Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started

Business Communications, Public Relations

Photo Courtesy of Plutor

To be fully transparent, since that’s still a favorite buzzword thanks to our FTC friends, this list could be much longer.  However, “The 77 Things Dave Didn’t Know” doesn’t have a great ring to it.  We all like lists and tips so here are a few things that could have helped me as I transitioned into the day-to-day world of communications and public relations.

1. Asking Questions is a Good Thing

I came into the working world with a misconception that asking question was somehow admitting defeat.  After all, I’d just graduated and felt like I’d accomplished a great deal in my time at school.  I had a hard time admitting that I didn’t know something.  What would everyone think?

Over the years, I’ve seen a strong pattern that those who ask questions, and listen closely to the answers, are often times the smartest ones in the room.

2. Business Background Buys Credibility

I’d done the econ and finance classes throughout college but really hadn’t thought of really spending time studying how the best business leaders achieved their goals.  Organizational management wasn’t a common crossover for communications students but I wish I would have thought of it.  Understanding operations and management styles are critical for communicators.

3. Confidence- Trust Yourself

*Caution on this one – it can easily go the wrong way if confidence moves to ego.  As long as you’re really putting in the work, be comfortable speaking up about your areas of responsibility.  It help others understand that you’re making the transition to a true pro and that you’re capable of providing immediate value to the organization.

4. Watch the Office Politics Closely

I had no idea how important this is when coming out of school.  It only takes one big miss to get off on the wrong foot with someone you’ll need as an ally down the road.  I don’t like power plays.  Those that use internal status to move their own agendas but I won’t pretend they don’t exist.  Watch closely and see where both friction and allegiances lie.  Think of it as high-stakes Survivor. You don’t want to quickly become tied to the person in the office that’s sinking or on their way out.  Take the time to watch and learn from the dynamics you see.

5. School Isn’t Over

Something changes every day in the communications industry.  Might be new technology or a new contact you should meet but there should never be a day when you don’t learn something new.  Literally, keep notes on who you met today that will help down the road or tag your calendar with an idea for tomorrow before you go home for the day.  Simple steps like this will keep you learning and keep you ahead of the pack.

This is in no way a comprehensive list.  As I said, I could add more on my own but what have others learning in the first years of a communications career?  What other tips do you have for the future of our industry?

25 thoughts on “Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started

  1. What a great post, Dave! You should definitely continue this list down the line.

    I especially like the “school isn’t over” point. I can completely relate to that. There isn’t a day where I’m not reading up on my lists of blogs and news sources. It’s essential with how quickly things change in the industry.

    As someone starting out my career, I cannot say enough about how networking has helped me. In fact, it’s something I wish I had started sooner. While it can be intimidating at first, getting out there and simply meeting and surrounding yourself with people you can learn from is so important – even if you’re not a young pro.

    Thanks for the insight!


    1. Katie- it’s great that you’ve identified the benefits of really becoming engaged in the community early. I believe that most pros are happy to help out someone that’s getting started in their career as we were all there at one point or another. I think experienced communicators also really enjoy meeting newer professionals that are putting in the work to better understand the industry. Thanks for your insight and comment.

  2. This is a great list, especially because so many of these things just can’t be learned in school. They come from experience (especially the office politics part).

    I’ll give a big AMEN to your second point. Business fundamentals are so key for successful PR and communications professionals, and I think it’s a skill set that most PR students lack coming out of college. The ability to understand concepts like operating margin and EBITDA are critical to understanding how businesses run. Tying those concepts to organizational and operational leadership is key, and communicators who can do that successfully will certainly earn more credibility.


    1. Thanks Amy- so much of what I really learned came from watching the styles of many around me and observing what works and what doesn’t work. I love that you can flag operating margin and EBITDA without missing a beat. ;) It definitely helps when you can speak the language your leadership understands.

  3. Dave, great post and one that applies to not only new folks, but seasoned vets as well. We can all afford to learn new “tricks”.

    We’ve discussed before, our shared interest in the business-side of communications, so I especially enjoy #2. It’s great that you have a sweet release you want to get out, but having a basic understanding of business principles will definitely get you a seat at “the table”.

    Keep it up.

    1. Glad you liked it Kasey- I do find it helpful to look for some of those new “tricks” and really be accountable on that continued learning. There’s so much out there to learn and just sitting down once a week or so to evaluate what I’ve picked up keeps me honest in terms of trying to grow professionally.

  4. Great read Dave, thanks! Especially important is #5, School isn’t over! Took me longer to figure this out, but its probably #1 on my list. Thanks for the insight!


    1. Frypan- thanks for the comment. It can be hard because our industry is just built that way. Perhaps in some careers there’s less shifting but I think communications/PR just moves too fast if you stand still.

      Colby- I hear you but yes, you’re totally stuck. On the up side, the “school” changes and at least the flow of tuition stops eventually. =)

  5. (Passing through…)

    Great list…ESPECIALLY #4. I’m going through that as we speak…watching closely the alliances that are formed and the game of office politics. The most important thing to do is to maintain integrity. I’ve vowed not to fall victim to the water cooler gossip or participate in someone’s manipulating power play scheme. People may not like me for it, but at least I’ll have my integrity!

    All of them are dead on, actually!

    1. Smart move on the gossip and schemes. You’ll be making a living on your name and reputation for a long time and your credibility is too valuable to trade for a short-term gain.


  6. Nice, Dave. I really like #5 too. As an overachiever — which I think a lot of us communications professionals are– it’s key that I’m able to learn something new every day. If I don’t, I feel as though I could’ve done a bit more or spent my time more wisely to keep the learning curve going.


    1. Ha, must be something to the overachiever trait in the industry. It’s a demanding role that doesn’t always bring glory, fame, or riches but there’s something special about helping move an organization forward through communications and connecting with people. Keep up the good work.

  7. Great post, I can especially relate to number 1 on the list. I hesitated to ask a lot of questions when I started my first job, but came to realize that racking the brains of others was really no different than doing any other kind of research. Experience is the best way to gain knowledge and, until you have a lot of your own, I think it’s important to ask questions from others who do.

    1. Betsy- It’s great to hear that you’re recognizing this early. As I said, I struggled with this early but it’s smart to ask and learn as that builds a genuine connection with people that can help you advance. It also helps ensure that you’ll get a project done well the first time through rather than have to learn from a frustrating and unsuccessful process.

      Jennifer- It’s too bad it operates that way in a lot of cases but if you can do a great job it is possible to rise above at least *some* of those politics.

  8. Thank you for this post, Dave! I enjoy your humor in the beginning – “However, “The 77 Things Dave Didn’t Know” doesn’t have a great ring to it.” – haha!

    I agree with you and Betsy, that asking questions is definitely a good thing. I was very fortunate to enter into the world of PR surrounded by amicable, helpful colleagues, so my willingness to ask for help carried over into my current job. I would rather do things right the first time than find out I did it wrong because I was too scared to ask!

    In regards to your 5th point – “School Isn’t Over” – how funny that you and I were thinking the exact same things at different times and with different reasons :) I was thinking the other day that in school, professors show you how to write releases and teach you about how the world of PR has evolved. In the real world, I’m finding out that reading blogs such as yours and articles from renowned media professionals is necessary to stay on top of this ever-changing industry. Instead of being handed a textbook, you have to go out there and decipher what you think is important, then compile that in your brain or on your computer somewhere. School is never over in the real world – the only difference is that your professors now come in the form of mentors, colleagues, and even yourself.

    I like the point you brought up, though, about how important it is to make note of those you’ve met. One thing I like about PR is that we professionals and those we interact with are always helping each other out in one way or another, directly or indirectly, so being able to remember those people along the way is a good idea :) Thank you for that!

    Again, great post, and I hope to read some more from you!


    1. Thanks for such kind words Cheryl- You’ve hit upon one of the very cool things I’ve found in the last few years thanks to improved technology. In the past, it was sometimes difficult or expensive to build strong networks to learn from beyond those physically in your city. However, advances in greater connectivity and social networking have given us so many ways to connect, discuss, and learn from each other. I’m glad this was a good start for us to chat and hope we can continue to share ideas as we both move forward in our own learning!

  9. The one that resonated the most for me was #1. New ACs and interns who start at SHIFT do best when they ask tons of questions. Fear of not knowing the answer is their biggest obstacle and can really torpedo their own success. But one caveat: don’t be afraid to suggest what you think the answer might be or to do some research (Google anyone?) to find out quickly. Looking smart and resourceful doesn’t hurt either.

    1. Thank goodness for Google. =) Excellent point and thank you for pointing out the importance of doing the work to think ideas through as well. Asking questions without thinking isn’t the answer but bringing forward ideas (even if they aren’t the ultimate solution) will be welcome in almost any case.

  10. Dave – I really related to needing to know business. I wish I would have taken more management/business classes in college because understanding operations/finance etc., I can already tell, would be very beneficial. Do you know of any good reads for a topic like this?

    You also nailed office politics… in order to get ahead, you have to learn why someone got the better project/or not, and not assume it was “just because”

    1. Absolutely Alecia- There are some great resources out there and I’m happy to help with sorting out what might be helpful for you. Drop me an email and let me know a bit about what you have or haven’t covered in your background.

      Much of my background in understanding the finance side came from reading some of those basics on my own and then finding a mentor or two that could then add to that core from their own history. I had both a CFO and CEO who were open to just sitting down with me and talking about my questions and their experiences. It was a great way to learn more and also build some great connections because I believe they understood that I was trying to become better at my job and help the organization.

  11. I’m a bit late on this post, but had to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m a student in public relations who is about to graduate, and all five of these tips, while most I’ve heard over and over in school, are great to read from someone other than my teachers.

    I especially enjoyed the fifth point you made. Much has changed even in the past two years I’ve been studying, so it was interesting to see how our teachers were learning right along with their students.

    Thank you for the advice!

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