The New Rules of Mentoring

July 12, 2011

Finding a professional mentor can be a daunting task. An associate of mine, who was preparing to enter a new segment of the job market, searched high and low. He had little on-the-job experience, and his network — though growing — remained limited. The small organization and community where he worked contained few experienced PR practitioners, and their time was already in demand.

Finally, after attending a video seminar led by a successful PR professional in another city, my associate took a creative and courageous chance: He contacted the practitioner who had conducted the seminar — a man he had never met — and asked him to be his mentor. To my friend’s great surprise, this PR professional agreed. A great mentoring relationship was born.

This scenario exemplifies the new rules of mentoring. The world is changing, and so is the way we communicate and work with one another. While mentoring still plays a critically important role, it has taken on new forms due to escalating workloads, increasing demand and changing technology considerations. Here are some of the fundamental shifts that we’ve seen in the way that mentoring relationships work:

  • Mentoring relationships come from networks that are broader now. In the old days, potential mentees turned to individuals they knew well. But increasingly, mentor-seeking PR professionals are approaching people who they either don’t know well or have never met before.
  • Distance mentoring is on the rise. Many successful mentoring relationships exist primarily — or even completely — in the virtual world, as most exchanges of information take place via email or social media.
  • “Situational mentoring” is becoming common. While traditional, long-term mentoring relationships continue to thrive, many mentees now connect with mentors for certain periods of time or certain situations, rather than turning to one mentor for everything.

These trends in mentoring relationships raise three important questions for PR professionals looking for career guidance:

  1. How do I find mentors in this new environment?
  2. How do I approach potential mentors — especially those I don’t know — and ask for their help?
  3. What challenges and advantages come along with the new rules of mentoring?

Locating a mentor — the new way

Good mentoring relationships always require hard work on both sides. But when there isn’t a previous personal relationship to build on, establishing a mentoring relationship takes even more effort. Joseph Tateoka, senior account executive at Ruder Finn in Chicago, describes it as “building a virtual relationship.”

He offers some suggestions for finding such mentors: Establish relationships at PRSA/PRSSA events. If you are a student, then take advantage of agency tours or other events that allow you to interact with professionals. Ask people you work with to recommend mentors.

“We ask for referrals for jobs and references,” Tateoka says. “Why not for mentors? Particularly if you are interested in a niche area, you may not know someone who fits the bill — but a professor or colleague might.”

Tateoka also suggests looking on LinkedIn and Twitter. Mentees can use Twitter to see who their friends are following, which could also yield ideas for individuals to approach about serving as a mentor. LinkedIn enables mentees to find individuals who are living and working within certain geographical and expertise areas, and then reach out to them.

Popping the question

So you’ve found your potential mentors. How do you ask for their help confidently, professionally and without giving the impression that you are just out to get something?

In many ways, asking someone to be your virtual mentor mirrors a media pitch. You have limited space and time, you need to establish interest and relevancy, and you need to get to the point. You also need to demonstrate some knowledge of the person’s professional role and past work. Do your homework before you approach potential mentors.

Michael Smart, principal, MichaelSMARTPR and national news director at Brigham Young University, advises mentees to make their request specific.

“Start by simply asking, ‘Would it be too much trouble to ask your input on a one-paragraph pitch?’ Get to the concrete quickly — busy people can answer better and faster if the request is [solid].”

Another good practice — particularly if you have met your prospective mentor at a conference or seminar — is to give the person your card and follow up with a request to speak further later.

“Ask those individuals if you can contact them with a quick question or two, then offer your business card,” Smart advises. “But before you do, try to establish a link that sets you apart, such as, ‘I appreciated your comments about Minneapolis.  I did an internship there.’ Then write that on your card.”

The task of asking someone you don’t know to be your mentor requires courage, but it’s worth the effort. Smart recalls an experience from his college days, when he was one of only three students — out of hundreds of attendees — who went up to talk to a nationally known PR executive following his campus keynote. Smart ended up receiving an internship offer from the executive.

Dealing with the distance

Long-distance mentorships offer some unique opportunities and benefits — and also some challenges. They present a broader field of individuals who can share their expertise and experiences, and location and work schedule aren’t barriers when conversing online. 

In addition, working with a mentor who is somewhat removed from your situation can provide valuable objectivity.
“One of the major benefits of mentoring is that both parties have a clean slate — no baggage,” says Barbara J. Whitman, president of BJW Public Relations and a long-time mentor. “You can speak freely to a mentor, and each conversation provides an opportunity to bounce ideas off someone, discuss opportunities and talk over challenges you are having in the workplace.”

On the other hand, one of the primary reasons people often turn to mentors is to get help navigating corporate culture. And, Whitman notes, particularly in a virtual mentoring relationship, the mentor may not understand your culture.

So that same objective distance could also act as a stumbling block. “As a mentee, you have to learn to build on, not replicate, your mentor’s strengths and advice,” Whitman says. “You won’t apply everything their way; you’ll apply it your way.”

Above all, in a virtual mentoring relationship, be as clear and concise as possible and put thought into the information you communicate. This helps compensate for the absence of personal interaction.

Whitman offers the same advice to virtual mentors.

“Make your answers simple, so they are [easy to implement],” she says. “This is even more important in the social media space. Be honest and set your parameters — and if you have time limitations, let people know.”

Building a relationship the virtual way

Relationships between mentors and mentees can flourish online just as well as they can in person. To ensure their success, follow these important steps:

  • Stay in touch. One of the most common complaints that I hear from mentors (those in both face-to-face and virtual mentoring relationships) is that mentees don’t keep in touch to communicate the results of their mentoring efforts.

    For example, the mentee receives a promotion but doesn’t tell his or her mentor.

    To build long-distance and virtual mentoring relationships, you must touch base with each other. Since face-to-face interactions are limited, put forth the extra effort to update and share information.

    If your distance mentors don’t know you well, then they are less likely to hear about what you are doing through other channels. Remember that while mentors are lifelines for mentees, mentees are also lifelines back to mentors, reinforcing that their mentoring efforts have made a difference.

    “Stay in touch with your mentor, even if it is just two lines saying, ‘Hey, I updated my résumé based on your recommendations,’” Tateoka says. “Point out action steps you’ve taken based on your conversations. Keep the door open and follow up with a nice thank-you email. Let your mentor know you still care about the relationship.”
  • Be specific when thanking someone. One associate of mine, who is a longtime mentor, recalls the experience of how one mentee showed gratitude after the associate helped her with a publication.
    After the piece was produced, the mentee sent her a copy of the front page with a prominent handwritten note across the top: “To the world’s greatest mentor.”

    “Share with your mentor specific results you’ve obtained thanks to their efforts or coaching,” Smart says. “That’s incredibly rewarding for mentors, and the best way to let them know that you aren’t in the mentoring relationship just to see what you can get out of it.”
  • Exercise patience.  Even in the virtual world, it takes time to disseminate, read and act on information.

    Tateoka recalls times when PR students came to him and picked his brain for ideas. He then forwarded those requests to other people, whose mentoring led to jobs for those students.

    “It’s not just about the initial connection,” Tateoka says. “It’s about what happens after that.”

Need advice?

The College of Fellows can help. Please visit our website and complete a mentoring form. Members of the College of Fellows can become mentors and share their PR knowledge with PRSA members.

Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR

Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.

Email: susan_walton at


Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Great advice, Susan, and invaluable for anyone at any level. Being an mentor is a huge responsibility, in my opinion, as is being a mentee. You've really laid out the process very clearly.

July 13, 2011

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