Top tips to build your PR career
Building a successful PR career takes time, dedication and hard work. And while it may be tempting to forge ahead and go at it alone, hearing and learning from those who have been there and done that is a simple way to help you progress your career.
We chatted with senior PR professionals, Keryn O’Donnell, Group Account Director at Soda Communications and Jenna Woods, Senior Account Director at Thrive PR and Communications, about the learnings they picked up throughout their careers, plus tips and strategies to help junior PR professionals succeed. So if you want to advice to help you thrive, keep reading!
What advice would you give to junior PR professionals just starting their careers in terms of building relationships with clients and the media?
Keryn: Media need good PR professionals to do their job well – so make sure you know the media outlet you are looking at and what the journalist covers. Irrelevant pitches and time wasting is not looked upon favourably, so do your research before you bother a journo with something that isn’t right for them.
Clients can be tricky to manage sometimes, but it should be a collaborative relationship. They need your expertise and you need their knowledge and insight of their business to get the best results you can. Ask them questions, research their industry, look at their competitors – taking an interest will help you to work better with them and in turn, you will be better placed to manage expectations and help them achieve great results. Clients can be unrealistic sometimes, it is a PR professional’s job to make sure they understand what they can realistically expect and if something is actually PR-worthy.
Jenna: With media, read what they write – not just what’s on their website, but also on social media. Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are all extensions of media outlets now and can give great insights about what journalists are passionate about and what they are working on. Generally, if you know what a journalist is writing about, who their audience is and when they publish stories, it makes pitching that much easier.
For clients, it’s about consistency and responsiveness. We all hate being left on read, so make sure you are responding to comms as they come in, even if it is with a holding statement until you have the answers. Remember they are human too!
Could you share some tips for staying organised and managing multiple PR campaigns effectively?
Keryn: Learning to manage your own schedule is hugely beneficial, especially in an agency environment. The juggle of multiple clients, deadlines and sometimes also working under multiple managers means you need to be able to manage yourself and your workload.
Write to-do lists, block out periods of time for tasks, take notes and make sure you are aware of deadlines – being able to refer back to notes and your list of tasks means you are less likely to drop the ball. When tasks are delegated to you, there is often a chain reaction if you don’t deliver your part, so be sure to do your part with enough lead time that others can do theirs too.
Jenna: Know your role and what is expected of you in any campaign. If you aren’t sure, ask, but never wait for tasks to just be assigned or be told. If you are clear on the expectations and deadlines, the whole process will move more smoothly and you won’t be micromanaged by team leads.
I love a good campaign timeline, R&R doc and actions tracker – these are pretty standard but can only help if you are clear on your part in the wider game plan. Don’t miss a deadline. If you’re not going to make it, manage up well in advance.
What strategies have you found most effective in securing media coverage for your clients, and how can junior PR candidates improve their pitching skills?
Keryn: You need to look beyond the expected places you would see your client in the media. Consider other sections of the news and come up with creative ideas to help your client get featured in them – like how you can get your lifestyle client in the financial section or real estate sections of the newspaper for example – or bump them into a general news story. You’ll see them get excited about how you are approaching them as a client, instead of delivering the ‘expected’.
Securing media coverage can be stressful, but consistency is key, as is maintaining relationships with people who have expressed interest in your client in the past. They are likely to have some interest in a new pitch if they have covered your client previously.
Jenna: Read the news. Know what you are pitching and to whom. Back yourself and pick up the phone. There are no tricks or hacks. You just have to do the basics well.
In a rapidly evolving industry, how do you stay up-to-date with the latest PR trends and techniques? What resources would you recommend?
Keryn: There are a number of media database platforms which help to keep PR professionals updated on the movements of media – these became even more valuable in the post-Covid world where a lot of media are now working remotely or freelancing and not locked into an office or single media platform.
Jenna: LinkedIn is a great asset for connecting with peers in the industry and keeping abreast of who is working with who and what campaigns they are executing and how. I’m also a big fan of LinkedIn and Substack newsletters which share the best insights, trends and recommendations that are specific to my areas of interests – setting these up make it easier to stay on top of movements in the industry and to share with your clients/teams.
What’s the best approach for handling challenging client situations or negative media coverage?
Keryn: Benefit from the experience of your colleagues – talk to your managers and colleagues and ask for help and advice. Sometimes the situation isn’t as bad as what it may seem when looking through a more experienced lens.
Honesty is also important, be up front with your client about the coverage/situation and go in with ‘solutions’ for how to move forward, so that they feel things are not stagnant and stuck in the negative situation.
Jenna: The best thing you can do, regardless of what the coverage is, is to have clear expectations, goals and KPIs before a campaign starts, so there is no doubt in the team’s or client’s mind. Should things be challenging, keeping clients across this and ensuring you are communicating the reasons why is so important. No one likes surprises, and open conversations along the way can help to troubleshoot things and improve things along the way.
What are some common mistakes you’ve seen junior PR professionals make and how can they avoid these pitfalls?
Keryn: Not facing situations head on – the sooner you speak up, the sooner your managers can help you work out the solution. When struggling to secure coverage, it is likely your team will have suggestions for contacts who might be helpful in covering your story. If a client seems unhappy, flag it with your boss so they are on the front foot to deal with them and they aren’t caught off guard by a grumpy phone call or email.
Also not being organised – plan out your days, so you know what you need to get done by when. PR is a deadline driven industry and if you miss a deadline, often the opportunity is gone.
Jenna: Saying yes to everything and then not delivering on anything or to the standards expected. Especially in an agency when multiple clients operate at the same time with different expectations and demands, it can be hard to keep all teams and managers across what your priorities are. Clear, constant communication is key and it is never too much. Keep letting people know where and how you are tracking and then they can help you. Without it, we can all get lost in the day to day deliverables.
How do you maintain a work-life balance in a demanding PR role, and what advice can you give on managing stress and avoiding burnout?
Keryn: It is easy for PR to feel ‘all consuming’, but actively carving out time for something you enjoy and planning that into your week is important. Different people enjoy different things and while sometimes what you enjoy crosses over with a client or campaign you might be working on, but being able to switch that part of you off and enjoy what you are doing, means you often feel more refreshed after, and even sometimes come back more inspired.
Social batteries are a big part of PR – often the feeling of being ‘on’ can be draining, so taking some alone time where you don’t need to speak can be hugely beneficial.
Jenna: Very similar to the above, just keep communicating and try to be clear of what is expected of you. There will always be times when work is more demanding than usual, so ensuring you have a clear view of what you need to do vs what isn’t as urgent will help in moving through these periods. And while it can be hard, trying to find time to eat well, get outside, be mindful and breathe will help de-escalate the anxieties that can build up.
Could you share a success story from your career that taught you something that junior PR professionals would benefit from hearing?
Keryn: We were working across a campaign for a long-standing client, who always expected big results from each campaign. This one wasn’t landing with the media in spite of having good content and a solid spokesperson. After a slow start to the campaign, we shifted our spokesperson focus to an influencer who could talk to the topic on a personal level – the story instantly gained momentum and resulted in national print and digital coverage. Good results and a happy client.
Ultimately, you may need to find a fresh spin to put on your story to give it more interest from the media. Taking a solution or idea to your client if coverage is slow, shows you are actively trying to maximise all opportunities and not just waiting for a miracle.
Jenna: Recently I have made a role change that took me back to a previous agency. This wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but it came as I reflected on what I wanted out of my position. I wanted to be somewhere that I could be myself, somewhere where I could explore areas of passion and also be challenged to grow while doing work I was both excited by and proud of. This is something I would encourage everyone to ask themselves, not just when they are ready to move on, but regularly to ensure you feel fulfilled each day.
What are the core qualities and skills that a junior PR professional should focus on developing to excel in their role and advance in their career?
Keryn: Communication is key – consider how you talk to clients, colleagues, media contacts, industry suppliers. Every relationship you have is valuable and people do remember you and how you present yourself, if you deliver and if they can work with you again.
Writing is also a key component, the more you write, the better you become. Read old media releases your company has on file, read the paper and check out how the media you are pitching to speak/write. You need to be able to make your story relevant to the media and how you present it in your pitch (particularly how you write it) will be a big part of how successful you are.
Jenna: Writing skills are still number one, not just long form articles or reports, but being able to clearly communicate opinions, thoughts and recommendations in email is such a valuable resource. Networking and relationship building are also highly regarded, not just in PR but in any consulting/sales role so investing in these will advance your career in any sector.
If you could rewind to the beginning of your career, what’s one piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?
Keryn: It’s ok to ask for help – I used to think I had to work it all out for myself and while you definitely do need to show some initiative and try to find solutions, it is OK to bounce off others to get ideas and results. I would have saved myself a lot of time stressing earlier on – once I worked this out, I became a better worker because I learnt from others around me. I also became a better team member in terms of delivering others with ideas and support.
Jenna: Don’t try and do everything at once. Pace yourself and have a clear goal you can work towards.
Do you have a favourite PR campaign that you’ve worked on, and if so, what made it stand out as a memorable project?
Keryn: I’m fortunate enough to have worked on some major campaigns for a number of international clients over the years. I have organised collaborations with designers for fashion brands, coordinated interviews and campaigns with major celebrity spokespeople for alcohol brands and introduced major international retailers to the Australian market with local launches, so it is hard to pick just one.
I’ve always enjoyed helping to adapt international strategies for clients to suit the local Australian market and media landscape – you get exposure to how other markets deliver campaigns, while also using your own local expertise to consider how to best make these ideas work in Australia.
Jenna: I’m very proud of the work Thrive did with Tinder around Mardi Gras. The team announced they were donating $100,000 in funding to LGBTQIA+ support groups in regional towns and celebrated through the launch of the Big Rainbow, a one-of-a-kind activation in partnership with community stakeholders. In addition, the recent work we did to announce Luna Park Sydney’s planned transformation and latest attraction Dream Circus, was very successful. Here we got to play with corporate, consumer and technical narratives, ultimately reaching about 175M people.
PR can be fast-paced and high-pressure. How do you unwind or de-stress after a particularly demanding day at work?
Keryn: Getting away from screens makes a huge difference at the end of the day. While PR varies from day to day, you still find you spend a significant amount of time on your device(s) and the best way to clear your head, unwind and relax (not just mentally, but also physically) is to take some time out from the screens around you.
Jenna: You have to set clear boundaries with yourself. I can be relaxing one minute scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, and then I see a brand launching a cool campaign, or a new influencer doing something different and suddenly I am straight back into work mode. Nothing stops this from happening, but you do get better about prioritising your energy and allowing yourself time to de-stress.
Have you ever had an “ah-ha” moment in your PR career where you realised a new approach or strategy that significantly improved your effectiveness as a professional?
Keryn: I think when I realised that clients aren’t pigeonholed to the media types they are traditionally part of, it switched my brain to start to think outside the box for my clients. This made me a better publicist when it came to securing coverage, and a better team member when it came to developing strategies and ideas for campaigns.
Jenna: Nothing specific, but I think over time there are a lot of ‘ah-ha’ moments where things just fall into place, and what you first thought was a challenge becomes second nature. The trick is to allow yourself time to get there.