I was fortunate enough to find myself on both sides of the interview table over the past 36 months — as a prospective candidate to outside organizations, and a hiring authority for the organization I was leaving. Over the course of well over 100 interviews, I came the conclusion there is one constant for success: Doing your homework. While that may sound like a no-brainer, it was simply astonishing to discover so many candidates – especially Millennials – in an extremely tight job market who were very obviously not prepared for their audition.
Below are the three homework assignments all candidates should complete prior to their interview.
1. Research the basics. Know the organization, its people and history – beyond a cursory glance at their web page/Facebook, etc. Look at annual reports for the past three years; become familiar with the business model, the strategic plan, congressional testimony (if applicable) branding and marketing efforts; review their media coverage, the reporters and outlets who cover them habitually; and know the challenges and successes they have had recently and historically. For agencies, spend some quality time on their websites and call up stories from PR Week, O’Dwyers and other trade publications.
As the hiring manager interviewing candidates for my organization I expected the same application of research and knowledge. If you were one of the many candidates who walked into my office and at some point asked, “So what is it exactly your organization does?” you should have a pretty good idea why I didn’t call you back for a second interview.
2. Now research beyond the basics. Every time I was a candidate for an interview, I prepared a rudimentary SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and communications audit of the organization — building on the initial research I conducted. Together, those findings were the basics of a one page communications outline of the organization — which I shared with the interview panel if asked. It not only allowed me to discuss issues from a position of confidence and knowledge, but it demonstrated I took the process seriously.
When I was conducting interviews, I was truly surprised at how many times people would ask something like, “What is the biggest challenge you face here?” While it may be a fair question to ask, I think you should at least preface it with, “From my standpoint, this is how I view your organization… Am I in the ballpark?” You’ll either be validated or corrected. When I was interviewing candidates, I never punished anyone who offered their own opinion — even if they were way off. At least they had the professional knowledge to form one and the guts to speak up. That’s what I am looking for on my communications team: Unafraid thinkers.
3. Have your portfolio at the ready. Don’t assume they will have your resume, cover letter, writing samples, references, etc., at their disposal. Always bring enough copies of your one-page resume (it is only one-page, right?) for everyone you’re meeting. If you don’t know how many people are on the panel, bring at least five copies of each. And have them at the ready in PDF format on your tablet or smartphone to send to an HR rep should they ask (because they get hundreds of resumes and sometimes the dog eats your homework…). I’m not a gizmo freak, but I took my iPad to every interview and configured it to safely pass around in case one of the panel wanted to see another sample of my work. It was not only handy, but also demonstrated I was a competent user of technology.
It may sound hard to believe, but as I was interviewing for a position with a major university — which required submitting some extensive mock proposals beforehand — I was told by the panel that almost half of the applicants disqualified themselves by not submitting these requirements on time. Really?!
I had a great deal of success following using this research blueprint, and from an interviewer’s point of view, it was quite obvious when a candidate had put this kind of effort into their preparation. I can’t promise you’ll be offered a job if you follow this advice – after all, your work and research is a reflection of your professional competency: Good work equals a promising candidate. Poor work reflects either a poor candidate or one who doesn’t care enough to do their proper diligence to get the job. I can promise if you put your best effort forward, you won’t be disappointed with the results. Good luck!
Paul Swiergosz is a retired Army officer with over 15 years of government public affairs experience. He holds an M.A in Public Relations from Marshall University and a B.S. in Public Relations from Bowling Green State University. He is currently on sabbatical in Charleston, S.C., enjoying his new role as a stay at home dad.