Earlier this month, I was reminded that my college graduation was two years ago. I remember how genuinely good that day was. Getting dressed up in my favourite dress, feeling the accomplishment of walking across that stage, and being genuinely excited for the next chapter of my life.
Throughout COVID-19, I have heard the stories of countless graduates who don’t get to experience the graduation they anticipated. And while there are many amazing pandemic graduations happening, I sympathize with individuals who don’t get to experience a community of people (physically) cheering them on with that freshly graduated buzz in the air.
Near the beginning of the year, I reached out to my colleague and career mentor, Colleen Ryan. I asked her if she’d be willing to answer some questions that new graduates, specifically in PR, may have as they either enter an internship or full-time position – she graciously accepted. Little did I know that the world would be living through a pandemic shortly thereafter, and the timing of this post quickly felt “off”. While timing never feels quite right for anything now, June, being the month of graduations, feels like the best way to get this valuable advice out there.
Colleen is the Vice President of Strategic Communications at Sussex Strategy Group. She has had an extremely successful career in communications and works with integrity, innovative ideas, is respected by her colleagues, and brings a breadth of experience to the table that adds significant value to the insight she has to offer.
Without further ado, here is my written interview with Colleen.
Q: Can you provide a high-level snapshot of your career journey so far? How did each role, and yourself as a professional, evolve from role to role?
I started my career working in an advertising & communications agency, as a junior associate in the PR department and moved into an advertising account manager role. I credit those first four years to really positioning me for long-term career growth. That position afforded me the opportunity to work with a diverse range of clients in many different sectors, and more importantly, to work with excellent communications, advertising, media and creative mentors. I learned how to take my education and put it into real world practice. I advanced from there to work with a client in the health care sector where I was the only communications professional on the team. I quickly learned that I had more autonomy in delivering advice and my work, and again the benefit of excellent leaders who helped me improve my strategic thinking and advisory skills. It was in this role where I began undertaking bigger public awareness campaigns and more complex strategies. I moved from there into another health care organization, as Director of Communications, where I added to my professional skills in managing a small team of communications professionals. It was a larger, rapidly growing organization that supported health system research and data. I used that opportunity to learn more about change management, people management and contributing as part of interdisciplinary teams. From there, I eventually found myself acting as a Vice President in two different communications & government relations agencies, one in Newfoundland and Labrador and one in Toronto, where I’ve been able to put two decades of career experience to work – and, I hope, begin serving as a mentor myself.
Q: What would make you consider taking a chance on someone who is brand new to the industry and has little experience in the field?
That was all of us at some point. My own career started with someone, who I ultimately came to view as a mentor, taking a chance on me and guiding me along my first days in the profession. In each position I’ve ever had, including now as VP, I have been lucky to have excellent mentors and teachers who have shaped who I am as a professional by giving me good advice and honest feedback. And I believe in giving that back. That said, I also look for certain skills and characteristics in who to take a chance on – looking for demonstrated basic skills of writing and verbal communication, initiative-driven, focused on details, and a positive attitude.
Q: What would you say is one of the most valuable skills for someone to have and/or develop when entering the field of communications/PR?
Strategic thinking. It is a skill that is developed and continually honed. Being able to take the step back and see the forest for the trees is crucial, especially in highly charged and sensitive situations. Truly understanding a situation or need is the first step to deciding what actions to take. The tactics always follow the strategy, the “why” we are doing something and who is going to care about must come first. It is important to be able to ask the questions of why something has happened, why something is needed, why things were done a certain way, and who is going to care about it and why they’ll care about it. Being able to put those in front of senior leaders and clients in a way that is constructive is key to success in any communications role.
Q: When it comes to having a communications/PR degree or diploma, what’s your preference? And further to that, do you have an opinion on college vs. university degrees? Is there a point when experience overrides the level of education someone has?
I believe there is a role for both paths into the profession. I chose the university route because that was what I was guided toward and what was available to me at the time. Since then, so many more programs have developed and evolved, both stand-alone and post-graduate options. I have worked with many excellent communications and PR professionals who have a combination of university and college or college-only educations, as well as those who found their way to it purely by luck and experience. I have found that most really great professionals are those who already have an inclination toward it and their education or experience has enhanced and shaped those inherent skills.
Q: Recent graduates and/or young professionals may struggle with finding the balance between being confident in their skills and humble towards their work and role within a company. From your perspective, what are some practical ways that an individual can be both of those things and still excel in their job?
This is very true. I think the balance is found in putting forth your best effort, especially in the areas you excel in and then asking for help or advice in areas where you know you need it. I still do that with my colleagues, both senior and junior to me in years. I know I don’t know the social media space as well as others and will welcome all guidance and input in those areas. There is always room to try first and then acknowledge where you feel there are gaps so a more experienced professional can offer input. I also recommend seeking out someone, whether in your current place of work or from somewhere else, who is willing to sit down with you and talk about how to grow and improve your skills as you move through your career.
Q: What’s your best piece of advice for students and grads who are nervous about the demand that can come with crisis comms and being the go-to person for clients or organizations in a crisis?
I love crisis communications, now. But yes, 100% was intimidated in my earlier days for sure. There are loads of online case studies, both good and bad, and I’d study those for what worked and what didn’t. I love the IABC as a resource for that type of content, and the CPRS as well. Watch for media coverage as an issue unfolds (though the best managed ones often don’t make it to the media!). Also turn to those in your field who have been through it, take them for a coffee and ask them for their advice and stories. And of course, there’s no better way to learn than jump right in. When an opportunity arises, offer to sit on the internal team, review materials, participate in debriefs, and just absorb over and over again. Eventually, it becomes an exciting challenge.
Q: If someone’s employer or supervisor doesn’t welcome questions very well, what advice would you give to navigate that? Especially if someone is unsure of how to accomplish a task?
First take a step back and assess whether it is simply bad timing – are they in the midst of multiple priorities and challenged to take the time? If so, evaluate if there is someone else who might be better able to provide guidance, such as another co-worker who has more experience and understands your manager’s expectations. Also, make sure you’re not asking the same questions repeatedly, as it is fair to expect that if they’ve answered similar questions before that you’ve learned and applied that knowledge going forward. But if it is simply that you’re unclear and need support, ask for it directly, clearly stating what and why you need it, and ask for a time that works for them to meet with you to discuss.
Q: Networking is one of the most, if not the most, important part of establishing your career and fostering its growth. What are your biggest networking tips?
I personally prefer one-on-one networking opportunities where I can find them. I like having direct conversations that are more in-depth than small talk, so I seek those out where I can. I also apply that to large group events. If possible, I’ll identify 2-3 people who might be at an event that I would like to speak with and seek them out for a conversation. I also recommend not being afraid to introduce yourself to another individual or smaller group if you’re alone as most people are equally uncertain. Go in prepared with a few interesting facts about yourself, and questions you’d like to know about others.
Q: If a company doesn’t appear to have any open positions, what would you say to someone who wants to get their foot in the door?
Identify the person who is mostly likely to have some influence for a specific team or division and call and ask for a coffee meeting. Most experienced professionals are accustomed to networking requests and will be likely to take you up on it. Approach it with the intention of wanting to learn more about them, their company and their role, rather than an “I need a job” mentality, and follow up with a thank you, express your interest, and share your resume. Also, if you have a personal connection who can facilitate an introduction, go ahead and ask them to help. And then follow-up (at reasonable intervals) to see if there are any opportunities opening up or to share a link to an article or report that might be useful, as it helps keep you on their radar.
Q: For an entry-level or fresh grad who feels like their inexperience is inconveniencing their employer, what would you say to encourage them? In other words, what value do the new-to-comms professionals bring to the workplace?
New grads bring fresh perspective. You’ve learned about new and emerging technologies, changing best practices, and recent case studies that experienced professionals likely don’t have. You also have an eagerness and enthusiasm that can counter inexperience most days of the week. The key is in acknowledging when you need support, asking for it, and learning from that for the next time, demonstrating that you are continually improving as you go.
My sincerest thanks goes to Colleen for giving this great advice and offering her perspective.
To all the new grads out there: remember that as a graduate, you have exercised resilience and endurance countless times to get that degree or diploma. Keep pressing on, and we have lots of confidence in the next round of PR professionals entering the field!