Career Development Series: Turning Your Non-Traditional Skills Into PR Assets

There are many people working in PR who started out doing something completely different. And many people who may be looking for ways to bring their un-PR-like skills to the public relations industry.

In the second of our four-part career development series, we discuss how one can take those non-traditional skills and turn them into PR career gold. Even if you’re already working in PR but have a hidden talent that you’d like to put to use in your career, this could be helpful.

John Forberger is the group account manager at Oxford Communications in New Jersey. But, he graduated from Rutgers University’s film school. And in between leaving college and joining Oxford, he tried a movie-making career and worked in real estate in Miami.

According to Forberger, it all makes sense when you take a closer look at how his career progressed step-by-step. Though the video skills he learned in college didn’t turn him into an auteur in the traditional sense, they come in pretty handy at a time when video and digital are so prevalent.

And while he was working with residential and commercial developers in Miami, he served as a marketing coordinator, creating promotional materials, doing media outreach to local Florida publications, and doing other related work. When the bottom fell out of the real estate industry, he needed to do something more stable.

“I wanted to move into something more long-term, so I started a digital shop in New Jersey. I needed to change for economic reasons,” Forberger told us. He made pitches using video at his agency, but had otherwise limited experience working with a PR firm before he joined Oxford last January. However, he brought with him media outreach experience, a background producing clips for PR purposes, and he’d dabbled in other areas of public relations and social media.

“Applying all the digital tools I had in my back pocket combined with a traditional pitch has made a difference,” Forberger says. “Even with a non-traditional background, you have to find traditional touchpoints.”

Because PR dips into so many different areas and industries, there’s plenty of room for practitioners who come from various backgrounds. Those non-traditional skills provide a level of expertise that even those with a few years in PR may be lacking.

However, your resume should show job experience that has some connection to the PR work you’ll be expected to do in your new career. Luckily, there are so many useful skills in PR, making the connection could be relatively easy.

Josh Zeitz spent most of his career working in academia and politics. He has a PhD in history, and has taught at Harvard and Cambridge. He’s also served in different capacities for Jon Corzine, while he was a U.S. Congressman, Governor of New Jersey, and then while he was leading the now-bankrupt financial company MF Global.

In November, he joined MWW Group as SVP and deputy practice director for corporate reputation management. He’d never worked for a PR firm before.

“Every speech, press advisory, every set of talking points, they all translate to the kind of counsel we give our clients,” Zeitz tells us. “Academia is all about writing. When you put these two things together, it’s all what PR is about. I’ve been surprised by how well the skills translate.”

According to Zeitz, having an understanding of how the news cycle works, a sense for how to handle crisis situations, and “a good grasp” of social and digital media are necessary prerequisites for making the switch. Besides journalism and politics, he says polling and analytics are great places for a PR pro to get a start.

But you also have to be prepared for the things that you’re not accustomed to.

“It’s a completely different game when you’re in an agency setting and you’re working with multiple clients,” Zeitz adds. “In politics, I worked with one ‘client.’ Now there are different clients and different pieces of the firm where we all have to pitch in.”

Even when you’re basically moving from one area of PR to another — in-house to firm, for example — that can be a challenge.

Ashlee Tran is a digital account coordinator at Fenton, a firm that specializes in public interest and cause campaigns. Less than a year ago, she was working for the Packard Foundation, a nonprofit organization serving children and families. She worked on early education policy and advocacy as a communications associate. It all sounds similar, but there are some marked differences.

“It was a great training ground for working at an agency, where you don’t normally get to work on an issue unless you’ve worked on it for years,” says Tran. She says she gained a very “strong understanding of the capabilities of a nonprofit and working with a small staff” where you have to pitch in on different parts of a campaign from start to finish. Because she also lived in California, she got a lot of experience with the Spanish media.

Tran was also able to suss out the areas where she had no interest and others where she wanted to further develop her skills. She’s been better able to map out her career, an insight that oftentimes comes with a career that starts in one place and ends up someplace else completely.

Career Development Series: Turning Your PR Internship Into a Full-Time Job