Six months ago, I joined the SHIFT Communications team as an Account Director. In my role, I oversee a variety of B2B tech PR programs, providing strategic direction and managing an exceptional team of professionals. You might have called me a bit of an untraditional candidate when I interviewed, having spent many years in PR at a small, Catholic liberal arts and sciences college. Shifting from promoting academic programs, athletic team championships and campus construction to raising visibility for ad tech platforms, cloud software and mobile apps is a complete 180, right? Not as much as you’d think.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the course of my 17 year professional career – and worked to impart on those I have mentored – is that thinking critically and creatively, showing genuine curiosity, and prioritizing relationship building are THE most important skills to develop as a PR professional.
I began my career in agency tech PR in 1999 during the dotcom boom. I’d just received my undergraduate degree in English and had barely even heard of public relations, let alone data mining or caching. In the mid-to-late 90s, internships were not the norm, and certainly not a requirement. So, I had embarked on my career search with seven years of experience working at an ice cream shop in the summer and a work-study position at the Boston College library. But, I was armed with a liberal arts education that stressed diverse knowledge, open-mindedness, strong written and oral communications and purposeful decision-making.
The nature of the tech industry during the first years of my career was fast-paced – and, perhaps, a bit chaotic. But, this frenzied time allowed me to be both resilient and begin to understand how valuable these fundamental skills would be to me – skills to lean on for a lifetime. They served me well as I transitioned to the field of higher education…..and now back to tech again.
Critical and Creative Thinking
By definition, critical thinking is the ability to process a high volume of information, examine it objectively and develop sound conclusions. We do this every day, diving into our clients’ products and services, wrapping our heads around the intricacies of their technologies and finding that nugget of information that will be intriguing to a member of the media. That is where the creative layer comes in – turning that nugget into a compelling storyline.
In the college setting, I had the pleasure of working with members of the faculty regularly, promoting their scholarship. For example, diving into a faculty member’s on-going research on the immune function of the central nervous system (!) tested and honed my ability to take a complex subject matter, absorb the details, distill it down to digestible messages, and package up a story. In this instance, it was cutting-edge research happening at a tiny college that could result in real progress towards curing Alzheimer’s disease, coupled with the larger context of medical research in the academic setting and anecdotes from students on the research team. The results were national, brand defining coverage.
In our job as PR professionals, we need to ask a lot of questions, especially given the intricacies of our clients’ technologies. Good client service means demonstrating a real interest in digging into the details and developing sound, relevant questions to tease out the true value proposition. The best story ideas come from jumping on a call with an expert on the client side to discuss and brainstorm, volunteering to attend a client event or sitting in on a webinar. You need to be able to get out of your comfort zone a lot of times, but lean on that innate curious nature that you developed as a child!
It can be easy to get mired down in day-to-day tasks and forget the meaning of your job in the bigger picture. As a college administrator, I found this all too often, so I’d tap into my inner curiosity of what life was like on campus for a student. I’d volunteer to serve on planning committees with students, sit in on lectures to get a taste of their classroom experience, attend a student-planned cultural event at night. I even volunteered to coach the women’s tennis team. None of this was a job requirement, but what I learned resulted in some of my best story leads – leads I’d never have gotten sitting at my desk!
The secret sauce of media relations is developing real connections with other people – reporters, clients, peers and colleagues. This can get lost in the age of email, but it’s fundamental to what we do. For our clients, we’re an extension of their team, so a good rapport is key. Take the opportunity to get on the phone to talk through a project, as opposed to shooting off an email. If there’s a chance to meet in person, jump on it! Suggest a Skype here and there. That facetime goes a long way in making a real, lasting relationship. It’s more difficult with reporters who receive hundreds of emails each and every day, and are far less inclined to pick up the phone. The more tailored and relevant you can be with your pitches to them, the more you’ll be seen as a trusted, go-to source.
PR is a dynamic, fast-moving and rewarding field, no matter what the subject matter. Being back in the world of tech has been invigorating for me. When I embarked on my time in higher education, I could never have imagined how well it would have prepared me to return to my tech PR roots, but it’s those foundational skills that make all the difference.