Career Realities in a Flash Mob World

Albert Walker Lecture
Northern Illinois University
November 9, 2011

Ron Culp
Professional Director, MA Program in PR and Advertising, DePaul University
Chair, Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

Career Realities in a Flash Mob World



I am honored to have been invited to deliver the annual Albert Walker Lecture during the year in which we celebrate Dr. Walker’s incredible life.  As you know, Dr. Walker died just five months ago at the age of 91.  I met him a few times, and I was always impressed with his singular mission to help his students be the best they could be by preparing them for successful careers in the real world.  His former students, several of whom are in the room this evening, have risen to the senior positions in major agencies and corporations.

Like Dr. Walker, I, too, joined academe after a career in media and public relations.  Fortunately for students and the profession, many other practitioners now are following his lead as they become academics–so many so that PhD. Candidate Moonhee Cho from the University of Florida, told me there’s a name for us–“pracademics.” Albert Walker arguably was one of the first and most influential pracademics.

So I know who I’m talking with, by a show of hands, how many of you are freshmen?  Sophomores?  Juniors?  Seniors and grad students?

Well, the freshmen and sophomores are the luckiest ones in the room tonight since the current job slump will run through the next election cycle–at least.  Some career categories are in worse shapes than others, but the good news is that communication-related job creation outpaces most other professions.  And unemployment for PR majors under age 24 is 6.1%–three percentage points better than the national average.

For the freshmen in the room, it’s not too early to start your job-search game plan.  And for the seniors who are just focusing on “what’s next,” it’s still not too late.  But time is a-wastin’.  Without relevant experience and a strategic job-search game plan, you might as well play Little Lotto.  Both have long odds of success in this economy.  Case in point:  Here’s the list of applicants for the latest entry-level public relations position in Ketchum’s Chicago office.  (667)

In fact, the number of applicants for anyone PR job in today’s economy, in some ways, reminds me of a popular PR tactic you’ve probably heard of:  flash mobs.  In recent years, large crowds of people have gathered seemingly spontaneously in public places to do everything from dance to cook to have a big pillow fight.  In case you’re wondering what that has to do with today’s job search, here are few things the two have in common:

  • Flash mobs use the Internet to scout locations and organize. “Flash mob job seekers” use the Internet to scout jobs and send out resumes.
  • Flash mobs show up in open spaces.  “Flash mob job seekers” show up for job openings.
  • Flash mobs include hundreds of people, making it hard to pick out any one person from the crowd.  “Flash mob job seekers” can include hundreds of people, making it hard for any one person to stand out from the crowd.

Going back to this list of 667 applicants for one job at Ketchum, a vast majority of these applicants were under- or over-qualified and were weeded out as quickly as a flash mob disperses. From this list, fewer than a dozen made it to the next round of consideration.

So how do you separate yourself from the “flash mob” of job seekers?

When I posed this question to NIU alum and panel member Rita Dragonette, she didn’t hesitate a second as she offered up three words:




She was so right that I added two more and decided to use that as the framework for my action-step recommendations for you this evening.  So let’s consider the five areas where I feel you can differentiate yourself from the 667 other resumes in this or any other stack.

1.  Build a compelling resume.

Let’s compare some of the candidates in the stack of resumes for that AAE job opening at Ketchum.  Only four applicants had three or more internships and related work or volunteer experience.  A majority carried no post-college work experience or internships, and several were from people with impressive legal and business backgrounds but no public relations experience.  So, who do you think got interviewed?  You’re right, only those whose resumes were clearly differentiated from others.  (Cite a few who made the cut and flaws in others).

2.  Become digitally savvy, not just comfortable with social media.

Unfortunately, many young people are surprisingly slow in adapting to rapidly changing demands for digitally savvy talent.  Too many applicants feel their surface knowledge of Facebook, Four Square and Twitter can get them through initial stages of employment consideration.  But employer expectations have ratcheted up dramatically in the last year. While growth of other communication jobs has remained flat, job boards like AdExchanger report that digital jobs have nearly doubled in the past 12 months.

I was a late adapter to social media, but I’m almost fanatical about it today.  I’ve watched as every major agency beginning with Edelman and Ogilvy put major stakes in the ground in order to grow their social media presence. And, as a result, they have been richly rewarded with both talent and clients.  Social media firms like ComBlu and Zocalo Group didn’t exist five years ago.  Today, they’re the growth engines of their parent companies.  Zocalo Group alone has added 25 employees and more than doubled its revenues in the past year.

As demand for everything digital escalates, we face a serious lack of ready talent.  Despite a 9% unemployment rate, 52% of U.S. companies report difficulty filling jobs.  This paradox occurs because employers are more picky about who they hire.  They view employees as major investments, and they don’t want to make a mistake.  Hence, the often long, drawn-out hiring process.

While some will argue the expectations are unreasonable, the ready-to-work talent gap is a very real issue.  Expectations of agencies and corporations have escalated to levels far above when Boomers and Gen Xers entered the job market.  This puts pressure both on graduates and the institutions from which they are matriculating.  Many colleges are not prepared to teach what is being demanded of employees today. . . and tomorrow.

Aware of this training gap, some agencies and companies are taking training into their own hands.  According to Manpower, the employee sourcing company, 28% of U.S. companies are increasing staff training and development in order to counter the lack of qualifications of many of their applicants and employees.  You can differentiate yourselves by seeking out every opportunity available in college that will provide as many skills as possible, especially in all things digital.  Such skills are a major door opener since they relieve employers of the need to spend unproductive time and money training you.  In agency settings where billability is the name of the game, training becomes an expensive cost-center that firms would prefer to avoid.

This is a major concern of business today.  The Wall Street Journal points out what you‘re facing in the “real world”:

“With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away without any training or ramp-up time.”

I used to think that was unreasonable, but in the current job market it’s the plain hard truth.  This even goes for interns.  I was pretty naive to all things business when I did my first internship; I learned from good supervisors and by making mistakes.  Today, interns must hit the ground running.  They need to be billable from Day One, and expectations often are too high.  And mistakes don’t lead to full-time positions.

Bottom line, come prepared or expect not to have your tenure at the firm extended.

3.  Build and Maintain Your Network… Now.

This is so obvious and everyone knows they need to do it, but few people do it well.  In the past week, I got emails and phone calls from three former colleagues.  When I receive such out-of-the-blue messages, I know they are looking for a job.  I asked one long-lost friend why he dropped off the face of the Earth when he got his last job five years ago.  He replied that he became too busy to stay in touch with anyone other than family, and he now has lost touch with most people in his outdated Rolodex.

Yes, I still call my Outlook Contacts list a Rolodex.

And don’t be annoying in building your network.  Don’t try to make it happen overnight.  Truly effective networks take years to develop.  They are built on having more than a superficial meeting and business card exchange.  Don’t forget to start close to home with neighbors, family and friends and systematically add a few new ones each month.  Keep them informed about what you are doing and your whereabouts.

My son who now works in politics started building his network in junior high school.  He got into Fenwick High School, a quality college prep school in Oak Park, with a little help from a major donor to the school whom his parents happened to know.  And my son never forgot that gesture.  Each year, he would send a note about his experiences (and his grades).  When it was time to apply to Marquette, the guy offered to write a letter of recommendation which probably carried a lot of klout since he was chairman of the board of Marquette.  My son continued writing those annual updates on his college experience–no requests for favors, just staying in touch.

4.  Consider Non-Traditional PR Jobs

Most recent PR graduates want to pursue jobs that sound like the most fun and only tap the right side of their brains, jobs that are event-driven and creative.  However, aspiring professionals can differentiate themselves from the pack by focusing on other areas of public relations, specifically employee and financial communications.  American business is facing a confidence crisis, both from within and outside corporate walls.  This spells significant opportunities for those who can help business communicate with its key stakeholders.

In this year’s Gruning Lecture at the PRSA International Conference, Dr. Bruce Berger of the University of Alabama addressed a subject that has been given only lip service for years—employee communications.  He calls employee communication the Rodney Dangerfield of PR, noting it ranks a distant third in priority behind shareholder communication and customer communication in the minds of management.

Dr. Berger is more pessimistic than I am about the future, but he correctly notes employee communication should be playing a bigger role in business today.  These sad facts underscore why corporate America needs help with its communications:

  • 63% of employees believe management lies (Council of Communication Management Study)
  • 56% of employees are not proud of their company leaders (Harvard Study)
  • Only 29% of employees are actively engaged in their work (Gallup Survey)
  • 21% of high potential employees are disengaged from their work, and 25% plan to leave their company (Corporate Executive Board Study)
  • 25% of employees have less trust in management in 2011 v. 2010, and only 14% believe their leaders are ethical and honest (Maritz Research in Employee Engagement)

Corporate management clearly needs help with its employee communications.  I don’t think any of us want to work in the world described by the authors of the new book  “Re-Engage” who say

“Many people today go to work at jobs they dislike, supervised by people who don’t care about them, and directed by senior leaders who are clueless about where to take the company.”

As future communicators, you can use communication to make change–change that allows work to become a good experience and a quality extension of one’s life.  Enlightened companies are taking note and investing in communications that reach all stakeholders, not just investors and customers.

While you consider the option of an employee communication career, you also will be very well served if you take electives in business.  For the freshman and sophomores here tonight, consider a minor in business.  Or if you really want to stand out, make business your major with a PR minor.  Learn how to solve problems facing organizations today and your career is golden.

5.  Present Yourself Well

The one-minute elevator speech is yesterday’s measure of first impressions.  Today you’ve got 30 seconds tops.  In that time, you must convince the interviewer that he or she is going to want to talk with you for more than a few minutes.

Of course, core skills such as writing and active listening are essential, but Bill Heyman, one of the top PR recruiters in the U.S., says he and his team seriously weigh the intangibles like looking people straight in the eye, a firm handshake, being well dressed and the “thank you” note.  These are all qualities that used to be taught and practiced at home and in colleges.

During my sophomore year in college–many, many years ago, I took a one-hour elective called “Social Orientation”.  Instructor Mary Alice Banks made me and my first-generation college peers aware of the importance of the intangibles mentioned by Bill Heyman.  Few of those courses remain in college curriculum, so if you’re uncertain about social situations scan through the “Emily Post’s Etiquette:  Manners for a New World.”

The little things do, indeed, count.  Over the past two weeks, I met with three groups of college students who were touring Chicago agencies.  Two groups came dressed in business attire, and one class showed up in jeans and college sweatshirts.  Even though most agencies are business casual, jaws dropped, and the not-to-be-mentioned casual college PR group missed the opportunity to impress even if this wasn’t a formal interview situation.  They certainly differentiated themselves, but not in a good way.

Let me close by quoting from George Anders’ new book, “The Rare Find.” Anders says employers today are focused on finding exceptional talent—

“game changers, impact players, men and women who are five times better than anyone else.”

I submit that by differentiating yourselves in the fairly simple areas just discussed, you will become the impact players that land jobs you will love.  You then will be able to experience what Al Golin said when he spoke at the inaugural lecture of this series seven years ago:

“Find a job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Before we move to the panel discussion and your questions, let me come back to that “flash mob” list of job applicants.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  Instead, let it become the motivation that helps you build your resumes, contacts, experiences and all-important networks.  The panel you’re about to meet is evidence of the fun and rewards you will enjoy when you differentiate yourselves from the mob.

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