By Megan Perkins
I have a confession to make: I’m a student studying public relations, and I hate networking.
This unpopular opinion has caused me a lot of discomfort throughout my studies. I’ve lost track of the amount of social events I’ve attended with the sole purpose to network. Just last week I attended The Plank Center Milestones in Mentoring Gala, a dinner honoring leading public relations practitioners. It was a fabulous event, and the room overflowed with professionals that any young student would be lucky to add to their network. As usual, I did as I was taught. I introduced myself to several of the attendees, asked insightful questions so they would remember me, and exchanged business cards to follow up with them after the event.
Don’t get me wrong … I felt honored to be in the presence of such a high-caliber crowd, and I always enjoy meeting new faces. However, I couldn’t help but feel the usual uneasiness these types of events bring me.
As students, we’re taught networking is a necessary tool in the public relations field. It’s how you find internships and jobs and build your career. Merriam-Webster defines networking as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” Now just to be clear, I’m all about building some good relationships. It’s the “for employment or business” part that I happen to have a problem with.
See, relationship building to me has always been about being genuine. And the concept of networking throws that idea to the curb. I believe every relationship you make, personally and professionally, should be authentic without any intention of receiving benefits from the other party. If my job as a public relations practitioner is to use effective communication to build a sincere relationship between my client and its publics, shouldn’t I practice genuine relationship building in my personal life?
Unfortunately, I don’t think networking events will ever be avoidable in this field. So to stay true to my principles, I’ve constructed a few guidelines to ensure I’m making real connections without hidden agendas.
- Don’t make it about you.
Go into the conversation with the intention of coming out with new information. If you spend the entire time talking about yourself, you haven’t learned anything about the other person. Ask questions, listen intently and offer your own input when appropriate.
- Don’t force it.
The conversation should be natural, and if it’s not, move on. No one enjoys an awkward conversation that has no real direction. Everyone is different and certain personalities match up better than others. There are always plenty of people to talk to, so don’t waste your time trying to force a conversation that isn’t even interesting.
- Treat it like a friendship.
In your personal life, you typically pursue friendships with people whose presence you enjoy, you have something in common with, or they’re easy to talk to. Networking should have the same requirements. Keep your network restricted to individuals you would also consider pursuing as a friend. (That doesn’t mean invite them over for pizza and a movie. Always stay professional!)
- Be open and honest.
Don’t just smile and agree to everything the other person says. Obviously you want them to like you, but you want them to like you. If you have a differing opinion, express it respectably. The conversation will be more interesting, and the other person will get to know the real you.
It’s always a good idea to expand your network, but it’s important to do it sincerely. Most of the time the best opportunities come out of the most genuine relationships. No one goes out of their way for someone who is just trying to use them to get ahead. The purpose of a mutually beneficial relationship isn’t just for both parties to reap benefits. It just means both parties benefit when an effective, authentic relationship is established.
Megan Perkins, a Chicago native, is a junior studying public relations and management at The University of Alabama. She is a writer and editor for Platform Magazine, assistant firm director and an account executive for the university’s student-run firm Capstone Agency and director of public relations for UA’s Public Relations Student Society of America.