November 19, 2007
Laura Vanderpool, senior account manager, Parsons Public Relations
STEVE SHELTON IMAGES
The job: Like many English majors, Laura Vanderpool found gainful employment working in corporate communications. During her six-year tenure in the marketing division of a Big Five accounting firm, the University of Washington alum cut her teeth writing "dry proposals and reports." When a corporate restructuring prompted her to jump ship in 2000, she landed in public relations, first at a doomed dot-com, then at socially progressive Parsons Public Relations in Seattle. In 2004 she became senior account manager of the nine-person, three-canine PR team, a job that entails acting as the agency's lead writer and helping environmentally conscious clients spread the word about their products and services.
Q. How did you make the leap from Big Five accounting firm to a small PR agency?
A. In 2000 the company I was working for was going to move its operations elsewhere and I didn't want to move. I applied for a PR coordinator position at an Internet startup. I thought, "What's this Internet all about? I want to try that." I pretty much went to the library and read everything I could about public relations and got the job and liked it. It was a coordinator job, and I learned all the basics about PR – making media lists, doing press releases and pitching stories. So I kind of got bitten by the PR bug.
Like so many of those Internet companies, [my employers] blew out their venture capital and everyone got laid off all of a sudden. I was only there for a month and a half. The person I reported to gave me a lead for a small PR firm that was looking to hire a coordinator, and that's how I got the job at Parsons. It was very small then. We didn't have support staff. I was the third person here. I was handed my own accounts pretty quickly. It was just jump in, sink or swim. The great thing about working at a small company is that you get to do all of it.
Q. Did you have a "green" background before working at Parsons?
A. When I first started with Parsons the sustainability stuff wasn't really in place. I was always apprehensive about working for an agency because of the idea that you could be handed any kind of client, and what if you got handed a client that didn't match your values? But when I found Parsons I found a company that made choices about what clients they took on based on shared values. And after I was working here a while, we said, "We want to take this further. We want to work with clients whose values are sustainably minded." We feel good every day going to work, knowing that we represent clients we can get behind.
On agency vs. in-house public relations:
"The difference between being an agency PR person and an in-house PR person is that you're just working with one client when you're in-house. The cool thing about being in an agency is that you get to work with a bunch of different clients and wear many different hats. I like that variety."
Q. What's a typical day like for you?
A. Our office is a house, so it has a kitchen and a couple of showers. A lot of us run around Green Lake before work. And that's how I start my day. I would say 75 percent of my day is writing. We write marketing pieces, Web site text and sometimes even ad copy. We get into a lot of communication stuff that's beyond press releases and pitching story ideas. And we do a lot of group brainstorming for clients. We're very collaborative.
There's also client communication, account management – checking over invoices and where you are with hours – and project management. Project management is key. If you're working for an agency, you have a number of clients that you're managing every day and you have to keep track of a lot of deadlines and whose stuff is more important today. We also have regular face-to-face client meetings. I usually go to the client's office for those. Monthly client meetings are most common. But we have frequent e-mail and phone communication too.
Q. How many accounts do you usually juggle at once?
A. I have between four and five clients at one time. We are very much encouraged to take the reins of our clients. We're given a lot of autonomy to do things the way that we need to do them. It's a very trustful environment, very empowering. But I support other people in writing efforts a lot, including our proposals [project bids], because I love writing so much.
Q. What hours do you keep?
A. I'm usually at my desk around 7:15 a.m. While I am at the office maybe 9 hours or more [each workday], I also do work in the evenings and kind of keep picking at stuff. It could be a 40-hour-a-week job, but I find that I'm doing a little in the evenings and weekends because I like to work that way. Because writing is such an intense mental exercise, sometimes taking a break and then going back to your desk at home and logging in evenings and weekends can be a great way to get another idea.
Q. What advice can you give aspiring publicists?
A. It's very important to write skillfully and artfully. If you come to the table with good writing skills, that's even more important than having a business background. In PR, you have to write for a lot of different audiences, so being able to understand how writing is such a powerful tool in your daily work is important. If you want to build up a portfolio, I suggest finding a not-for-profit that may not have the funds for PR services and saying to them, "I'll do a press release for you or I'll do some Web site text for you." You'll get really good portfolio pieces, and it's very fulfilling to be able to help out a not-for-profit that you believe in.
I would also suggest joining the P.R.S.A., the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. It's a great way to find local job openings, and they also have seminars and workshops. Another place is BulldogReporter.com – they have job listings and news and everything for PR professionals.
Whether you have an English major like me or you study communications, there are a lot of great internships [available locally] and you can learn a lot in the right position. If you come into a company as an intern or as a lower-rung position and you do a stellar job -- you come in every day and show initiative and creativity – you're going to get noticed. An internship is like a really long job interview. It's a great way to show your stuff.
Q. Does Parsons offer internships?
A. We hire a new intern every quarter and are always happy to have people send their material to us. They usually last a quarter and there's a stipend.
Q. What should hopeful interns send besides a resume and cover letter?
A. Writing samples. And give us the sense that they've done their homework. The people who've really caught our attention are the people who say, "I've visited your Web site and I love what you're doing and I want to work for you because of this and this and this."
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