“Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for.”
Public Relations in simple terms is promoting a product, service, event or idea through unpaid methods of communication (not advertising, but in the media instead). PR helps a businesses have a positive reputation with the public through earned communications.
For example, a new restaurant has opened in Dubai, and you want to let the public know without paying for an advertisement. A PR person gets in touch with journalists and social media influencers all over the UAE directly and informs them about the opening of this new spot.
It’s a question we hear a lot: how do I break into a certain industry? How do I get my first job without experience? Who do I need to talk to? How can my CV stand out?
Gulf News spoke to two UAE based Communications and PR professionals at very different stages in their careers.
Meet Rusol Al Hano, a 23 year old former intern who now has her first full time job in PR at Edelman Middle East, the largest privately owned communications agency in the world.
And meet Jonty Summers a senior level Managing Director at Hanover Communications, a public relations consultancy with offices across Europe and the Middle East. He is also the chair of the Middle East PR Association (MEPRA).
Here is what they both had to say on breaking into the PR agency:
1. PR isn’t the job that little kids dream of having
Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and you seldom hear “Communications Professional.” Jonty and Rusol were no different.
Did you always know you wanted a career in PR?
Jonty: Absolutely not. I was convinced I was going to be a professional tennis player until reality dawned much later than it should at about 21. Then I was rather lost as to what to do. But I always liked writing and decided to train as a journalist once I realized I’d had to earn some money somehow. I spent all my savings on an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in Periodical Journalism in London after leaving university. My first job was on a scuba diving magazine! It was the best job ever for a 23-year old, and sometimes I wish I was still doing it. I worked as a magazine journalist and then as a corporate journalist for about a decade. Ironically, I had six months as a UK PR manager for a NASDAQ-listed internet firm in 2000 and decided that PR was not for me. It was a pretty unforgiving time at the end of the dotcom boom: I went back to journalist for a few more years.
I sort of evolved formally into public relations consultancy when I moved to the Middle East in 2009. I’ve been advising management of government entities, listed companies and international organisations on leadership communications, reputational issues and corporate positioning since that time.
Rusol: Not really. I wanted a career in social media marketing. So then I interned at several Social agencies. However, I realized, it wasn't what I wanted to do. After graduation, I decided to try PR for a few months before settling for a full-time job in social media marketing. And I'm really glad I did because that first internship at Edelman was what flipped my whole life around.
2. Your university degree will rarely be a PR degree
Even if you don’t study PR in university, you can still get into the industry without a degree in Communications or Public Relations. Most PR professionals studied something else, media, film, design, business, politics and more. Rusol studied Journalism and Media at Middlesex University. Although it’s not exactly PR, it’s pretty darn close. Jonty on the other hand had a rich and random history of schooling.
Jonty: I’m not even sure that a degree in public relations existed in the late 1980s when I went to university. I studied European Studies (basically history, economics and politics) with languages (French and Danish…both of which occasionally are useful) and I also did a diploma in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Odense in Denmark.
Rusol: If I had to give students wanting this job advice, I would say intern while you're still at university. It might feel too soon but it is the reason why I found my passion so quick. Don't wait until after you graduate to find what you want to do for the rest of your life. The second piece of advice I would give, is to start making connections early. I was lucky to have an incredible professor at university, his name is Stephen King (Yup! like the writer), who urged us to meet people, volunteer at events like MEPRA and took us on field trips to agencies like Ogilvy and other agencies. And if you don't have a figure at university like Professor King, then be that for yourself. Go the extra mile to meet new people and make contacts.
3. Networking is a crucial part of the job
Although networking can be a tedious part of job hunting, it is extremely important. These days it’s so hard doing everything on your own. You need contacts and you need help.
How important was networking in you breaking into the PR industry?
Jonty: It’s all about your network. Most of the jobs I have had in my life came about as a result of knowing someone. The best ones are where someone at a similar level to you persuades their boss they should hire you. At my agency Hanover, we incentivize our team to find their next colleagues. So I’d suggest anyone who wants a job with us should get to know my team – they are expert at convincing me to do things. I think the PR industry in the Middle East is a brilliant place to network. People are very open here.
A good tip is to check out local organisations, like the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), which I’m the Chair of this year. We put on lots of different sorts of events where you can meet your peers in the industry.
Rusol: Networking is very very important, it's almost the most vital part of the job. I learned that in order to go far in PR, you need to network, build relationships and be up to date with what the media is up to. The start of a PR career is all about learning the industry and the people that run it.
4. In the beginning of your career you apply for jobs. As you grow, you get headhunted
Getting into a new industry is usually the most difficult aspect of career growth. Sometimes, you shouldn’t wait for a position to open up and for you to apply along with thousands of other people to a new position. Take initiative, which was what Rusol did. As you establish yourself in the field and grow your network, new jobs will come your way more often than you think, which the case was for Jonty.
How did you apply for your job?
Rusol: I'm actually really proud of how I applied to Edelman. They weren't hiring and hadn't put out a call for an intern, so it was really just me taking a shot in the dark. I had been applying to jobs for almost two months with no luck and I reached a point where my pitch emails didn't even make sense to me. So I wrote a fun, playful and probably the least serious email, in which I was simply just writing about my life. I wrote it like I had nothing to lose, because at that point I didn't. I talked about my previous experience and how each job made me feel. Then I briefly told them why they need to hire me, "who else would send you an email this long talking about themselves". Two weeks later, I got an email back saying they want me to come in for an interview.
Jonty: I was actually headhunted for my current job, so it was a more formal process than many. Most good processes involve a test of some sort (in my case, the creation of a corporate strategy and action plan for agency that had not yet launched in the Middle East). At Hanover, we get people to do writing tests and planning tests as well as interviews with a few different people.
How did you ace your interview?
Rusol: I feel like my pitch email was the reason my interview went well, because I knew they read it and liked it, so they already knew what kind of a person I was. Not to mention the interviewer started by saying "do you know why you're here?" and me saying "my email?” Ding ding ding it was the right answer. I was able to be myself and answer every question with confidence, even when the answer was 'I don't know'. I made it clear that I was here to learn from the best and they liked that initiative. I believed in them and that gave them a reason to believe in me. I would say the key to acing an interview is showing initiative, doing your homework beforehand (study the agency and their clients) and being confident.
5. Use your young years wisely
Make sure you spend your time during university, after university and as you continue to grow in your career. Never stop reading, learning and having strong general knowledge of the world around you.
What advice would you give younger people on the path to take towards a job in PR?
Jonty: Be interested in the world around you – organisations need to know what implications events have on their communications. Network widely. Ask people in the industry for advice. Get as much experience in different areas as you can. Suck as much knowledge out of your first couple of jobs as you can (including internships). Do not be afraid to try things. In many ways it is easier when you are younger, you have less to lose and everything to gain.
Rusol: I got lucky because I was the only intern at the agency at the time, so there was a lot of work for me to 'enjoy'. At first, it was overwhelming. But the first step is to ask for help. I got to work with every single member of the team, which in turn meant I got to learn how every single person dealt with the pressure, which gave me an idea on how to handle it myself. I asked so many questions as an intern that I'm surprised no one had scolded me. It's not that I didn't know how to do anything, but asking is so much easier than being lost in the dark. And it got the work done faster. Next, I said yes to everything. I knew that I had two months to prove myself, so I tried to learn everything PR had in store for me. I did as many new business pitches as I could and helped out whenever I had time to do so. And in the process of hard work and stress, I learned to love my job, which is what got me up in the morning.
6. Final thought: Why do so many journalists move into PR?
Jonty: Media has changed a lot though, and I doubt staff writing jobs where you earn money to go scuba diving exist anymore! Many journalists do go into PR – many of the skills are transferable, in particular the ability to develop a story, which is more valuable than ever as organisations look to use their own media and social media channels to communicate, rather than only use traditional media. Public relations firms require an incredibly broad range of skills. The media relations that people associate with it, is a pretty small part. There are roles in planning, data analytics, strategy, creative services, content development digital and, of course, client management. In addition there are specialist areas of public relations such as employee communications, financial communications, crisis communications. People also specialize in sectors such as healthcare, energy, NGOs…the list is long. That said, not every journalist will enjoy working for a client. Many journalists like to be able to tell both sides of a story rather than just act for one part of it. But, high-quality journalism is an important part of advanced societies, so we definitely don’t want all the journalists to become PRs.