Finding Your Path to Success: Job Search Inspiration

January 4, 2016

[trina dalziel/ikon images/getty]
[trina dalziel/ikon images/getty]

Go to college. Achieve a 3.5 GPA or higher. Work at professional internships. Get big agency experience. Stay with one employer for at least a few years.

While these are all great pieces of advice for grads looking to break into public relations, don’t feel the pressure to follow these tropes as law.

When I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” for the first time, one of her insights really stood out to me: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” Jungle gyms don’t just allow for moving up or down, but also from side to side. That’s how my career has moved along as a new professional, and now into my mid-level career. A ladder is too binary. You’re either up, or you’re moving down. Careers have many different paths, and one isn’t right for every person. I’ve learned to forge my own path after taking many risks, opening myself up to new experiences and learning something from every opportunity.

Taking a risk

I had the misfortune of graduating right when the recession began. Jobs were scarce, even with my résumé chock-full of internship experience, extracurricular activities and a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications with an emphasis on strategic communications. I followed the rules, did everything I was told to do in school and during summer breaks — yet, I still didn’t have a job.

After quite a few months of job searching and interviewing, I finally found myself at a small business, working as a one-woman marketing department. I was green, but they were willing to take a chance on me. Was I doing public relations? Not at all. I was managing a vigorous conference calendar, creating a cohesive brand image for the company, and writing all the content for sales sheets, newsletters and the website.

I wanted to learn more about media relations and public relations and, through PRSA connections, I received an offer from an agency. Going from a marketing manager to an account executive at a boutique firm (with a significant pay cut) wasn’t exactly climbing the corporate ladder. However, I thought that the experience I would gain would be invaluable.

Despite the hesitations of my family and others, I took the leap and switched over to agency life. Once I moved to an agency, I never saw myself as a “lifer” — I saw it as an experience to learn as much as I could before moving to an in-house position, and I did learn all the basics that I still carry with me today. Building media lists, how to write a pitch, tracking and reporting, writing bylined articles — you name it and I did it. I was ready to move in-house, right?

That’s not exactly what happened. The B2B focus at the agency, which had never been a particular interest for me, led me to a newly found passion for technology. When an opportunity to work in the technology practice of a big agency came my way, I knew I had to take it. However, it was in San Francisco — across the country from my hometown of Chicago (and where I was currently living). Again, I was taking a risk, moving from the Midwest to the West Coast — and taking another agency job — but I saw it as a way to work with some of the biggest brands in technology and home in on a specialty.

So I did it. I moved to San Francisco and I have had some of the best experiences in my career here. I’ve worked on the most innovative brands in the country and the up-and-coming startups you’ll see tomorrow. Even though there are a lot of opportunities in San Francisco, it’s also a tumultuous landscape for agencies. One month, you can be up; and the next month, you’re down. There’s always another agency wooing your client or offering the same services at a startup price.

Moving around

While the goal is always to stay at a company for a few years, I’ve worked at three agencies in the two years I’ve been in San Francisco. Is this ideal? Of course not. No one likes switching over their 401(k) or worrying about health insurance, but I’ve moved around to find out what environments I thrive in, what leadership drives me and what types of brands I want to represent. Talent is always in demand, regardless of how many years you’ve been at your current job.

Now, I’ve found myself working in-house at a tech startup that I passionately believe in. I didn’t follow the rules finding this job either. There wasn’t a LinkedIn job posting or recruiter seeking a PR manager. I was interested in the company and began to cultivate a relationship with the CEO over time. I wanted to be a part of their mission, whether as their agency lead or in-house as their PR manager, so I reached out and kept checking in. Finally, the timing was right for them to invest in public relations and hire internally. Now, I’m in a role that I believe to be a dream job.

As you continue your career in public relations, listen to advice from trusted professors, mentors and others you meet in your network. But know that you can work for an agency, even if you begin working in-house. You can start out in a specialized industry or stay in a more general space.

Try new things, take a step back or switch gears completely. There aren’t any bad experiences. You’ll glean knowledge about yourself or your goals with each opportunity. Figure out what is best for you and follow that, rather than a suggested PR career ladder. Don’t be afraid to play on the career jungle gym.

Heather Sliwinski
Heather Sliwinski is the PR lead at 6SensorLabs, a San Francisco-based tech startup creating greater food transparency so consumers can make healthier choices. She is the immediate past chair of PRSA’s New Professionals Section. Sliwinski graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in journalism and mass communications and a certificate in business.


Janet Cannata says:

Thanks for sharing. Truly on point. And yes it's important to keep growing while we work towards the landscape that fits best for our career.

March 6, 2018

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