Published on Nov. 3, 2022, at 12:42 p.m.
by Lauren Barnes.
In the job-seeking process, networking and résumés are important to show what a job applicant has done and who they know, but ultimately, potential employers want to know if the applicant can do what they’re looking for. Portfolios are the surefire way to make sure employers hear the applicant’s voice and see their capability.
A public relations portfolio is an intentionally designed collection of a person’s best work, and demonstrates “writing, strategic thinking and client service skills,” according to Pitch Consultants. While a résumé shows overarching experience, a portfolio provides tangible evidence. Generation PR suggests that portfolios are also the most effective way to show employers an applicant’s personal brand.
Below, two PR professionals — Kiara McKinney, founder of Boost Public Relations, and Maret Montanari, public relations specialist for Jackson Spalding — discuss how students can utilize their portfolios from the agency perspective.
The first thing students need to have under their belts are writing samples, according to McKinney. “Most agencies ask for samples: two blogs and a release,” said McKinney. “I think releases are difficult. I can crank one out in 15 minutes now, but when a young person sends a good one — I’m impressed.”
Writing is a technical art many students struggle to master. Montanari advised that writing samples are what employers are looking at to see if a prospective employee will be an asset to the team. “If you are interested in storytelling, then work on components for strong writing skills for media relations, [such as] pitches [and] press releases,” said Montanari.
McKinney noted that students should be intentional with not only writing rules, but overall organization. “You have to be able to take on people’s voice in agency work,” said McKinney. “The organization in writing is underdeveloped in new grads. They do a good job of conveying a message, but when I edit work, I reorganize it. That’s my main editing critique.”
When applying for jobs, select writing samples that are close to the type of the work the agency does, Montanari advised. “Find the clients they have and make your writing samples fit with their clients even if you have to draft new samples.”
Both McKinney and Montanari recommended that public relations students keep a blog. “It’s important for PR students to keep a blog about the industry you want to go into,” said McKinney. “If you want to go into fashion PR, write about fashion, or sports, or what you’re interested in.”
After students have their writing samples, they can spend time on other skills like graphic design or photography. Montanari pointed out that, while there are opportunities to gain experience through class or student organizations, portfolio pieces can also be created independently. “Draw up your own graphic design prompt and execute it,” said Montanari. “It’ll show you have that skill set and impress employers.”
Online templates can be a good starting point when creating a portfolio website.
Montanari suggested organizing your portfolio website similar to how an agency you would like to work for organizes its website. McKinney suggested in the about pieces to “sound like yourself, but if you’re not funny, don’t try to be. Introduce yourself like you’re introducing yourself to your parents’ friends.”
Based on McKinney’s and Montanari’s recommendation, the following list is one way to structure a portfolio:
Students can find opportunities in class and organizations on or off campus. Although going after every opportunity can be tempting, it is OK to focus on the direction you are pursuing, according to Montanari. “If you focus your time and energy into one area, you walk away with work showcasing growth over time,” Montanari said. “I discovered what I was passionate about and dedicated my involvement there instead of having a million one-offs.”
Employers are looking for anything that builds credibility that the applicant is capable of performing the required tasks. McKinney advised that any samples that demonstrate public relations skills can be worked into a portfolio. “When volunteering, save everything,” said McKinney. “I wish I had known sooner to save a media list, to show I can build a list.”
Get experience, even just to say you did things, McKinney said. McKinney advised, “That itself is crucial — I hired people off of things like that. It’s better to see what people can do in our industry because people get jobs because of who people know, so to have something tangible to present is important.”
The best part of a public relations portfolio is the opportunity to set yourself apart through your personal brand, McKinney noted, “Now more than ever a personal brand is more important and easier.” She described branding as “providing context; what sticks in their head, whether it’s humor or heartstrings.”
“Connect your brand with your portfolio,” Montanari emphasized. “I wish I would have started sooner and figured out my brand and what differentiated myself before my website. There’s a lot of people who are go-getters, and you have to figure out what sets you apart.”
McKinney also recommended that “whatever you post about, you want your colors to match that. If you like the outdoors, then green. I think that’s important but hard when you’re young and don’t know when to start, so work backwards with your brand.”
A confident portfolio can also make up for less experience. “I hired my creative coordinator because I enjoyed the way her portfolio looked,” McKinney said. “It was cleanly packaged and sent as a pdf. She didn’t have that much experience but I loved her portfolio and personality.”
Montanari advised that if you want to know more about an agency, don’t be afraid to ask for more information from agency employees. “Reach out on LinkedIn,” she said. “Ask for five minutes and what they’re looking for. Ask for content suggestions, for portfolio suggestions — it’s not unprofessional. Get an insider to champion for you and help as you customize your application.”
McKinney agreed that students should reach out. “Don’t emphasize professionalism over connection,” she advised. “If there’s someone you want to learn from, someone to take a chance on you, don’t reel yourself in. Show how much you admire them and their work and tell them. Show you’re prepared. That’s where the portfolio comes in.”
Having limited experience should not be a reason to avoid making such connections. “Even if you’re a new grad and had one internship, play it up and acknowledge that — say ‘yeah, I’m new but I’m highly ambitious and I’m fully prepared’ McKinney explained. “Hype yourself up and when it comes to believing in yourself — that’s crucial. When it comes to my career, I didn’t believe in myself and I think that shows and I missed opportunities because I shrank, and when I let that go, I excelled.”
A professionally presented portfolio can show agencies that students are willing to go the extra mile to standout in the application process. Finding portfolio pieces can seem like a daunting task, but students can impress potential employers as long as they take advantage of opportunities and focus on their personal brands.