Jeff Stanford is a 20-year veteran of the public relations profession. Today, he is the vice president of marketing at Orlando Science Center in Orlando, Fla. And he’s even been on a game show with Abe Vigoda.
“Any job worth doing is going to be hard.”
Talk about the importance of having a mentor.
Jeff’s major in college was creative writing and he believes it’s proven very valuable in his PR career. That said, he didn’t have any formal public relations training in school but did write for the university newspaper and magazines.
After college, he floundered a bit and one day at his retail job, he ran into a former high school teacher. Jeff shared his career aspirations (which didn’t entail PR at the time) and his teacher connected him with an industry professional. Jeff learned very early on the power of the informational interview and the concept of “paying it forward.” They can be very influential and providing that point-of-entry.
When trying to break into an industry, you have to be sincere and persistent. And Jeff can’t stress enough the value of following up with a handwritten thank-you note.
“To get a handwritten thank-you note now is a gift. And it will truly set you apart.”
Jeff believes people truly want to help each other and experienced professionals want to assist those at the beginning of their journey because they were once in that position. Everyone, to some extent, has had a mentor. And it’s a small gesture in the grand scheme of things to offer 15 minutes to an hour to pay it forward. But always remember to follow up with that personal thank-you.
Sometimes in an informational interview, the experienced professional tries to dissuade that person from pursuing their goal. This can have a big impact. Do you tell that person to push through? To take it with a grain of salt? To buy in? To seek a second and third opinion?
Jeff has been in the position to advise former interns that maybe PR isn’t for them, and their skills might be better apt for XYZ career. But at the end of the day, it’s just advice. Ultimately, that individual has to find out for themselves.
Jeff references the Mark Twain quote that said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” That speaks to gaining the experience to make up his/her mind.
“If someone is giving you advice and it’s the advice that you don’t want to hear, please take it, absorb it, respect it, but if you feel it’s something you’ve really got to try, find out for yourself.”
And there’s nothing wrong with giving it your best shot and coming up short, or discovering that that person was right.
“You only regret the things you haven’t done. … You know yourself better than anybody else does so I think you gotta give it a shot.”
In your experience, is it common for PR professionals to have come from various backgrounds and industries versus having studied the discipline in school?
Jeff has seen a real mix but especially those who got their start in the news business. He thinks it can prove valuable considering a large portion of PR is media relations. Understanding news values, what a good pitch and story looks and sounds like are very powerful tools.
The PR industry has exploded in recent years with social media and the ability to share your own stories via brand journalism. When Jeff began in PR, he and all the other PR practitioners were dependent on the media to tell their brands’ stories. There was no other recourse.
But today, coming into public relations from alternate avenues helps everyone because we all can bring our unique experience and skill sets to play. And if you can come at it with the passion and the drive, Jeff believes you can almost learn all there is to know about how to effectively perform public relations.
It’s not a dealbreaker if you didn’t study PR in college. You’ll learn more on the job no matter what you studied. Jeff thinks his creative writing background helped him tell better stories and paint better pictures when pitching media.
If you’re still in college, Jeff advises you to take a class in creative writing, public speaking and improv/drama. PR is about thinking on your feet and being comfortable on camera. Those classes can help.
How can news media best prepare for the transition into public relations? What are those skills that will translate?
The pace of news will prepare a journalist for a career in PR. Jeff doesn’t have to remind those in the news media that the pace is relentless: an on-call 24/7 business. But that intensity, as Jeff describes it, prepares them for the focus that is needed in PR. The way to think of it is the PR industry mirrors the news industry because public relations professionals have to hit the media when they’re ready to be hit.
Generally speaking, PR is not a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job. There are office hours, to be sure, but depending on the job there are evening and weekend events. And because the media works on a 24/7 schedule, if you want your client or media organization to secure media coverage, then you have to be willing to be available when the media is available. That could mean getting a call on a Sunday afternoon for a sound bite or an on-camera standup.
Jeff tells the story of doing several live shots as early as 5 a.m. on a weekday and wrangling staff to make it happen. The reporter expressed gratitude and explained that people would be surprised to know media opportunities have been turned down because they were so early in the morning.
“You’ve got to be able to be available when the media is available.”
Again, that mindset will help a reporter in the transition to PR.
Journalism also teaches you to be creative in a short amount of time.
Jeff iterates that most PR jobs are not as demanding as jobs in the news industry. The types of PR jobs run the gamet. But going from news to public relations isn’t “a cushy desk job.” PR jobs can be grueling and demanding but there are benefits as well. Those include more stability: organizations’ need for good public relations is ever-increasing. If you can write and speak effectively, there is a job for you. It’s an industry for “professional storytellers,” as Jeff likes to say, much like the news business is.
What are the common mistakes you have seen applicants make that aspiring PR pros should avoid?
Immediately, Jeff stresses the use of correct spelling.
“There is nothing that’s going to get you thrown in the sludge pile faster than something misspelled on your resume.”
And take the time to craft a personalized cover letter. Address it to the hiring manager and ensure that person’s name is spelled correctly. Jeff has seen letters that carelessly contained the name of another organization’s hiring manager.
“Because if you can’t show that you can pay attention to detail when you’re representing yourself how do I know you’re going to pay that attention to detail when you’re representing my organization.”
Also, show that you’re interested in working for the organization you’re applying to versus “I am interested in a job.”
“I am looking for someone who is going to make an investment in my cause and not be looking for the next best opportunity 18 months from now.”
Take the time to research the organization and do so in a way that demonstrates that. For example, ask questions about a recent accomplish, mention that you attended a recent event or recall a news article that spotlighted the organization. This shows that you’re actually interested and capable of doing your homework.
And Jeff says it again, a handwritten thank-you note can really set you apart.
Be ready for the interview. Have answers to the questions you’re most likely to be asked. Don’t try and “wing it.”
“Because if you can’t think on your feet in the job interview, how are you going to be able to think on your feet when you’ve got TV cameras in front of you.”
Additionally, it’s vital that you bring writing samples. The bulk of the job is writing, so why wouldn’t you bring examples of your best work. For those in college or recently graduated, don’t believe that your school writing doesn’t qualify. Anything that demonstrates you can write well is what hiring managers want to see. Essays, short stories, it doesn’t matter: those pieces show that you can write.
The writing samples should be hard copies. The majority of hiring managers today probably prefer the feel of news print so appeal to them. You can never be sure your iPad or tablet will work or that you won’t have issues connecting to Wi-Fi or your hotspot.
That goes double for your experience. No matter whether you have traditional PR job experience or not, your experiences in general count for something. Even a situation described from a retail or restaurant job can have value in a public relations job interview. Those jobs teach you how to be flexible, how to think on your feet, how to make people happy, etc.
“Don’t ever discount when you’re getting started that that barista job doesn’t have skills that will be applicable to your PR career.”
What key trait do you attribute your success to?
The one thing Jeff can always fall back on is that he’s a strong writer. And as social media, email and texting continues to change the way we communicate, he can still craft a compelling narrative while perhaps others can’t as well.
“A lot of people know what they want to say. They don’t know how to say it.”
Jeff has always been able to take someone else’s message and thoughts and make it concise and compelling.
A close second would be his comfortability to talk with anyone and to be on camera. Jeff gives a lot of credit to his middle and high school drama classes for his ability to be at ease in front of people. And to be comfortable on camera at a moment’s notice is another important skill for any public relations professional to have.
What excited you about working in public relations?
The fact that it is constantly changing.
“As frustrating as it is to be told ‘no’ by media or the public, I don’t think it’s ‘no’ as much as it is ‘try harder.’”
Jeff likes the challenge of asking one’s self, “What’s going to make them pay attention?” He goes back to the paradigm shift that’s occurred in the last five-to-six years of once being dependent on the media to tell your story and now having the ability to be “masters of our own destiny” by sharing that story through social media and brand journalism. It’s opened the door to a lot of creativity.
He cites being fortunate to work at place (a science center) that is “an endless fountain of ideas,” creatively speaking.
Describe what PR looks like for a non-profit.
Working for a non-profit, in general, you’re forced to do a lot on limited resources. The only way a non-profit can create substantial awareness in the marketplace is through public relations. It’s about determining what gets your message in front of the people that are going to pay attention to your message. This way, your dollars are being spent where they’re needed most and using PR to elevate that message.
People wear a lot of hats working for a non-profit. Depending on its size, the marketing director could also manage PR as well as oversee the volunteer department and so on. They are tough jobs and driven by passion.
But Jeff recommends all non-profits to invest in their public relations initiatives because if you can consistently and effectively get your message in front of those who can carry it to an even larger audience, you’ve got the best-kept secret in town.
Is there a book that you can recommend to aspiring public relations professionals?
This book is helpful to anyone who has to perform PR with limited resources.
“You can draw inspiration from almost anything.”
Speaking of, Jeff is a self-described “film nerd” and has a lot of books on screenwriting and finds that tips to help pitch your movie idea translates to how you pitch your news story to the media. Case in point, you have a short amount of time to get people excited, you have to paint a picture, tell a story, etc. So the lesson is that you can pull inspiration anywhere so always be open to opportunity.
“Some of my best ideas have come from being open to the possibilities.”
Just as you would cold call a journalist, make a pitch to an aspiring public relations professional and explain why PR is the career for him/her.
If you have a passion and a drive for storytelling with a purpose; if you feel you can help somebody communicate their message better than anyone else; if you are well-spoken, well-written, creative and know how to put a picture in people’s minds that can deliver the objective of your organization; then you owe it to yourself to take the next step. PR can be an immensely gratifying career. It allows you to be a creative in the professional world.
“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”
Know you have to be committed to it because it isn’t a clock-in-at-9-and-clock-out-at-5 type of gig. But the rewards are definitely fulfilling.
“Pick up the phone. Get on that email. Make it happen today; you’ll be better for it.”
And here’s the Saturday Night Live/Wayne’s World sketch referenced in the podcast: