I want your job: Digital PR

PR might be the career for those who want to shape public opinion

The web means stories move faster than ever before. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the rest of social media, people are discussing those stories more than ever. There’s money to be made, if people can harness the speed of human interaction. And that’s where PR comes in.

Tom Malcolm, 29, is head of consumer PR at Diffusion, an international, London-based agency that’s surfing the digital wave, working with clients like Disney, Primark and Air New Zealand.

Having studied Politics at Nottingham University, he first thought PR might be for him after a stint of work experience at a public affairs consultancy which had been lobbying for changes in UK gambling laws to allow for super-casinos.

“It was something I pretty much fundamentally disagreed with,” he says. “It wasn’t what I wanted to be ending up doing. But it did open my eyes to the wider PR space.”

The idea that you can shape public opinion – especially if it’s on behalf of things you agree with – is an attractive one, and it’s at the heart of what PR is. But what does it involve?

A day in the life

“On a day to day basis, there’s a lot of talking,” says Tom. “We talk to clients to get an understanding of what their business objectives are, what messages we need to put out to their customers, and how we need to be responding to them.

“Maintaining that kind of relationship with clients is key.”

These days, though, client relations is only half the battle. Before the Internet took over PR was much more of a one-sided discussion, but now feedback flows both ways.

Says Tom: “One of the big parts of the job, which it wasn’t when I first got into PR, is listening to what consumers are saying – actually listening to what they’re writing on forums and blogs. We’re now looking for a deeper understanding of what different audiences are saying about our clients through social media, and how we can best use that as part of the campaigns we’ll be putting together.”

You need to know what’s going on in the world at all times, too. From monitoring Google Alerts for any online mention of a client, to scanning the print media, Tom can’t let anything skip his attention.

“We sit down and read the papers every morning, which has become crucial to monitor what is happening with our clients - and with what else is going on in the news and how that’s going to affect any of our stories,” he says.

PR is changing in other ways too: clients are increasingly looking for agencies which can be much more flexible and integrated across different platforms. So PR agencies are starting to have more of an influence than ever before in brands’ advertising and marketing discussions – even what would go into TV commercials.

“Perhaps people think that they’d rather go into advertising because it’s where the creativity is, but we have increasing influence on those bigger brand campaigns. A lot of my time is spent going to these meetings, feeding in creative ideas, and working alongside those people,” he says.

“But it’s just as much about making sure that the campaigns we’re delivering for clients are on track, and looking at ways in which we need to improve and adjust – whether the stories we’re trying to build for our clients are strong enough to get media coverage.”

How to get the job

Tom got his break into the industry a little while after deciding lobbying wasn’t for him. Having gotten into gadgets in a big way at university, he did his research and turned up a few small tech PR firms which were offering grad schemes. Importantly, he thinks, he got it because he focused on a few firms that really appealed to him, rather than applying to every one with a scheme. He worked his way up from there, switching to Diffusion shortly after it was founded in 2008.

The most important thing, he says, for people trying to follow in his footsteps is to have a real interest in media, be it social or traditional. This means reading the papers, and knowing how Twitter works.

From there, you have to look for work experience, both to get it on the CV, and to make sure the career is right for you, before applying for one of the numerous graduate schemes offered by the industry. That itself isn’t easy, but good things come to good people.

“Last year at Diffusion we had about 400 applications per place,” he says. “So it can be competitive and daunting. But you’d be surprised at the number of people who apply for our scheme and misspell ‘Diffusion’. They haven’t taken the time to do it properly.”

A top applicant will read into the agency they’re applying for and figure out why it’s right for them. Think about the kind of career path you want, and apply accordingly. A large agency might be able to wow you with its facilities, but a smaller agency might get you more experience from the start.

“Look at the campaigns that agency has worked on recently, and try to refer to them in your application, which will demonstrate why you want to work at that firm and really put you ahead of the crowd,” he says.

The future

It’s undeniable that in the same way technology is changing the way we live, it’s changing the way we work, too. Those changes are especially apparent in the world of PR. As the marketing space changes, it will become more integrated, and there’ll be more scope for the art of good PR, in social media and otherwise.

What’s more, brand campaigns are becoming more international, and PR is changing in that direction too.

“Maybe a third of our campaigns have an international scope,” says Tom. “And it’s not just a case of repeating the same campaign and trotting it out over 20 countries – but having an understanding of how varied media is across different countries.

“Brazil and India are developing quickly, and we’re getting more briefs from them, and we’ll only become more international. So people with languages, and people who have a global outlook, will be more important than ever.”

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