Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Persistence, Chance, and Luck Can Make a Career in Public Relations


“You shouldn’t have started your consulting practice so early in your career,” said one public relations professional while interviewing me for a job. 

“We couldn’t figure out your professional narrative,” proclaimed another practitioner, who was chair of a committee considering my application for membership in a public relations honorary organization. 

These comments stung. Yet once I put aside my bruised feelings, I could discern the underlying issue: my career had evolved in a non-traditional fashion that to some defied logic if not common sense. 

I never intended to work in public relations. Even after I landed my first job at a public relations agency, my path was anything but straight and narrow. I ended up where I am today through persistence, chance, and luck, not as the result of a detailed plan executed over time.

I originally intended to become a history professor. After earning my BA, I moved to Northern California to attend Stanford University’s PhD program in Modern European History.

I left school after earning a master’s degree, realizing that I was ill-suited for work as a professional historian. I turned my energies towards finding a full-time job.

A non-profit organization hired me as a Fundraising Assistant. I never raised funds, although I assumed other responsibilities. 

My roommate at the time talked about Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership.  It sounded like something I would enjoy. I checked out a local club. I liked it. I joined. Little did I realize that I had stumbled onto something that would transform my career.

I threw myself into Toastmasters. It turned out to be a place where I could channel energies that I had not yet had the opportunity to apply in my job. I prepared and delivered a lot of speeches. I assumed volunteer leadership positions throughout the organization. 

I began to promote the benefits of Toastmasters. I devoured its materials on publicity and applied what I learned; still, I felt more could be done. I turned to local community newspapers (the Internet wasn’t available yet). I started to learn as much as I could about them. I noted types of news they covered, and how I should submit information.  I had no one to teach me. I learned by doing. 

My efforts yielded many stories about Toastmasters clubs in local media. My fellow members were impressed. 

Meanwhile, I had concluded that I needed to leave my non-profit job. I hoped to apply my new media relations skills in a new job. A member of my Toastmasters club, who worked at a public relations agency, knew about my interests.  He invited me to come in for an informational interview. I did. Two months later, the agency offered me a job. I soon discovered I was the only person at the agency who didn’t have an undergraduate degree in either public relations or journalism. 

I started as a junior account executive, and in that role I pitched countless stories to reporters.  I did reasonably well in this work. What I understood less well was writing. I had no clue how to write using an inverted pyramid structure. I learned quickly, by writing countless drafts of press releases, pitch letters, and other documents. 

I look back fondly on this agency experience as I forged many relationships I’ve maintained over the years. Yet that agency’s harried pace and relentless pressure to perform wore me down. I looked for a public relations position inside an organization, and soon found one. 

After a year and a half in that position, I thought: “I can do this on my own. I don’t need anyone to direct me. I can be my own boss.” Voila, Mitchell Friedman Communications was born. It was 1992, when few public relations professionals were independent consultants. 

I didn’t have a business plan. I simply reached out to former agency colleagues. Several hired me to help with their media relations efforts. 

Soon, my Toastmasters experience beckoned me to expand my services. I realized I wanted to speak, train, and teach. I reached out to my former agency colleagues, who hired me to lead training programs. They also referred me to others. 

I craved opportunities to build longer-term relationships with individuals who sought professional development, above and beyond short-term training programs. Teaching seemed to hold some promise. Again, chance provided an opportunity. As a board member of a local public relations group, I got to know the academic coordinator at a school that offered master’s degrees in public relations. During one conversation she commented that “we’re always looking for people to teach.” I responded immediately: “I’ve always wanted to teach.” Five months later, in January 1998, I was teaching a new course about public relations on the Internet.

That teaching opportunity led to others at universities located throughout the U.S. and included the public relations campaigns course I continue to teach today. Still, as a part-time instructor, there didn’t appear to be a long-term career path for me at any university.  

I decided to return to school to earn a doctorate to increase my chances of landing a full-time teaching position. I studied organizational behavior and leadership, which I felt nicely complimented my public relations experience. After graduating in 2011, I worked in administrative roles at local universities while continuing to teach courses on public relations campaigns, crisis management, leadership, and other topics. 

In late 2016, I started a new part-time teaching position. It was unlike others as there was a legitimate path to a full-time role. I worked hard to get it.  In 2018 I landed that full-time teaching position—20 years after my first university teaching position.  

As I teach, consult, and coach clients today, I can share the details of my path with a confidence I had long felt was beyond my grasp. Indeed, there is no one, right career trajectory in the public relations field. I’m living proof of that.

(This piece was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Public Relations Strategies and Tactics, a publication for members of the Public Relations Society of America)

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