Career Paths for PR Students and Recent Graduates: Q&A with Sam Heimbach


Michelle Vernaza
Career Paths for PR Students and Recent...

With the PR world constantly growing with new job opportunities, it can be a challenging time for recent college graduates as they’re deciding what career path they plan on pursuing in the PR field. What skills do you need? What can you expect as someone just getting started in PR? These are all questions that are stressful for anyone entering the workforce. 

There’s a variety of paths you can choose to go down while working in PR. To help guide you through the wide variety of PR career paths, we spoke with Sam Heimbach, a communication coordinator at the University of Austin. Below, Sam shares her best career advice for PR students and recent college graduates who are seeking a job in the PR industry.

What is your title and role with the University of Texas?

My title is Communication Coordinator for Enrollment Management at the University of Texas at Austin. In my role, I lead communications for an office called Texas Career Engagement.

My role focuses on providing more equitable access to career engagement for all students, and also for employers to connect with diverse students across campus. In my role, I support or manage communication for everything ranging from all communication channels — web, email, social, and if we ever have anything in-person.

What is your background in PR? How did you get to where you are today?

My career path kind of meandered; it went a little bit all over the place. I graduated from Texas State University with a degree in Mass Communications and my focus was in public relations. Right after college, I got a job at a PR agency in Austin. I wound up working in public relations for about seven years, and then I decided to make a career change and become a career coach at Texas State University where I supported the College of Fine Arts and Communication. 

I kinda had this interesting mix of PR experience and career services experience. A mentor of mine started this new program at UT Austin (Texas Career Engagement), so that’s how I learned about this opportunity and decided it would be a cool way to combine my knowledge and experience working in public relations and career services. 

What is a piece of advice you’d share with a PR major or new graduate hoping to get into PR?

For someone getting started in PR, I would recommend a couple of things. First, take advantage of different resources available to you as a recent college graduate through your university. After you graduate, you usually still have access to your university’s career services department for a certain amount of time and that’s a really great way to learn about opportunities. There are also many organizations that are geared towards young professionals. I would say just in general, it sounds so cliche, but to really keep networking. I know that’s such a dreaded word, but set up coffee meetings with different people and just try to stay connected with different people in your field. It doesn’t have to be people that you don’t know at all. Networking can be reconnecting with people you previously did internships with. It can be keeping in touch with your college professors. Basically, just continue to build your network. Someone may not be able to tell you about an opportunity today, but they might know someone they can connect you with, or six months from now they might hear about an opportunity that will interest you and they’ll remember that you reached out. 

My second piece of advice would be to learn how to articulate the value that you’re going to bring to an organization and still be open and flexible in terms of what opportunities you consider. Be open to different opportunities that come your way, even if they’re not exactly what you envisioned when you were thinking about your dream job. 

How has PR evolved in recent years? What types of communications jobs are there now versus five years ago? 

Within the last five to 10 years, the role of a communications professional and what all a communications professional can do has expanded tremendously. I think there are a lot of things that have fueled that. 

When I first started in public relations, my job was very media relations focused. My job was to work with a client to develop a story and pitch journalists, in hopes of getting news coverage. I would say that today, PR has shifted dramatically with newsrooms shrinking and the role of social media expanding so much. Now, I see a lot of people in communications working with influencers, brand collaborations, and content creation. A communications professional can really span the whole gambit. 

Another thing I would say is different now compared to five years ago is that there continues to be an increased focus on how to measure success. In a world that’s more digital first, there are a lot more ways that we can measure things as communications professionals and communicate the success of our projects. I would say any experience or skills in analytics would definitely benefit PR students well.

In your opinion, what is a crucial skill every PR person should have? How can PR students work on that skill while in school?

I think one of the best skills you can start to gain in college that will really benefit you in the workplace is learning how to gather information and making an informed decision. I also think it’s important to be open to any feedback you receive and learn how to grow from it. When I went to college, I had internship experiences, I did well in my classes, and I always got pretty good grades. When I started work, it was like oh, I’m going to get feedback on everything I do. Especially in an agency setting, a lot of your work is going to be reviewed by a manager, and they’re going to have feedback. It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing a good job. They are just going to fine tune your work as much as possible, so that when it gets to the client it’s in a really good place that represents your team. 

What are the different PR career paths? 

There are so many. The traditional buckets are industry buckets and within that there are also different job titles. 

In terms of the PR industry, one option is to work at an agency. Sometimes even agencies will practice in specific industries as well. Some agencies might specialize in entertainment or consumer PR, others might focus on tech PR

Freelance is another option too. You could take on several different projects, or you could work with a handful of clients for a certain amount of time. As a freelancer, you can even subcontract with different agencies. 

Within these big buckets, there are much smaller containers. If you’re looking specifically at agencies, you might see roles like associate account executive or copywriter. You can see anything from digital marketing specialists or any title with communications in it. You can also focus vertically as well. There are jobs specifically geared toward email marketing, social media, or community management.

As a PR student, you have so many skills that are transferable and that you can use in different roles. As you continue to gain experience, you might go deeper with specializing in a certain area. But when you’re just starting out, there are so many options you can consider. 

One thing you can do if you’re struggling to think about job titles, sometimes different universities will have different job titles that connect with your major on their website. Another trick is that every college and university has a LinkedIn page. If you go to LinkedIn, you can search the alumni tab and see what every alumni is doing now. You can check out every person who graduated with your major and see what their job title is now. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the job process for PR students and recent grads?

I want to emphasize that right now is a great time to be job searching. We’re entering a time period where we are seeing a lot more people hiring, especially in the field of communication as many companies are spending more on marketing this year. We’re also seeing more industries come back, like tourism and hospitality and different kinds of events. It’s always hard and takes time to find your first job, but now is a really good time to look. 

I would also encourage recent graduates to take the long view. After you graduate, things might not fall into place within six months or even a year. You may not find that one job after you graduate that’s going to be completely fulfilling and meet everything single expectation you’ve ever wanted. It’s important to take some time for self care during your job search. Set some realistic goals, set aside some time for your search, and set some time aside just for you. 

About Michelle Vernaza: Michelle is a Business Development Associate Intern for Swyft, which is a tech PR firm in Austin and Houston and a top digital marketing and PR agency in Denver since its founding in 2011. Swyft recently opened a satellite office where it offers tech PR in San Francisco. Swyft was also listed as one of the top tech PR agencies in Texas by the B2B services review site, Clutch.co.

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