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The three phases of your PR career

Each stage in a PR career brings its own challenges and rewards. The early part of a career may mean more parties and fun, but there is also the challenge of finding a decent job in the first place as well as not burning out. Stage two offers the chance to specialise more, but the skills you need to develop may not be the ones you enjoy using. And if you think stage three is the time to sit back and relax and enjoy the fruits of all your hard labour, then you are likely to be disappointed, because a career in PR involves constant learning. Below we look at the three key steps in a PR consultant’s career and outline the joys, and some of the pain, of each one.

Stage one

After working for over 30 years in marketing recruitment, Amanda Fone, CEO and founder of f1 Recruitment, says that the hardest stage is getting on the first rung of the PR ladder: “My advice to a youngster is to start agency side (rather than in-house). This way you get exposed to a breadth of sectors and can work out where you want to specialise, ie decide whether you want to be a brand expert in health, sports, fashion or focus on corporate reputation or financial PR? It’s much easier to start in an agency than in-house as there are more junior-level roles available. In-house, the teams can be smaller and more hierarchical.

Demonstrate staying power
“If you want to get on in your career you must demonstrate staying power! So the biggest piece of advice would be to stay in your first job for at least two years. During the first six months you are learning on the job, the second six months you are starting to get traction and confidence internally with the team and your clients.

Steep learning curve
Liam Rawson, senior programme executive at comms agency Hotwire, says the beginning of his career was the hardest stage: “Not only is there a lot to learn including PR jargon, the media landscape and finding the confidence to speak to both clients and journalists, but you also have to understand what your clients do, how their solutions benefit customers, and how we can help them. The other challenge for me personally was content writing. Coming from a science background meant long-form writing wasn’t something I had much experience of, but my line manager worked with me to help me learn the ropes fast.”

Stage two

Once you have established your PR career, the next step is to develop it. Sarah Piper, account manager in PR firm Ketchum’s health team, highlights the importance of constantly learning, rather than focusing on getting a more senior job title: “When I first started working in communications, I was focused on the next big project or the next promotion, and it felt like a slow climb towards the job I wanted. However, I’ve found that true progression in this field comes from working on different projects and clients, and learning as much as you can from the diverse opportunities they have to offer.”

Grow up
With more experience, comes greater maturity. Piper says: “Good career progression means added responsibility at each level, such as managing teams or becoming the main point of contact for clients. Without such visible and meaningful changes, a new title doesn’t mean much.

“This is why after taking a break from comms and agency life, I joined the health team at Ketchum. I could see the potential to gain experience in an area I’m passionate about, working with a growing team of experts – and I wasn’t wrong. While I was thrown at the deep end and given the opportunity to learn quickly, I’ve also been given the time and headspace to develop new business ideas and my own interests outside of work.”

Explore options
For Oli Sonenfield, account manager at agency Frank, the joy of the second stage of your PR career is that you still have many options: “With the right support, junior to mid-level is a great time to make the position your own and hone your skills. It's also a good opportunity to find out what sectors you like and gain a greater understanding of the PR industry as a whole.”

Greater responsibility = more stress
The downside of stage two is that you need a completely different set of skills. Claire Ayles, co-founder of PR firm Eleven Hundred Agency, describes her struggle: “The trickiest stage for me was the move from senior account executive to account manager. By the time you’re a SAE, you feel like you know your way around PR – you have the tools, the press contacts and the subject matter expertise to add proper value to your clients’ campaigns. The natural progression is to be promoted to manager when you also get to oversee the work done by execs. That requires a completely different skill set.

“I’ve seen colleagues struggle with this stage too, even though they’ve been well trained and supported through this transition by their own managers and directors. They sometimes agonise over providing feedback. They can struggle to delegate work because they know it’s quicker to do the task themselves, rather than pass it to a more junior person who needs extra time and a lot of handholding. They often hide behind email as a way to avoid giving difficult-to-hear feedback face-to-face.”

Don’t burn too bright, too early

Kate Matthews, independent senior communications consultant, describes why stage one of her career burnt her out, and how stage two has been a chance to recharge her batteries: “Stage one of my career was a blast – incredible brands, amazing locations and eye-popping budgets. The late nights, drop-everything briefs and cancelled social plans were worth it to build up strong experience.

“But that lifestyle isn’t sustainable: a decade in, I felt burnt out. As associate director, I was seriously considering joining the many women who quit our industry as they’re hitting their peak. Women make up 70% of the PR workforce yet account for only 30% of the top jobs, a stat which still angers me.

“With no roles compatible with my life as a parent I made some changes, including a move out of London, and found a new lease of life.

Be flexible
“With a strong CV, I entered stage two with freedom to do work that genuinely interests me. Becoming a consultant has been the most liberating decision in my career to date. I know many view freelance as a cop out – I’ve heard ‘oh she’s just fitting work in around the kids’ many times. But I feel more ambitious than ever and want to build a successful business doing great work.

“Who knows what stage three will hold? I feel most excited about what comes next and pleased I see a future in PR when previously I’d only seen conflict.

Stage three

As the founder of PR agency Milk and Honey and with over 20 years of agency experience, Kirsty Leighton, looks back on the three stages of PR career and concludes that each one has offered her the chance to keep learning: "For me there are three career leaps. The first is getting your first job. The tests agencies put in place to assess if you are a right fit are often more rigorous for an entry position than at any other stage in your career – writing tests, creativity tests, presentations. The reason is often because agencies can be picky, there are lots of candidates to choose from so you have to stand out. 

"The next is the jump to manager. This is where you extend beyond technical skills development to leadership and influencer skills. Many struggle with these softer skills and how to measure and evolve their impact. I have seen lots of professionals really take a confidence knock at this stage, when the realisation of how much more you have to learn looms large. 

Good leaders ask questions
"The next stage is the invitation to the board. Demonstrating strategic, commercial leadership. The word strategic is so freely used with little explanation of what behaviours are required. To me, it is a clear understanding of the 'why'.

“For me I have enjoyed the whole journey. Evolving in my career, always learning. It really is a brilliant profession.”

Maintain balance
Whatever stage you are at, it is important to keep a good work-life balance, as being overstressed means you will not only not be able to enjoy your job, you won’t be able to do it to your best ability. Plus if you are able to have fun whilst you work, it won’t really feel like that much work at all.

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