Giving Back: Sharing Lessons Learned through the Backpack to Briefcase Program
Today I spoke to students at the University of Baltimore as part of the Alumni office’s Backpack to Briefcase program to share my opinions about what it takes to succeed as a business communicator in today’s world. The world is so vastly different from my undergraduate days but there are still some common factors that ring true.
Here’s what I shared with the students:
What does it take to get hired into this profession?
- The number one factor is your DESIRE! How hungry are you and are you willing to do what it takes? It’s competitive out there so you have to really WANT to be in this field of marketing and communicators or you just won’t make it. While there are many more opportunities, there is just as much competition with smart, savvy talented creatives.
- I also believe that now more than ever, you need to be able to “Think Global.” The internet has democratized the world in so many ways and on so many levels. As a Gen Xer, technology was just coming onto the scene and so our educational program focused on speaking, writing and editing. The world was not 24/7/365 and cable was just in its infancy. Today’s students have grown up with an iPhone in their hands and social media as the norm. The beauty is that jobs can be done remotely now. An ocean of opportunities awaits young professionals in today’s market, you just have to find the right fit for you whether it’s agency or client side.
- I also recommend that students remain flexible and be open to move to another market. I’ve spent most of my career in the Baltimore-Washington market and have been fortunate to find employment. That said, if you are mobile and willing to relocate you may find higher level jobs or work in an interesting industry that does not have a large presence in your city.
- I also think a lot depends on which direction you want to go in: agency, corporate, freelance/entrepreneur – each provides a unique environment that you may thrive in or find most challenging.
- When you just start out in your communications career, you do not need to decide where you will eventually end up. You will figure that out over time. I’ve made several career moves up the ladder, across the ladder and into other industries. Each opportunity has provided me to build off my prior experience and gain new knowledge and skills. My e-book, The Brave Girl’s Guide to Work that You Love was written in 2016 where I share all of these lessons that I learned.
- When I hire professionals, I look for strong writing skills, fantastic interpersonal skills, and excellent intuition. I want to see you demonstrate that you are inquisitive and have the ability to figure things out and be a self-starter. As Wayne Gretzy said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”
What kind of background should you have?
- In my opinion, a liberal arts background serves you well in the marketing and communication world. A liberal arts education teaches you how to think, how to solve problems, how to do research and how to innovate and be creative.
What kind of skills must you be able to demonstrate?
- The number one skill that you need to be able to demonstrate is your written communications. If you do not like to write, then I say this may not be the field for you. The second most important skill is the ability to LISTEN. One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say, said Bryant McGill. Listening is an active process that requires you to FOCUS. I also believe that what does not get said is often just as important as what DOES get said. It is only through listening that you see the whole picture.
- Paying attention to detail is a critical skill to have and to be able to demonstrate. As a professional communicator it is your job to make sure your press releases do not have any spelling errors and your outputs are flawless. Mistakes happen but if you put processes in place to double and triple check your work before it goes out the door, you will continue to uphold this high standard. Shoddy work by a marketing and communications professional really is not acceptable in today’s marketplace.
- I also look for people to have a strong ability to organize their daily work tasks and to be able to demonstrate that they can get things done, especially under deadline. Having these organizational skills is critical when you are juggling a few balls all at once. As you grow in your career, it becomes even more important to have strong project management skills and talents. These leadership skills are valued by most employers.
- When I hire interns and recent college graduates, I expect them to have basic technical skills with both Microsoft Office and Google software. I also expect a basic understanding of graphic design and photography knowledge so they can layout a newsletter, manipulate photos for social media and learn how to communicate with a graphic designer.
- You get bonus points for technical skills like HTML and Adobe Creative Suite but they are not deal breakers. These are items that you can learn on the job or even take courses at a community college to learn how to use.
What kind of coursework will demonstrate the right knowledge base to employers (e.g. – classes, internships, work-study, independent study)?
- Here is my take on each element:
- Classes: I like to see that students have taken English, Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising, Social Media, and Cross-Cultural Communications courses. It’s helpful if you have taken Business classes in addition to History, Art, Science and even Math. I have found that I learned things in these types of courses that have come in handy later down the line with jobs in different industries like nuclear power, banking and senior housing.
- Internships: I believe they are Must Haves! I also recommend that you do more than one to experience different types of work places.
- Work Study: I think work-study is right up there with internships and I recommend that you should try to find a work-study job that will give you experience in customer service, marketing/promotion, event planning or social media. My work-study was assisting the athletic director and the football coach to promote the college and recruit football players. It taught me so much about marketing and promotion tactics and messaging.
- Independent Study is a good thing to have – it shows that you can do a project with a professor’s oversight and the added bonus is that you get a tangible work product that can be your first portfolio piece.
What body of work (portfolio) makes a good impression in interviews?
Your portfolio items should include the following:
- Writing samples are always good – items like press releases, announcements, and flyers you have written for school or student organizations can be an indicator for a hiring manager.
- Marketing campaigns are also good tactics to include in a portfolio. Your campaign needs to show that you got the desired outcomes you wanted so always make sure you have metrics identified.
- A project you did as part of a student group can be another example that you can share with a hiring manager. Be sure to explain what the objective was, the strategy you came up with, the project plan, and show some of the tactics you developed and implemented. Also talk about what your role was within the team and never take credit for your classmates accomplishments. This is a big turn off to a hiring manager; so be humble as you describe the project and your contribution.
What kinds of organizations seem most open to these types of careers?
There is a wide variety of organizations that recruit and hire communications professionals to include:
- Non-Profits: These organizations are a great place to start out learning how to do event planning, fundraising/corporate social responsibility and target marketing. While the pay may not be high, you can garner experience in many areas of communications.
- Government Agencies can be good places to do an internship, especially as most agencies have so many stakeholders, everything from media, consumers, industry and elected officials to deal with on a daily basis. You will definitely learn how to work with lots of stakeholder groups in this environment.
- Corporate Departments are also a good place to do internship. You will most likely be considered for job after graduation, especially if you do a good job. There can be lots of variety in your day-to-day activity when you work in corporate.
- Agencies can be a good environment for Uber- creative types or people who are more entrepreneurial. Agencies work with so many verticals and you get to act as a consultant to the client with your best ideas.
- Schools & Universities also provide opportunity for communications students to learn about marketing and communications strategy and tactics as well. You get to interact with students, alumni, faculty, and the greater community.
How do you distinguish yourself as a graduate from this program?
The four ways you can distinguish yourself as an alumni include:
- Network with other University of Baltimore alumni – A great resource for students is the alumni network. I encourage people to use the career center to find out who works where. The common bond you share with a fellow alumnus is an instant door opener. An easy first step is to join the LinkedIn Alumni group and make sure your LinkedIn profile identifies you as a University of Baltimore alum. There are events that the university sponsors where you can begin to build your professional network.
- Attend events sponsored by marketing and communications professional associations such as PRSA-Maryland, IABC-DC, AMA, AAF, and Capitol Communicator among others to meet potential hiring managers. I also recommend that you consider a student membership in one of these organizations. If you sign up to volunteer for a committee, you work with people who can hire or recommend you to potential employers.
- Be media savvy: If you are going to live and work in Charm City, I recommend that students read the Baltimore Business Journal and the Daily Record on a regular basis. Both of these publications often feature stories about UB alumni and companies that may be expanding in the area. Both media outlets have calendars that list business events that may be of interest and lead to an employment opportunity. If you want to work in public relations, then you need to be familiar with both print/digital and on-air broadcast outlets as you build your network with journalists.
- I always recommend that you become a devoted student to your areas of interest and then get known as someone in the know on trends in that space.
My intention with this blog post was to share my best advice with you the reader, just like I did in person today at my alma mater, the University of Baltimore. It’s all about giving back!