I recently participated in the Fellowship for Educators program sponsored by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Through the program, I got the opportunity to shadow the corporate communication team (aka Enterprise Affairs) at one of the biggest financial services providers in the country, United Services Automobile Association (USAA) in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to realizing how 110o F feels like, I also gained key insights into the roles and responsibilities of public relations professionals working in a Fortune 500, privately-owned corporation. Synthesizing my conversation with the senior leadership and junior members of the team, here are seven lessons I learned about succeeding in a corporation:
- Speak the language of business: To get noticed, valued, and rewarded. Demonstrating value of your efforts in terms of business goals is instrumental of your success in a corporation. The C-suite is not interested in just media coverage anymore. Business leaders want results that drive bottom-line and in order to be convincing, you will need to talk in their dialect. While there are plenty of books and online resources that you can use to build your vocabulary, I strongly recommend the upcoming book by Matt Ragas and Ron Culp titled “Business Essentials for Strategic Communicators.”
- Absorb and exude corporate culture: Even when corporate culture is somewhat a vague concept, it is actually not that difficult to identify an organization’s character. Much like a civilization, there are some tangible and some not-so-tangible cues one can pick up fairly quickly. Most companies have a mission or a charter that articulates their core values, which is a good starting point. Did I just say starting point? Yes. Because the learning doesn’t end here. If you are new (and inquisitive), walk around the company’s office, observe people’s behavior, even the way most people dress at work, and most importantly, talk to your colleagues, manager, and peers, about what they think are the priorities for the company. Absorb the culture and once you have soaked it in, become a part of it, and reflect it in your own behavior and communication.
- Know how to demonstrate value: Focus on outcomes versus outputs, align program objectives to business goals, and make reporting and measurement a priority in every project you undertake. And by measurement, I don’t imply simply numbers or statistics, but the story that these numbers tell aligned with the overall business strategy of your employer.
- Be a team player before a team leader: Collaboration is vital in corporations (all those team projects in college are actually going to pay off). Be prepared to spend most of your work day in meetings trying to get everyone’s approval (yay, democracy!) even on things that make the most sense to you as a communication professional but not so much to the MBAs, attorneys, or HRs in the room.
- Understand and follow the compliance process: You will be surprised (or even frustrated) at the amount of time you will spend getting all your communication messages approved through the layers of compliance and legal procedures. But at the end, it serves you well to understand the compliance process and follow it diligently because it covers you for any future complications and allegations including lawsuits that are really common in the corporate world.
- Be versatile, flexible, and open to new opportunities: Just because you are in a corporation does not mean you should limit yourself to one role, team, or even department. Communication teams are much for integrated in a corporation and it is far easier to move around to new pastures, acquire new skills, and grow into a more versatile professional. Look for opportunities around you and don’t be afraid to ask for new roles and responsibilities so you don’t feel stagnated in one function.
- Finally, have a thick skin: I mean it! Remember, when you first told your parents you want to go to college to get a degree in public relations? Remember that look? You will get that every day, more than once. Consequently, you will get questioned, rejected, refused, and turned down more often than you would like. But remember, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Learn to take things lightly, accept rejections when they are justified, but also learn to not give up on legitimate issues.
Rajul Jain, Ph.D., is my next door neighbor at DePaul University where she is Assistant Professor in the College of Communication.