Interested in a career in public relations (PR)? Whether you’re a student wondering what it would take to start your career upon graduation, or you’re considering a career move from your current job to PR practice, you could learn a few important tips from my personal experience.
But before I go on to describe my journey let’s try to define what it is exactly that PR professionals do. Simply put, PR pros use all forms of media and communication to build, maintain and manage the reputation of their companies (if they are employed in-house) or clients (if they work in a consultancy). A career in PR involves gaining understanding and support for an organization or product, as well as trying to influence public opinion and behavior. Ultimately, the work of PR pros helps create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive.
So, how did a trained medical scientist like me transition to the creative field of PR? This is one question I’ve had to answer quite often in my over 10-year career and I’m happy to share my story with you:
Following graduation from medical school, and my compulsory one year internship at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, I joined the AVSI Foundation – an international NGO – where I worked as an Haematologist at the AVSI-run St. Kizito Clinics, and also as coordinator for AVSI’s youth projects in Nigeria. During my first two years at AVSI, I realized that I enjoyed working more on projects than laboratory work. Though I was a brilliant haematologist who cared very much for, and was well loved by, his patients, I knew deep down within me that I would find greater fulfillment doing something which, like the AVSI projects, allowed for a lot more creativity and flair.
I enjoyed the research, the brainstorm (strategy) sessions, the proposal writing and presentation, the meticulous planning and execution of the AVSI educational and health awareness projects…and I knew that with my effective “people” and “communication” skills, I could fancy a career in PR, marketing or advertising. Problem was I had limited knowledge of these professional fields and I lacked the requisite academic or professional qualifications (or so I thought).
With my AVSI work demanding so much from me mentally and physically (you couldn’t escape that if you took the job as seriously as I did), I was always drained at the end of the day, and I had little or no time to research what it would take to make the career move. And so, after another uneventful year tethered to the same routine, I made the tough decision of resigning from my “paying” job to find out what it would take to venture into the exciting field of PR and marketing communications.
So, what does it take to start a career in PR in Nigeria? Well, this isn’t too different from other professional fields and countries worldwide: most employers prefer to hire candidates who have a minimum of an HND or BSc qualification. Many who enter this field have majored in public relations, marketing, journalism, communications and advertising but employers aren’t really strict on the field of study. Work experience (for example, internships) in a related field is helpful, and membership of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) is imperative. Much more than the educational qualification, professional certification and technical ability (great analytical and organisational skills, brilliant writing skills, excellent presentation skills etc.), passion is the singular most important requirement.
Armed with this knowledge I registered as a student member of the NIPR and commenced the process of certification as a practitioner. While preparing for my exams I also began to research organisations I would like to work with and dispatched about 40 “unsolicited” mails, comprising my resume and a passionately-worded cover letter, to marketing and communication heads of large companies and CEOs of PR/Marketing Communication firms. Within 10 days of sending the mails, I received invitation to 3 interviews and got a job offer with Sesema Public Relations as an Account Executive; all these even when I hadn’t majored in any of the “related” courses or completed my NIPR certificate exams. Of course, there might have been an element of “luck” in the way things turned out, but without the preparations I made, the initiatives I took and the passion I demonstrated I wouldn’t have been that “lucky”.
And even if luck got me my first PR gig, it’s definitely taken much more than that to make my career the success it has been; only hard work and professionalism could have earned me the award for “Best Team Member” while at Sesema PR, as well as The Future Awards’ nomination for “Young Professional of the Year” and the Institute of Brand Management of Nigeria (IBMN) Award for “Africa’s Young Brand Manager of the Year” both of which I received for my work with Dana Group. Not to mention that, today, I am a one of the most sought after speakers and facilitators at local and international seminars and conferences on all things PR, brand management and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
How can young practitioners and students develop a career like mine? Here are some useful tips:
Prep Yourself. If you are a student you can start preparing for entry into the PR field by doing any of the following:
- Develop and promote a blog on a topic of interest
- Develop and document your writing/communication credentials by working for a campus magazine or radio station
- Join a student club/association of your interest where you can act as the PR officer and organize events (outreach programmes, departmental seminars, hall weeks, concerts etc.) on behalf of the club
- Explore the possibility of getting a part-time job at the school’s media relations department, or an internship at large media outlets or marketing firms during long breaks
- Join the NIPR and any other related professional bodies like IBMN (Institute of Brand Management of Nigeria), APCON (Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria) and (CIM) Chartered Institute of Marketing, and obtain relevant certifications.
- By preparing in these ways you’ll distinguish yourself from competition and lay the foundation for a rewarding career in public relations and marketing communications.
Step up to the plate. Whether you’re a student working on a voluntary/part-time basis, or a fully employed young practitioner, you’ve got to demonstrate a genuine interest in the business, freely offering to help a team or participate in an internal project. This may mean extra hours above and beyond existing account work, but it can be very rewarding and give you extra experience. In my first month at Sesema PR I did a SWOT Analysis of the company and got valuable feedback from my bosses, deepening my understanding of the subject. Also, when asked, I was never shy to offer my opinion on issues, increasing my knowledge and strengthening my confidence in the process.
Be a student for life. One major quality of a student is the undying thirst for knowledge. To be successful in PR practice, you must have an open disposition and always seek to learn new things whenever and wherever you can. Even before I kicked off my career I had subscribed to PR Week – an online educational resource for practitioners and, only recently, I joined Toastmasters International – a club that helps members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. It is also helpful to attend development courses/seminars to keep abreast of trends in the industry (Some years back there was very little talk about Digital PR, now you’ll be damned not to embrace it) and the company or client’s line of business (there can be policy somersaults and introduction of new ones, so it is important to keep track of them and manage the impact on the business). NIPR, IBMN, APCON and CIM offer periodic training programmes.
Imbibing these tips won’t just enable you to start your career right; they are critical to sustaining and maintaining your career’s path in a changing world.
Tony Usidamen, a Communications Expert and Social Advocate, writes from Lagos. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @tonyusidamen
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