Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to scan hundreds, probably thousands, of cover letters and resumes. I got even broader exposure to letters and resumes when I handled the Job Placement Service for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Public Relations Society for a number of years while vice president for university relations at Carnegie Mellon University.
During that time I gave a speech called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Relations Job Applicants” to the Pittsburgh chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. Because nothing has changed among PR job seekers from what I have seen, I thought I’d reprise the speech. Here it is:
In my many years evaluating cover letters and resumes I have seen some good, more bad and a lotta ugly.
More than anything else, I’ve discovered there are a lot of people out there who have great interpersonal skills and an even greater love of people. They are highly motivated, have a great work ethic and they enjoy a challenge. They can think on their feet. They are creative, and more than that, they are team players. They have solid organizational skills and, perhaps most important of all, they have superb communications abilities.
Their present positions have prepared them for a productive career in public relations. They work in car dealerships. They are waiters and waitresses. They are in real estate sales. They work in funeral homes doing public relations with the dead and the living, presumably. They are lawyers, for goodness sakes.
Someone in my position might get the impression that everyone wants to work in PR. Someone might also wonder why. People who have these coveted jobs complain about the pay. They complain about the management that does not understand PR. They never have the budget to do what they want to do. They don’t get respect from their management, the public or the press.
After a few years in the PR business, most of my friends want to be forest rangers.
But I don’t want to talk about employment in the National Park Service. That’s a seminar I’m attending next week. I’ve come armed with my “Seven Deadly Sin of Public Relations Job Applicants,” a collection of opinions and perceptions I’ve developed over many years of reading letters and resumes and conducting job interviews. Please don’t write any of this down and hold me to it. You might jeopardize that forest ranger job I want.
Deadly Sin Number 1. Failure to identify useful skills. Flexibility, interpersonal skills, a love of people, the ability to get along with them, the fact that you make a good appearance. These are not useful skills. These are qualities of nice human beings. I believe most of my colleagues are looking for people who have demonstrated an ability, not simply claimed to have it. When they receive 200 resumes for every open position they can afford to be picky. Most PR people are picky about this point.
Deadly Sin Number 2. Failure to accurately portray qualifications and background. Just ask yourself. What if you really pull off this charade? What if you get the job? What happens when you are called on to perform a duty or complete a project for which you have no experience, despite your claims? An internship is a valuable introduction to public relations life, but it probably did not prepare you to handle that $1 million grocery store account for Burson Marsteller. It did not make you a skilled or multi-dimensional writer. You’ve probably still got a lot to learn, even after those two or three internships. Be honest about that.
Deadly Sin Number 3. Failure to do homework. Many PR applicants pursue a job in an organization they know little or nothing about. Do some homework. Make some calls. Check the literature. And for goodness sake, get the facts on the individual you’re dealing with when you seek a job. I’ve had some personal experience with this. Job applicants have called me Dan Hale, Dan Hole and (only in Pittsburgh) Dawn (D-A-W-N) Hale. And forget about getting my title correct. All this leaves me with a first impression of the applicant. And it ain’t good.
Deadly Sin Number 4. Failure to write for the receiver. Now here is a useful skill. The ability to deliver messages that communicate with the receiver. Hard thing to do. It means before we start writing we must take the time to think about who will read our material and in what context. How do we select from all the things we could say, those things that will resonate with the reader? Many PR applicants are writing letters and resumes without taking this important first step. They are writing for themselves, not the receivers of this information.
Deadly Sin Number 5. Failure to write clearly or well, edit or proofread. Writing is a fundamental public relations skill. The good news for some of you job applicants is that many applicants for PR jobs simply don’t have it. And as crumby as most of the writing in cover letters is, the apparent lack of editing or proofreading makes it worse. Misspelled words and typos are credibility killers. You have nowhere to go after you’ve butchered a sentence, phrase or word in your letter or resume. I’ve probably seen them all, including the letter from a young man who “desparately” wanted a job in “pubic” relations, which I guess is nice work if you can get. I just didn’t have anything available in that field. And don’t make the mistake of relying on that silly computer spell checker. It might detect that misspelling of desperately, but it likely won’t catch pubic.
Deadly Sin Number 6. Failure to get to the point. Seems like a lotta folks have committed this sin. They can’t help themselves. Let’s think back to that basic journalism course, the inverted pyramid, all that stuff. Put the most important information up front. In your cover letter. In your resume. It is unlikely that the most important in your cover letter is that you have great people skills, a creative flair and a strong work ethic. On your resume it isn’t your career objective and it isn’t where you got your college degree. Remember that everyone applying for the job you’re going after has both of those things.
Deadly Sin Number 7. Failure to be funny. No, I am not advocating using humor in your cover letter or other communications. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting using humor sparingly. I have to say I have gotten some good laughs out of some of the letters and resumes I have received. But I was laughing at the applicant, not with him or her. The guy who sent me a packet of Sanka instant coffee so I could relax over a cup while reviewing his resume. The guy who compared PR to riding a bicycle. Once you’ve mastered the art, he said, you never forget it. Another who enclosed a dollar bill to demonstrate an interest in university revenues and personal compensation. If you try to be funny, you’d better be funny.
Here’s a final word of caution to all of you resume writers out there. As you pursue a PR job, think more, write less. If you are one of those who is sending hundreds of resumes to various organizations around the country in the hope that someone will make your dream come true, stop it. Your letter and resume are just two tools to use in finding that job. You need to do your homework, target your opportunities, network and develop personal contacts. Get out of the direct mail business and into the public relations business, where (we’ve all been taught) personal contact works best.