May 23, 2012

My first interview as a "PR Pro," by Ray Eskritt

I met Hannah Pratt at my first CPRS meeting as a fellow Student Liaison. She is putting the finishing touches on her education at Red River College, specializing in Communications.  Currently Hannah is the Communications Coordinator for The Winnipeg Humane Society.

 Her typical week consists of handling media inquiries, writing news and press releases, updating online content and designing printed content. Her main priority is maintaining the social media accounts for The Winnipeg Humane Society, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the comment boards on the Society’s website. Website work can include posting updates, job listings and official announcements or content given to her from the Communications Director. When a comment appears online, it’s Hannah’s job to ensure that the proper contacts are made, and make certain that the individual’s concerns are addressed.

“I’m at the mercy of my technology. It’s such a big part of what I do.” Whether she is managing the web site, or posting on social media, Hannah spends about 98% of her working hours online. “I’m not an IT person, but I’m attached to my computer. I’ll have 10 windows open all the time. Twitter, Facebook, websites, email, design software, word processing, all open, all being used.”

While her creative vision online may be her main focus, Hannah is also responsible for designing brochures, handouts for events, outreach program materials, newsletters or anything else given to the public. “Designing my first few things was really rewarding,” she says. “Walking into a new role, you want to show that you are capable. And it’s so objective; it’s not like writing where there is an objectively good or bad. Design is all about taste. All you can do is pray that they share your vision.”

Design esthetics aside, Hannah says that writing is easily the most critical part of her job. “It’s hugely important. With social media, the writing is happy and positive. Press releases and media contacts require you to be much more of a serious professional. You need to be able to adapt to the audience, and understanding that is huge.”

To keep current in the industry, Hannah says that being a member of CPRS was integral. “It’s a huge opportunity for me. It’s not like social media. It’s real connections with real people, real professionals.”  She also says that maintaining her online brand is a substantial and worthwhile effort.  “The easiest thing to do to play your best game is to follow journalists on Twitter. You can get to know their personalities, and you can better tailor your content for them.”

Before she started working for The Winnipeg Humane Society, Hannah was her own boss, working freelance for 3 or 4 rotating clients. She explained that “when you have different clients and you are working on lots of projects, you would love to work on a single campaign all day because there is so much that you can do. But they only want to pay you for one project, so in the end, you can only give them what they pay for.” 

 There are also hardships when working freelance. “I’ve done campaigns that fell through because I didn’t get what I needed from the client. With an non-profit, I have access to everything I need to make the project a success.” Hannah praises working for non-profits over freelance work. “At a non-profit, you can take on more things if you want. You can take on more responsibility, and invest more of yourself.  You have the ability to follow through, instead of taking on quick projects with little contact.” It’s not all roses though, “it requires lots of multi-tasking, which can make the work suffer. You need a range of skills and languages. You need to be creative and flexible in so many different ways.”

She spoke about her preparations prior to entering the field. Her first degree was in communications, and was obtained through Canadian Mennonite University. She says that it wasn’t much help, because it was not instructed by industry professionals. But when she spoke about her program at Red River College, she made it clear that her education was invaluable. “They stress perfection and professionalism. You learn how to adapt, and mold yourself into the best possible candidate.” She learned how to conduct herself, whether meeting with a top CEO, or interacting with colleagues.

She said that in her second year at RRC, she changed her views on her own conduct. “My first year, I treated it like I was back at university. But by my second year, I realized that I needed to focus on my grades, and on how I was going to become employable.” She says that being a professional while still in school carries weight. “These are my colleagues and contacts, not just fellow students.” Hannah said that her professors also sat up and took notice of the change, and treated her accordingly. They were willing to recommend her, to put her in the right circles, and began to treat her as an equal. “Anyone can find out about you, everyone knows you. Even if it kills you, you have to treat your education as if you are already working.”

 In her second year, Hannah was also lucky enough to find assistance in the form of a mentor. “She’s amazing.  It’s priceless to have someone so smart telling you how it is in the real world.” And RRC certainly provides real world practice. “They help you build a portfolio, make you practice mock interviews with friendly and unfriendly reporters. The best decision I ever made was to stick it out and do it.”

Leaving school and entering the workforce hasn’t caught her off guard though.  She said that relationships are everything, and you have to be clever in your navigation, lest you be blindsided by an unexpected obstacle. “There’s a lot of politics in this field. Sometimes the very people you are working with have differing goals, and might prevent you from doing the best possible job.”  Due to laws, rules and regulations, sometimes the most effective strategy can be off-limits.

When it comes to rapidly changing systems, Hannah is old hat. She says that in a few short years social media “went from something that people scoff at, to a respected news source.” She says that where once printing and advertising where meat and potatoes, social media is rapidly overtaking traditional methods of communication. “It’s a huge part of organizations and how they present themselves. You need a Facebook to be legitimate. It’s a dramatic change in perception.”  But she warns to beware of the downfalls. “Everyone thinks that they can it, but using social media requires skill. You still need a communications person to do it. It’s a tool, but it’s not everything.”

Before returning to work, Hannah left me with a few pieces of advice.
1)    Network.
"Don’t knock down doors, but freelancing is a great way to start your career and build a portfolio to show potential clients. It’s also a foot in the door for bigger projects.
Find a mentor. Attend all the events you can. Make contacts, and ask for advice. Ensure that all your relationships are strong."

2)    Get Involved in an  Organization
Find an organization you like, and join. Find a mentor. Attend all the events you can. They are great place to learn and to use those networking skills.

3)    Make Non-Profits Your Starting Point
For your first job, try and start in a non-profit. Take any job you can find, everything goes on your resume and it all adds up.  At a non-profit you will use everything you learned in school, and you’ll be noticed because most teams have only 2 or 3 people. You’ll strengthen your skills, and if you want, you can head out into the corporate world as a jack of all trades!

4)    Measure Your Results
"Make sure that you measure everything project you do. It looks far more impressive on a resume to say that you improved web traffic by 38% in 6 months than to just say you increased web traffic."

5)    Internships are Opportunities- Take Them!
Intern as well as freelance. "They are great opportunities, and build great networks. You’ll meet all the local journalists, and learn about their quirks. It’s something I highly recommend." 

If you would like to contact Hannah, you can check out her blog at, or check her out on LinkedIn.

After speaking with Hannah Pratt, I’ve become even more certain that Public Relations is the field I want to be in. She spoke about spending time developing networks, building relationships and using technology to connect with her public. There is diversity, creativity, art and writing wrapped up into a single career! All the things I do for fun now (designing handouts, newsletters and websites. Speaking with the media, getting attention and holding events!) are all part of her normal work day. I know, I have an odd definiation of fun. I can’t wait to join her as a professional in the field.

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