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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > November/December 2011

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How to Hire the Right PR Person
by Marsha Iverson

So you think you need a PR person. Whether you’re filling a new position or replacing an incumbent, you’re probably right. Either way, it’s a good idea to start by doing your homework. How long has it been since you revised the position description? Does it represent your organization’s current needs, expectations, and vision? If so, good for you! You’re ahead of the game. If the description is outdated, work with your human resources provider to craft a description—and pay scale—that will lure in the right candidate with the right skill set to do what needs to be done.

That brings us to a key question: What needs to be done? If your library has a long and successful track record of effective public relations, your goal is to make a smooth transition to bring the new person up-to-speed. On the other hand, if this new employee will be your first PR specialist, or if you’re recovering
from a rocky history, you’ll want a highly experienced professional who can help correct your course—or chart a new one.

You may have expectations of what PR can do for your library: More media coverage. Bigger photos. A full house for every event. Favorable reviews. Feature stories. Gratitude. Laudatory op-eds. More money when you need it. More visibility = more success, right? Not so fast. Sometimes the best PR will keep stories out of the media.

How will you know what you need, and when? A skilled PR pro can answer that question for you. If managing PR is a new assignment for you, ask for advice from a respected veteran. Many will be happy to talk with you about the profession, the possibilities, and the issues to keep in mind. Half an hour of skilled counsel can help you choose wisely and might even identify solid candidates to meet your needs. Remember, the qualifications for PR people can be quite different from those for librarians.

Qualities of an Ideal Candidate

How will you know what to look for in the ideal candidate? It will help if you approach the task with a good idea of the strategies, tools, and techniques in a well-stocked PR toolkit.

Here’s a typical skills list:

  • Strong written and oral communications skills
  • Problem-solving and analytical abilities
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to manage multiple projects and adjust priorities
  • Excellent “people skills,” including active listening
  • Strategic planning skills
  • Technical skills (computer savvy, eye for design, digital media knowledge)

I’ll add a few other qualities that come in extremely handy:

  • Creative vision: Ability to see your organization from inside and out
  • Diplomacy: Ability to handle sensitive issues and occasionally manage upward
  • Curiosity: Interviewing skills based on genuine interest in others
  • Empathy and intuition: Ability to understand others’ views, opinions, and feelings
  • Passion for perfection, tempered by an ability to know when a product is “good enough”
  • Sense of humor
  • Patience

Generally speaking, public relations establishes positive relationships in the community and “earned media” (free) coverage. But good PR is much more than amassing a big “clippings” file. Here’s an eye-opening excerpt from the PR specialist job description in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010–11 Edition:

“An organization’s reputation, profitability, and its continued existence can depend on the degree to which its targeted public supports its goals and policies. Public relations specialists—also referred to as communications specialists and media specialists, among other titles—serve as advocates for clients seeking to build and maintain positive relationships with the public.”

Ideally, the tools, tactics, and techniques for conveying information will be transformed into a cohesive, strategic communications plan. PR, marketing, advertising, and branding will be tied together into a comprehensive communications strategy that gives your library the optimal return on your investment. For tips on how to do that, check your MLS archives for my previous article “Improving Our Media Relations via Strategic Communications Planning” (Nov./Dec 2007).

Now Let’s Get Personal

You have a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for. You’ve reviewed a mountain of applications (or hope to soon), and it’s time to find the best candidate. You want someone who has experience in public relations, who is familiar with media relations and community organizations, and who has the ability to see opportunities for contributing to your library’s success. This can include many things, such as developing a strong visual identity (brand) that ties together all your products and cultivating new collaborative partnerships that will benefit your patrons, your library, and your entire community.

Is a library degree necessary? Not at all. Presumably, you have librarians on hand who can help your PR pro learn all about the field. You need a communications strategist with strong analytical ability and critical thinking skills—someone who can put together a complex puzzle without the picture on the box.

The strongest candidates will be able to understand and process new information quickly. They’ll be able to identify target audiences, define measurable objectives that will further the library’s goals, craft strategic messages that will persuade and inspire, and select the most effective communications tools to get the right message to the right audience at the right time.

How to Ensure a Good Interview

You’ll want to see the candidates’ writing samples, so when you’re lining up interviews, ask them to bring a portfolio for you to review. You’re seeking candidates who can clearly and simply explain ideas to people who know nothing about the subject. Look for these qualities in their samples:

  • Good grammar, punctuation, and spelling
  • Lively and engaging writing style
  • Error-free copy
  • Easy-to-read, appropriate design that’s well-matched to the content

During the interviews, you’ll want to accurately assess the candidates’ experience in public relations, high-level strategic and analytical abilities, on-the-spot thinking, and interpersonal skills. I’d ask questions like these:

  • Do you have one of our library cards?
  • Do you use the library? If so, how and why?
  • Why would you like to work for the library?
  • Describe your experience in public relations.
  • What is your vision for how this job would match your skill set, and vice versa?
  • Describe your experience in written communication (writing to achieve a business objective), such as executive correspondence, news releases, features, social media releases, web copy, instructions, and 140-character stories.
  • Describe your experience in Web and social media.
    • What platforms do you use?
    • How would you select which social media tool to use for a specific PR purpose?
    • Tell me how you’d develop a social media strategy for our library.
  • Describe a situation in which you have been responsible for analyzing a problem or a challenging situation and explaining it to others.
    • What worked well?
    • What would you do differently?
    • What did you learn?
  • What has been your biggest professional challenge?
  • Do you prefer to do projects by yourself or as part of a team?
  • How do you handle complex issues and multiple deadlines at the same time?
  • What do you think are your strongest personal qualities you’d bring to this job?
  • What three qualities would your co-workers use to describe you?

A Memorable Mistake

Back when dirt was new and typewriters were the bees’ knees, a certain aspiring PR person applied for a job as an editor. To my horror, after mailing the voluminous application package just in time to meet the postmark deadline, I read the carbon copy of my painfully developed cover letter. It began with the kiss of doom: “I’ve always wanted to be an editro.” I did not get an interview, and my supremely ironic error can still cause nightmares.

After the interview, give each candidate an on-the-spot practical test, just in case the portfolio pieces have only a tangential connection to his or her own work. Set a reasonable time for the test—60 to 90 minutes should be good. Part of the challenge for the candidate is to craft products that are “good enough” in the time allowed. Look for technical competence, style, imagination, and products that match the assignment in tone, language, and detail. I suggest these assignments: 1) Outline the basics of a library issue and ask the candidate to write a one-page media feature from a fact sheet you’ll provide. 2) Give a library program description and ask the candidate to write a calendar/event release. 3) Ask the candidate to describe which social media, if any, he or she would select to accompany each story, and why.

These steps should give you a good framework for assessing each candidate and a degree of confidence in selecting your top choices based on observable performance.

One more thing: Even thorough assessments can go awry. When in doubt, schedule another interview with your top candidates, and involve the prospective co-workers in the selection process. Then everyone will have buy-in on the decision, which will help ensure a smooth transition for your new hire.

Marsha Iverson has been a public relations specialist at the King County Library System in Issaquah, Wash., for 17 years. She holds a B.A. from the University of California–Santa Barbara and is completing a master’s in strategic public relations from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Iverson’s PR experience spans libraries, utilities, corporations, nonprofits, startups, and government realms, from the days of carbon paper to the Twitter age. Her email address is
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