The importance of networking is stressed so highly amongst those studying PR, but how does a student network? The MCSA team were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Elaine Koller, Chief Executive of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand, better known as PRINZ. Elaine is an experienced senior communications practitioner who has the know-how and insight into how students aiming to work within the communications industry should approach ‘networking.’
Firstly, who is PRINZ?
The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand is an industry body for people working in Public Relations and Communications. Its purpose is to advance the industry and promote the professionalism of its members. We run networking events, annual conferences, and awards as well as short courses. Once you have finished your studies, it does not mean that you keep developing your skills - we encourage everyone to keep learning. Things are changing all the time, so you need to keep up with what is going on.
What does networking mean to you and how would you define it?
It's basically about building connections. The word ‘networking’ sends cold shivers down my spine, the thought of going into an event and then feeling like you have to hit up everyone in the room is not my thing, but that is only one idea of networking. It is about building connections, and you should even worry about differentiating between personal and professional connections. Ultimately, all your relationships will help you grow and benefit as a person. Do not limit yourself to only talking about work-related things, find something of mutual interest with someone, and just enjoy talking to them about it. That's networking.
What do you think is the importance of networking within the PR profession?
It is important in this profession, but probably just as relevant no matter what profession you are in! Public Relations is about building relationships. I think it is worthwhile going beyond your comfort zone and building relationships with a variety of people - people who will think differently to you, people who will challenge your thinking. Yes, sometimes it is good to have relationships with people who agree with your thinking, but you need to always be thinking about situations from a 360 perspective. You need to understand what others think, you may not have considered all the options. You need to put yourself in someone else's position, do not presume things, ask them. Building relationships is key to this.
What events would you recommend for students to attend who are looking at entering the Public Relations profession?
You are lucky that you live in the Waikato with an amazing PRINZ committee that put on great events. Obviously, now with the lockdown, events have moved to a virtual environment, but hopefully, in a couple of months we will be back to normal. So go along to the PRINZ events! There is usually a price for PRINZ members, a student price, and a non-member price so you can also bring a friend. Often the topics are quite broad, so you don't need to bring someone who is studying PR. The events are generally well attended by people who work in many different roles - people who work in-house in organisations, work in PR agencies, self-employed people… You may have preconceptions of what areas you think you might be interested in working in, but once you start talking to people, you might discover there are all sorts of other things that you would like to do too.
As a student, it can be hard to reach out to professionals to build those relationships. How do you recommend students can form those initial connections?
Not everybody fits the stereotypical PR person who is ‘always out and will chat with everyone’. It is natural to feel a little bit awkward about it, but if you are being yourself then that is fine. There are things you can do to build confidence. It is alright for you not to be an expert or feel comfortable but feel comfortable in being uncomfortable. And remember that everybody is concerned about themselves, they are not judging you so if you walk in and try, someone will appreciate that. If you are going to an event and you know and you won't know anyone there, then you can always contact the organisers and say “Hey, I am coming along, I am a bit nervous as I don't know anyone here, can you introduce me to someone?” The people organising the event will generally know everyone, and they will know who they can introduce you to.
Go with some questions prepared. They do not need to be even work-related, just things that might start a conversation. People are usually quite happy talking about themselves and what they do.
What would be the best way to follow up after the first contact has been made?
When you make contact with someone, check if they would be comfortable with you contacting them later. Then flick them an email or call them. It’s probably going to vary with everyone. Some people get hundreds of emails, so your email might be lost. Some people hate being called; they would rather get a text message. So ask people, “Are you okay if I contact you again about this? Perhaps in the future, would you have time for a coffee? I’m keen to hear more about this.” And ask them how they’d like to be contacted.
I’d recommend students just explore the industry and get an understanding of what's happening, and what different people do. Understand the different types of work environments. I often hear students say, “I don’t want to work for an agency because they work hard.” But there are all sorts of different agencies that all do different things! No one agency is the same. If you are working in house, there is a huge variation between the type of environment you may be working in from a not-for-profit or a large corporate, or the public sector. The roles are going to be different, just ask lots of questions.
What skills should students work on to help them network?
Think about the things that make you different, the things that you like, the things that make you interesting. If I went along to an event and we only talk about work-related things, I would probably be a bit bored. I like it when people talk about the things that they are passionate about. Whether it’s a social issue, things you do in your spare time, somewhere interesting you’ve have been, or something cool that you are doing. Don't limit networking to a professional environment, think about enjoying your life and doing cool things because you will bring everything into your work.
Do Public Relations professionals enjoy engaging with students?
I think so! But I do remember one event where a speaker was surrounded by 15 or so students after speaking for another hour. That person was probably really tired, so make sure you keep it appropriate. Everybody who is already working in the industry understands the students of today are the future PR professionals. They are going to be employing them, they are going to be managing them. We understand that each new person in the industry is going to bring a different perspective to the table, so yeah, we are always interested in what you know, what you think, what you are learning. And we want to know what you want from us.
What is your opinion on mentorships?
They are very valuable. Although I did read an article also saying that you shouldn't just have one mentor, but multiple mentors that you can go to for different things. I quite like that idea. Usually, people go into a mentoring relationship because there is something specific, they want to support with or there is an area that they want to develop. A good mentor should be able to put your issues into context, listen to your ideas and act as a sounding board for you. Most people have their own thoughts about how to approach a situation and having a mentor that can help them articulate their ideas or perhaps save them some embarrassment by saying “in my experience that might not work, or this might be a better approach.” Find people that work for you.
Can students get involved with PRINZ? What is a PRINZ Student Membership?
Absolutely! Student memberships for the year started again on the 1st of April and we would like as many students to be members if possible. We appreciate that this is a tough time for students now so have reduced the cost of student membership from $40 to $10 for the year! Hopefully that might help people decide to become PRINZ members and obviously, when things get back to normal, they can come along to events and things. In the meantime, we are running lots of webinars, and have plenty of resources online. So, get the most out of your membership!
Thanks Elaine for the catch-up and advice! To join PRINZ and access another network of PR professionals, head to their website at https://www.prinz.org.nz/