Careers in International Affairs

On September 16, 2014, in DCView, by Focus Washington

In the book “Careers in International Affairs” published by Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Qorvis MSLGROUP’s Rebecca Bouchebel-MacMillan wrote about a career in Public Relations in the world of international affairs. The award-winning career book is the ultimate job hunting guide for anyone hoping to work in the US government, international organizations, business, or nonprofits.

Editors: Laura E. Cressey, Barrett J. Helmer, and Jennifer E. Steffensen.

By Rebecca Bou Chebel- MacMillan

When Tiger Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant at 2.25 am outside his Florida home he could not have anticipated the consequences – within days his life would be turned upside down and his public image damaged, possibly forever. By the time his managers came up with a strategy it was too late: a sporting icon and international household name had become damaged goods.

A good public relations campaign could have spared him the worst of the media onslaught but his team was too slow to act – they lost the golden hour and damage control became impossible.

The international free flow of information, globalization and the speed at which news is being disseminated via social media have made the fields of PR and Marketing imperative for any government or corporation.

From world-leading nations to small islands, global corporations to local businesses, all are finding themselves exposed and vulnerable to the speed of communication and the power of unchecked narratives channeled through the web. Today more than ever, they are vulnerable to crisis, as they are constantly put under the microscope. It is within this new media world order that the need for constant “engagement” and “relationship building” has become the bread and butter of PR and Marketing professionals.

This article will discuss the various career paths that newcomers to the global hiring market can pursue in Marketing and PR, viewed from a perspective of International Relations; from independent careers with PR agencies and firms to corporate in-house jobs. It will share some insights about the best ways to get those jobs, the specific personality types and lifestyle consideration young professionals must consider, as well as the necessary skill sets required to succeed. A forward outlook for this sector highlighting the current events that have helped shape this viewpoint will conclude this analysis.

Today, Marketing and PR jobs are no longer restricted to Madison Avenue and K Street. Given the massive expansion in global communication with the Internet, and the rise of social media in recent years, those two fields became an integral part of international organizations and governments. Job descriptions and concentrations abound depending on level and years of experience. They vary from entry-level associates to mid-career managers and directors to senior level positions as high as managing director or partner in a firm.

The typical route for a young professional seeking a job in Marketing or PR is with an agency servicing a range of clients. When IR is your niche, a PR firm that specializes in crisis communications, public affairs and reputation management for sovereign nations such as the US government or government contractors such as Halliburton or Boeing for example, could be the right fit for you. You would most likely start with a basic news analyst position handling press clippings and media analysis, or an entry level speech writer post drafting blog entries and press releases. You could also start as a social media associate monitoring target sites, placing content and advising on best strategies for the client’s SM issues. Individuals with more experience are hired to manage clients’ accounts with lower to mid-level positions and a broader scope of work than entry-level associates. The job may include servicing federal clients and government contractors, drafting proposals, leading small teams, providing strategies as well as daily contact with your counterpart at the client’s offices. In specific accounts, you will be expected to navigate the US Congress or service high-level foreign government representatives seeking advice on how to mitigate bad press or how to best promote policies.

From another perspective, the global financial turmoil of 2008 has seen the downfall of previously well-regarded companies. Governments also fell in the fallout. All had sought the services of PR experts to help mitigate their crises and provide strategic support. From Wall Street, to Dubai, clients called on Marketing and PR firms to fight the trouble, doubling their budgets and their need for assistance. Therefore if your forte is finance and you are in the IR field, you can easily marry those two by including your knowledge of international affairs and politics with your financial expertise to effectively communicate with the world on behalf of your client as a finance communication consultant. And, if media relations are of interest to you, then focus on press outreach and interview pitching while building solid relations with journalists for your client. It is not uncommon for former journalists switching to consulting to give media training to clients and coach them on public speaking. You could be part of that unit.

All the above-mentioned positions are employable “in-house” within an organization’s communications’ department, working to secure solid PR and marketing processes to protect their stakeholders’ best interests and ensuring mutually beneficial relationships internally and externally.

The most coveted and trendy in-house jobs are with companies such as Google or Facebook. They are also highly specialized, technical and competitive, considered niche communication and PR consulting positions. The United Nations and International NGOs, depending on funding and size of programs, also recruit public affairs and communications consultants at various levels with job descriptions similar to those found in the independent firms but the scope is limited and contracts are usually shorter term, based on specific assignments.

Having discussed positions, the pertinent question is: how do you get them?

PR and Marketing jobs are posted online daily from LinkedIn to Career Builder to more targeted sites such as PR News and PRSA or via private headhunters and the career section on corporate sites. The most straightforward way is to go through these sites and submit your resume.

We have all spent hours crafting our bios and retouching our resumes to match the exact requirements of each vacancy and from my experience, those hours were lost and carried minimal results. They may be helpful sometimes for entry-level positions but harder as you gain more experience. For new entrants, another way would be to intern and based on your performance you may get noticed by the employer who then offers you a permanent job.

But what I found most effective is the power of personal and direct contact with a potential employer or a decision maker at the organization where you want to work. Key to success is strategizing your move and positioning yourself to get noticed and by noticed I don’t mean wear bright clothes or be pushy, but actually impress your audience with a subtle approach, confidence – not arrogance – and commitment. That should shine through. Also, network with crowds that allow you to connect with people in high places and by that I don’t mean go to every networking event armed with your 60-second pitch and your best suit. You can do that of course but it would be more useful to select your venues, ask your professors or professional friends how to craft your resume — because it has to catch the eye of the reader who is often too busy to go through something generic or dull. You want to market yourself correctly for the job you want; stay relevant. Ask who to send your resume to and how to secure one-on- one meetings. The rest is up to you to make a solid connection. If the people you meet with are impressed by your personality and your work, they will remember you, not your resume. Often times, without you knowing, these same people will refer you for a job or better position elsewhere. The key is not to expect immediate results, but stay discreetly in touch, keep them informed of your accomplishments; you never know when you will need them or when they will come through for you.

In my 12-year career in PR, from working in war-torn Baghdad to Qatari royalty and DC politics, I never once got a job from a resume posted online. I got them all, via personal connections I made along the way where strong referrals led to successful interviews. Then a job well done with high performance was noticed, leading clients or firms to contact me directly and ask me to work for them. This has been the case for my most rewarding, well paid and career-boosting moves.

Know your goal and aim for it. But first sharpen your skills, keep on learning and refine your search to what you really want to do. Always make sure the right people are watching and excel; you will maximize your chances to be called upon for special jobs and better positions.

The PR and Marketing world is fast paced, intense and unforgiving at times. You are paid to manage the reputation and the perception that the world has of your client, often operating behind the scenes, while managing your clients’ character quirks and demands. How a news headline reads is often tied directly to what you say or advise your client to say and do. If it is positive, the client is the hero of the day, if it is negative it is your mistake. With this comes responsibility and pressure not made for the faint hearted. This is not your 9 to 5, five days a week gig. You are on call, suitcase packed to go wherever you are needed and expected to arrive fully briefed, ready to deliver. It can be taxing both physically and mentally. You have to love and be fully convinced of what you are doing or else you will struggle. Life work balance may seem hard at times but if you manage your time and expectations well, you will be able to enjoy both. This gets harder if you have a family, especially for women. That’s why it is important for some of us ladies to expect and accept slowing the pace at times, reassess our priorities and be prepared to get back in the grind, full throttle, when ready.

Creativity, patience, courage, speed, and assertiveness are some of the most important character traits needed to succeed in this business. Creativity to masterfully navigate the various personalities and crises you deal with on day-to-day basis, patience to see your clients’ frustrations, sense the urgency of their needs without flinching so you don’t lose sight of the solution you are asked to provide. You also need courage to embrace your clients’ cause and constantly venture outside your comfort zone. And you need stamina to keep up with a global 24-hour news cycle where problems never sleep. That’s when you have to be quick on your feet, fast to come up with solution, provide answers and communicate them often all at once. Most times your deadline is yesterday. As for assertiveness, and this can be a cut-throat industry, if you are not bold enough to take the bull by the horns and tackle the problems with confidence while continuously showing initiative, you will sink.

Every job is different, but across the board the most important skills needed are: stellar analytical thinking, solid writing skills and the ability to communicate powerfully – to listen and be heard.

Analytical thinking is paramount because you are expected to have in-depth understanding and be able to advise on any issue, international news or events affecting your client. Writing skills are crucial to craft artful strategic messaging and content that might end up on the front page of the New York Times. And finally, you should aim to communicate powerfully because your job is mostly to connect with audiences, to convincingly sell words and narratives while remaining approachable. When hiring, employers look for those skills, for years of experience, areas of expertise and degrees that vary from international affairs and communications to economic and financial studies. Language skills and international experience are always a big plus. You are more likely to thrive in Shanghai if you speak Chinese and understand the culture, or succeed in Latin America if your Spanish is up to scratch.

But as long as the information sphere keeps shrinking, wars, financial crises, scandals and human interest stories continue to unfold on Twitter and Facebook, and amateurish, unedited videos of anything and everything go viral on YouTube, the outlook for the communication industry is looking good for decades to come. With sector growth and technological advances come new types of job and with those new jobs, various opportunities arise continuously.
Governments and corporations are appreciating more and more the importance of PR and Marketing while constantly placing their public image and reputation in the hands of those consultants. One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

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