Congratulations! You’ve just landed that first job as an in-house communicator. Whether you are just starting your career, or you are moving in-house from the agency side, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Some of these things apply to both of those categories, others just one.
For new professionals:
Read the news. Voraciously. Keep up with the developments in your industry. You can only take advantage of the news cycle, by being able to make real-time recommendations to your supervisors about ways to strategically position your organization.
Read a variety of things besides the news. Again, voraciously. Reading other items helps inform and strengthen your writing.
Write, and practice writing every chance you get. Also, edit. Even if you have an editing team, practice editing your own work before you send your copy off. It will help strengthen your writing going forward.
Network: It should go without saying that who you know can prove absolutely invaluable in your field. Get to know the journalists in your field. Get to know your counterparts at allied and at competing organizations. Get to know local elected officials – and their staff. Your Rolodex (or these days, your contacts database) is an invaluable part of your portfolio, and will aid you in your current work, as well as in landing future opportunities.
Be a human being, when dealing with the press (or with anyone really). If you’re pitching, be cognizant of the fact that journalists get many, many pitches a day. Being overly aggressive or pushy may land your otherwise newsworthy email into the Recycle Bin or otherwise get a phone pitch ignored. Be as helpful as possible, by providing the reporters who actually cover your beat (rather than just any and everybody in the newsroom) with your pitch, provide them tips if you know something big is coming down the pike (even if it is not directly related to your organization), be respectful of their time, and thank them for their coverage. You can cut through the clutter by being thoughtful.
Drive a human brand: Ok, so as a newbie, you may have minimal actual control over this one. But you should work on ways to make your organization’s brand more accessible to the public. Make recommendations that highlight the people behind your organization – whether that means imbuing your corporate voice with more personality, using social media to highlight the staff and leaders behind your organization, or engaging members of the public in branded online communities.
Get Trained: Take advantage of any training opportunities your supervisor may offer. Some seasoned practitioners eschew training, preferring the learning-by-doing method, especially given the pace of innovation in the field. There will be plenty of learning-by-doing opportunities, but it’s always helpful to have a grounding in the theory to go with the actual practice. It’s also helpful to network with classmates, and get different perspectives on the field than you would from your co-workers.
Adhere to your creative team’s internal deadlines: Creativity takes time.Adobe Photoshop, along with most graphic design software, can be time-consuming. Good writing and good ad concept development also take time. And a lot creative folks are perfectionists by nature. Give your creative folks the time they need, and they will produce the superior work they and you want from them.
Plus, in-house, your creative team may also be wearing multiple hats. Make a habit of getting them the specs they need for the brochure that’s needed ahead of time, so that when you can’t avoid getting them something late, they’ll be more willing to accommodate you.
Sleep. It’s impossible to produce your best work on no sleep. Further, a lack of sleep slows your mind, and therefore your the quality of your writing and your ideas down. Oh, there are no doubt many a high functioning, sleep-deprived communicator out there. I surprise myself frequently by how well I can write at 3:00am. But my best at 3:00am is not the same as my best at 9:00am with eight hours of sleep and a cup of coffee under my belt. Even given a crisis, sleep will get you the outcomes you need; sleep deprivation will not.
Keep healthy. Public relations work can be grueling work, especially depending on the pace of your media market. Keeping fit and active keeps your energy up – energy you’ll need the next time a group of reporters shows up outside your office.
For Professionals New to In-House Work:
Be prepared to do a bit of everything: To work as a generalist means that your day can vary greatly. One day you may be copy editing your in-house magazine, the next you may be ghostwriting remarks for a board member’s on-camera interview. If you thrive in the position, you quickly develop a working knowledge of many, many things, especially if you work for a small company or nonprofit.
Choose a few things to specialize in: After a while your resume may seem like the most impressive thing in the world. After all you’ve dabbled in graphic design, speechwriting, brand management, copy-editing, media buying, media pitching, social media marketing, and a dozen other similar phrases, not to mention the hundreds of software programs you’ve used out of necessity. But you, yourself, as a professional, are a brand, and you want to make sure that in addition to being a jack of all trades, future employers know which you are a master of. Think ahead towards your next job, and how you plan to position yourself. Focus your formal training opportunities, and take advantage of work projects, in those areas.
Accept the less regimented structure: This is one colleagues of mine who have long worked in larger agencies and then transition to either a very small agency or in-house work have a difficult time accepting. Your boss may not know the difference between direct marketing and brand awareness and have perhaps the vaguest notion of how to articulate exactly what he wants. There may be no difference between the “art department” and the “social media department.” And there may be a decided lack of highly structured internal processes. This is your new environment, and you need to decide quickly if it’s for you.
Take all of this as an opportunity. In some cases, you can bring some structure to the internal Communications operation that may be very much needed. Be careful to assess what will translate well and what won’t. this involves spending a bit of time getting to know the existing people, processes and culture before you begin to impose new rules. Culture change can be difficult; know the rules before you proceed.
Reinforce your value: In an agency, clients are coming to you, knowing your value (or at least your billable hour rate). In-house, some leaders know full well the value of communications – public relations and marketing – and some don’t. I’ve found leaders who don’t often manifest it in the following ways:
Outright dismissal of new communications proposals, especially those with a price tag: In these instances, it is critical that you communicate how your proposed initiative will translate to the bottom-line, whether in the short- or long-term.
Believing they can do it themselves: I’ve had bosses who believe that public relations is so simple that they would be doing it themselves if they only had the time. And when they have the time, they dabble in it, often with disastrous results. Ego plays a role here, and I have found it incredibly helpful to engage them in a long-term plan in which they are one of the public faces of the component. If I can make them look really good in an interview, and ad campaign, or the like once, and lay out a plan of similar opportunities for them, I’ve found that usually they stop wading into the mechanics of how the work gets done (likely randomly calling reporters themselves after you’ve left for the day).
Having unrealistic expectations: This is not the same as a supervisor pushing you harder than you think possible, in order to inspire improved performance. No, this is the leader wondering why your organization is not leading the news on CNN every day. It is important to have the conversation with them at the outset, about where your organization is in the minds of the public, what’s newsworthy, and what’s achievable, as soon as possible after you start. Then, lay out a plan for increased visibility over time and walk your supervisor through it. Constantly. And as your visibility starts to improve, constantly show them evidence.
Offer trainings especially if you’re short-staffed. Put your existing skills to work in the form of a short course or series of courses for your co-workers and / or leadership. Cross-training staff to do communications helps facilitate any organization-wide messaging program you need everybody’s buy-in to execute, reinforces the importance of your work and your authority in the eyes of others, and helps you sleep a bit more comfortably at night when you take that long overdue vacation that things are not falling apart in your absence.
After spending nearly a decade and a half doing communications work, I now work in government relations. However, I still dabble in communications work, as an active freelancer. I'm also a husband and proud father of two boys.