a few helpful tips, too!

    1) Follow the folks you’ll be interviewing with on Twitter (and have intelligent conversations with them). I always hesitate to recommend adding potential employers’ personal pages as friends on Facebook — save that for later.

    2) Have a LinkedIn profile and use it to your advantage! How awesome is it when you figure out you have a mutual business connection with the person interviewing you?!

    3) Never underestimate the power of a hand-written note. Always thank people for their time after an interview.

    4) If you’re entry level, keep the resume to one page.

    5) Unless the employer specifies otherwise, assume that yes, you do need a cover letter and that it should be pasted into the body of an email.

    • Dana Hughens - Reply

      November 19, 2011 at 2:53 am

      Great tips, Josie. While I was at NCSU today for a College of Textiles industry advisory board meeting, one of the other board members (and president of a large company) talked about why he hired a recent graduate from the program. He talked about how she had researched the company so well that she seemed to be able to articulate what they do better than some employees, she was able to demonstrate what she’d learned in an internship and she sent a handwritten thank you note. Of these three things, he seemed most impressed with the note!

  • Gini Dietrich - Reply

    November 18, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I didn’t know that story about how you got your first agency job. That’s awesome…and SO Dana!

    Advice for students? In today’s digital age, we absolutely will not interview someone who has not first connected with us on the social networks. It’s SO EASY to figure out who we are, where we spend time, and build relationships that way.

    The other thing I’d say is that, when you finally get the interview, know WHY you want to work where you’re interviewing. If it’s on the agency side, know the clients the firm works with and be able to explain how you can add value.

    The “I’m good with people” or “I want to work with Gini Dietrich” (which, unfortunately, happens A LOT) or “I’m good at multi-tasking” answers do not work.

    • Dana Hughens - Reply

      November 19, 2011 at 2:47 am

      Yes! Connect… but don’t stalk. I totally agree on the answering the why, too. Even though personally I do want to work with Gini Dietrich!

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