Susann Landefeld’s extended interview with Heather Baker, Director of PR at TopLine Communications

SL: As we have been informed in an e-mail, 90% of applications for jobs at TopLine Communications go straight in the bin. Why is that?

HB: PR is a popular profession with graduates, and the application process for entry level jobs is highly competitive. At TopLine, we’re always interested in hearing from prospective employees, and if a candidate demonstrates achievement or excellence in one area of their life, we believe this will stand them in good stead for a career in PR. We open every application we receive, but with CVs coming through almost every day, we have to be quite discerning. So if we get a hint that the candidate hasn’t done their research or has poor attention to detail then the email usually goes straight to the recycle bin.

SL: What are the most common mistakes applicants make?

HB: Common errors include addressing the covering letter to ‘Dear Sir’, when it is quite clear from our website that the business is run by a woman, spelling or grammar errors, US spelling despite applying for a UK role or long-winded emails that simply don’t answer the all-important question: Why should we hire you?

SL: What features do you look for in an application? What makes an application stand out from the rest?

HB: A brief, but carefully constructed covering letter that spells out why the candidate wants to work for us specifically, and identifies their unique skills will usually catch our attention.

SL: Are such requirements specific for TopLine Communications or do they apply to the PR industry as a whole?

HB: I think the industry as a whole is inundated with job applications. But good PR people are those who can demonstrate strong communication skills, so getting the covering letter right is key.

SL: What academic background or degree best qualifies for jobs in PR?

HB: In my opinion the degree choice is irrelevant. The best PR people are those who are organised, efficient and can communicate and take initiative. When I hire the right person, most of the specific PR skills can be learned on the job. I would rather meet someone who has excelled in a Geography or Ballet degree because they are passionate about the subject, than someone with an average PR qualification.

SL: How can students increase their employability in the PR industry during their time in university (i.e. extracurricular activities, internships, work experience)?

HB: Commit to something extracurricular. Whatever it is, if you can demonstrate the ability to start something and stick with it, that’s a major plus point. For some people that is a commitment to the industry through internships and work experience programmes, for others it’s a sport or the university newspaper.

I would also advise setting up a LinkedIn account and building your network – I’m usually impressed by a grad who has understood the power of social networking for business.

SL: Is PR harder to set foot in and more competitive than other industries? If so, how and why?

HB: The barriers to entry are low. So unlike medicine or accounting, for example, there is no degree that qualifies you for a PR role. That means that there are lots of people looking for few roles, so it can be pretty competitive.

SL: Media jobs are currently very popular among students with their promise of a “creative and exciting career”. How do such expectations comply with reality?

HB: TopLine is a B2B PR agency, which means we work with businesses that sell to other businesses. In my opinion, this is more interesting and challenging than consumer PR. It requires understanding the issues affecting business, from legislation to climate change and the financial crisis and helping your clients to use those issues to raise their profiles and generate brand awareness. It can be very creative, and it’s exciting to see a minister respond publicly to an article you have negotiated with a national newspaper, or to watch your client win new business after an interview on the BBC. It’s not red carpets and celebrities, but has far more scope for creativity and excitement.

SL: The media is large and diverse. What distinguishes PR agencies from, i.e. marketing or advertising agencies? Do job hunters have to be aware of such differences?

HB: Job hunters need to know what they are letting themselves in for with PR. It requires communication and negotiation skills and you will only excel in the profession if you are confident enough to pick up the phone and speak to a journalist – this is not advertising where you pay a paper to run your piece, it involves persuading an editor that your issue or story is important enough to get precious space in their publication. This can be very intimidating at first, but once you know how, it gets a lot easier.

SL: On a personal note, how was your first experience with the PR industry? Do you have any advice for prospective applicants?

HB: I arrived in London in June 2004 and set about looking for a job. While I joined some recruitment agencies, I would strongly advise applicants to do what I did – approach potential employers direct with a smart email and their CV.

This is for three reasons: Recruitment agencies have loads of good candidates on their books, so it’s hard for you to stand out. Employers have to pay recruiters to place candidates, so they are usually keen to build their own databases of prospective employees to save on the fee. A direct approach shows initiative – a real sought-after quality in a candidate. I sent my CV out to around 20 agencies a day for a month, landed three interviews and three offers, but also made good contacts in the industry with people who were not recruiting but wanted to keep my CV on file.

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