My Interview with a True P.R. Pro

Michael Altfest is an Account Supervisor at Edelman Public Relations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mr. Altfest has been with the company for over five years and received a B.A., in Business Administration from the University of Washington Business School in 2000. As most of you know, Edelman is the largest Public Relations firm in the country, so this interview was incredibly exciting. You can go to Edelman’s website to learn more about the company! Here is Mr. Altfest’s public linkedin profile also!

My father’s company, Transamerica Retirement Services, is represented by Edelman and they provide a close personal relationship with their CEO’s and Mr. Altfest was very generous to spare a few minutes to speak with me. Here is the transcript.

1.)What’s a typical week like? (If no week is typical, then what was last week like?)

The one guarantee working for a PR agency is that there is no such thing as a typical week! I think the best way to give you a “typical” week is to start with a description of my role.

I’m an Account Supervisor that oversees day-to-day management of three accounts at Edelman. The position I’m in could best be described as “mid-management,” so I do a bit of everything: account planning and strategy, tactical execution, staff management, and new business (researching and pursuing new clients). Many employees also have broader corporate roles. I’m our office Quality representative, which means I’m the go-to person for our company’s larger “Quality” initiative and am responsible for anything related to that.

Last week alone, I probably drafted 4-5 press releases or media alerts for upcoming announcements that my clients are making, supervised my teams on outreach pertaining to another 3-4 announcements (ranging from new store openings to new services to new executives), finalized the monthly reporting (what we did in March) for all three of my clients while also finalizing the activities that we’ll be doing for them in April. I spend a considerable amount of time all week reading the news to stay on top of my clients, their competitors and industries. I also have at least one internal team meeting and one client check in meeting for each account, every week (so that adds up to 6-8 meetings).

And that’s just the proactive client work! Since last week marked the end of the month, I also processed all of the billing for each client. Basically this entails reviewing and approving all of the items that they get billed for (both the hourly fees they pay us, and any expense incurred during the month.)

Lastly, I also spent some time doing some research on a company as a possible new business prospect, which entailed researching the company and what they do and then reaching out to a contact there to see if they’d be interested in chatting with Edelman.

I can’t speak for everyone who works for an agency, but it’s the constant variety and fast pace that attracts most of us to this sort of job.

2.)Tell me about a project you worked on that you are especially proud of.
(**I’m not using this example because it has to do with your father’s business, what I’m about to explain is honestly the work I am most proud of in 5+ years at Edelman**)

As part of our work for Transamerica, we do the PR for the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, which is a non-profit research company that examines trends and issues in the retirement space. Last year we re-introduced The Center, so to speak, after it had officially registered as a non-profit and conducted a major media campaign on it’s behalf. Although we’d had a lot of success on this part of the business in the past, last year’s results were unprecedented. We secured coverage for The Center in virtually every major media outlet – Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Associated Press – that matters to them. Ultimately, the visibility of the issues that we raised for them spurred a special session in the U.S. Senate.

But while the results are great, I’m most proud of how we accomplished this. Honestly, it was years and years of work to build the status of The Center that paid off in one enormous year. It was a great example of how hard work pays off, how valuable media relationships are, and how approaching a program with the right combination of strategy and effort can generate great results beyond simply media impressions.

3.)How important is writing in your career?

Extremely. Arguably it’s the most important, and certainly one of the handful of skills that are absolutely necessary. And it’s not just the ability to structure sentences and tell an interesting story that will result in media coverage. Good writing is essential, but so is versatility in writing. Yes, I write a lot of press releases and media pitches, but I’m also constantly writing client communication documents, messaging, strategy, and everyday emails. Good writing is necessary in each and every one of those instances.

(And please pardon this document. I wouldn’t recommend it as a “good writing sample” – I’m just rushed!)

4.)What three tips would you offer someone just starting out in PR?

1. Get agency experience, and a lot of it. There are a lot of “PR” jobs out there, but agency life is some of the best work experience you’ll ever get. Even if you learn that PR isn’t for you, you’re getting experience that will help you in any line of work. On any given day you are working for 3-6 companies, including your own. I’ve done legitimate, strategic communications work for retirement plan providers, brokerages, software companies, employee benefit providers, fitness providers, electronic retailers, high end audio equipment, and an owner of a professional sports franchise (among many others). I’ve worked directly with the C-level of some of the world’s most recognizable brands. My work has appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. You simply won’t get that type of experience working in house.

2. Intern!! One of the most difficult things about PR, especially when you start working, is how foreign so much of the work actually is – and how much of it there is. The learning curve when first starting at an agency is quite steep, so rolling up your sleeves early on and learning how an agency works (before you ever get that first “real” job) is invaluable.

3. Stay up on media. Many times a day, every day. Keep tabs on traditional media, but also on the growing space of online. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Take note of what companies are doing, what’s working and, most importantly, how people are responding to and interacting with the information companies are putting out.

5.)What do you do to keep current in the PR industry?

See #3 in the last question. Read, read, read. I wouldn’t say I keep current on the PR industry so much as I keep up on my clients and their industries. But by reading many sources of media and seeing how companies are getting covered, that is telling me what is working in terms of PR.

6.)What has surprised you the most about working in PR?

How strategic it is. Over the last 5 years there has been a noticeable shift away from paid media (aka “advertising”) into more strategic public engagement, so to speak. Most marketing used to be heavily driven by advertising, and now its becoming opposite. PR is driving the communications strategies of so many companies, and it’s doing so from so many areas beyond traditional media relations.

7.)What do you wish you would have known before starting your career in PR?

I wish I’d had a better grasp on the versatility it takes to succeed. Saying I work for 3-4 different companies is simplifying it. Each client has at least one client contact; often more. But on the agency end you have very complex reporting structures depending on the client and who owns each project. …and keep in mind, your clients might be VERY diverse, so you’re constantly involved in multiple industries.

8.)How does technology affect your daily work?

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without technology. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that technology is WHY PR is so successful now. The process of disseminating information pre-internet was rather archaic. Now, it would take me a couple minutes to determine who the right media contact is at a little newspaper across the country, contact that reporter, and get a response back.

Keep in mind that if I put out a press release now, it’ll be all the way around the world before I can blink. The Internet and social media have totally changed the way we do business. Even though it’s been very beneficial, we need to be more cautious as well. The wrong message can spread at a speed that makes it virtually impossible to control. But if done correctly, any company can leverage technology to its advantage.

9.)When your company is hiring for an entry-level PR position, what makes a candidate stand out?

Experience (see what I said about internships), personality (we’re in the business of interacting with the media), writing skills, an ability to demonstrate that their in touch with the media landscape and business work, and an eagerness to roll up their sleeves and LEARN!

Thank you so much Michael for all your insights! This will be a huge help to me as well as my classmates!

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March 29, 2010. Assignments, Public Relations Practicum.

4 Comments

  1. laur22 replied:

    That is very neat that you got to interview someone who definitely knows their stuff when it comes to public relations. I have heard of Edelman before and am so jealous that he gets to work for them in San Francisco, because that is one of my favorite cities to visit! It scares me that he says to stay up on media every day, because to be honest, I am not a fan of checking my email and blog all of the time! I think it is great that he said personality and experience make you stand out to a potential employer. Hopefully I can use those to help land a job with a PR firm soon.

  2. ashleyprisfunrenfroe replied:

    Connections in this field are always great. How lucky are you that you have made a connection with someone that works with Edelman PR!!! Awesome! The answer to number 6 has really made me feel confident in choosing marketing as my minor. It made me realize that PR and marketing pretty much go hand in hand and hoepfully since I will have a background of studying both that will only help me to stand out to an employer. His tips were also very helpful and soemthing that I will keep in mind, espcially this summer while I’m in the process of getting an internship…fingers crossed!

  3. kbixby1 replied:

    Hi Meghan!
    “My Interview with a True P.R. Pro” was a very interesting blog. I liked reading about your interview and I really thought it was cool that you were able to interview someone from San Francisco, California. Especially, since they work for the largest PR Firm in the country. I could only imagine how exciting that would be. Anyways, I liked how you included the link to Edelman’s website and linkedin profile. It was cool to check it out! On another note, I just wanted to say that I noticed some similarities between our interviews. Mostly the part about there is no typical week in PR. My PR Professional said the same thing. I better be ready for a crazy schedule!

  4. Comments « Bixby's Blog replied:

    […] 5. Meghan Callahan- My Interview with a True P.R. Pro […]

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