Unfortunately, as many people in our business know firsthand, one of the things that public relations is known for is the short duration people stay at an agency.
One thing that was probably never taught in the communications schools is that PR agency “loyalty to employees” is an oxymoron. A person might think the expression “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business” was invented by a human resources person. It wasn’t. Credit for the phrase goes to a fictional mobster—you can look it up—who probably had more loyalty to his associates than PR agencies have to theirs.
So, despite your title at an agency, it’s best never to get overly complacent. If you’re lucky enough to have job offers don’t automatically dismiss them. Check them out because once you leave for your job in the morning, loyalty will be nonexistent until your dog greets you when you return home.
I hope you never need it but if you do, here is some advice on what to say and not to say during a job interview—along with some general recommendations—whether you were asked to leave or decided to depart on your own.
Never bad-mouth your former employer.
Doing so will lead the interviewer to think you’ll do the same again.
Never say you left your former job because of a personality conflict with your boss.
Doing so raises the questions of who is to blame.
Ask former clients if you can use them as references.
That’s important because chances are your former employer will only confirm that you worked there.
If asked whether you can bring accounts with you, even if you can, reply in the negative.
Answering in the affirmative might raise flags that you would do the same to a prospective employer.
If asked why you’re job hunting, never say, “I want a new challenge.”
Employers would rather you don’t leave on your own. After all they’re the boss and they want to decide what your role will be.
If asked what you liked least about accounts you worked on, never say they were boring.
As you probably know, PR isn’t as glamorous as it is portrayed in books and the movies. (Only a fortunate few get to work on glamorous accounts.) The reality is that unless you have a specific expertise that is needed, you might be assigned to another humdrum account.
If asked, “How can you help our company if we hire you?” never say, “I’m willing to do any job you want me to do.”
Give specific examples of how you helped accounts in the past. If you’re creative and can “think out of the box,” tell the interviewer what you did.
If you’re asked what position you’re seeking, never say “anything.”
Say that you’re willing to start at the same level as your last job because you know you have the skills to advance and that you know titles mean different things at different agencies.
If you’re asked what salary you are looking for, never give a dollar figure, unless pressed.
Instead, tell what your salary was at your last job and say you’d like to start at least at the same salary. If you’ve been out of work for a long time, add that you’re willing to start at a lower salary and willing to work your way up. Saying so might be a job clincher. Employers love to pay as little as they can get away with.
If you’re still employed and are offered a job and asked when you can start, never say “immediately.”
Tell the interviewer that you’d like to give your current employer sufficient notice, three weeks, two if necessary, so they can reassign someone to your account. That will impress a prospective employer. Remember, employers like loyalty from their employees (just don’t expect any in return). If, however, your prospective employer says you must start tomorrow, don’t take the job. It’s an indication of how you will be treated if you are dismissed.
Whatever your reason for seeking new employment, remember these rules:
1. If you have a new job offer and your current employer is promising you riches in the future, remember, talk is cheap.
2. If you have a job offer and your current employer says, “We’d give you a raise immediately if you stay, but our compensation committee doesn’t meet again for six months," your reply should be a paraphrase of “show me the money now.”
3. If your current employer says, “You’re making a mistake by leaving because we value you so much you can stay here forever," remember that reality proves that the only people who can stay forever are the owners of the agency.
4. If you’re offered a better title and bigger office instead of a raise because of the compensation committee won’t meet for months, remember, no matter how many tiles there are on the ceiling of your office you can’t use them in place of money.
5. And the most important rule that you should live by is that your first responsibility isn’t to your agency, it’s to yourself and your family.
I always advised people who reported to me to develop media contacts so they can refer to them when job hunting. Being able to tell a prospective employer that you have a personal relationship with journalists is a definite plus. Alas, too few did so.
Whether you’re job hunting voluntarily or because you were terminated, remember the above rules. Management might not like you to use them, but management's rules are not for your benefit.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.