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The best advice I ever got was from a dentist. Before heading off to college as a pre-med major for my freshman year, he told me, “Don’t try to become a doctor in college, they’ll teach you that in med school.” He said to take classes that I enjoy, and I would do better and have fun.
So, I didn’t try to become a doctor.
Eventually, I settled on political science for a major and went on to graduate school for a master’s degree in public administration (MPA). I was about to settle in for a career as an analyst at a nonprofit organization, when I had a burrito that changed my life.
I met someone I knew for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and was asked to join her political campaign. She went on to defeat a long-time incumbent in an upset election and then asked me to be her chief of staff.
Freshman lawmakers aren’t given many resources, so I would jokingly refer to myself as a “chief of no staff.” One minute I was drafting bills, the next minute I was drafting press releases.
In the office, we often said this was a job for a generalist. You don’t need to be an expert on everything, but you do need to know how to get up to speed on just about anything.
I loved the excitement of working in a political office, where every day there was something new. It fueled my passion for communications—I wanted to share with others what we were doing and how it was making a difference.
However, after our son was born, my wife and I decided to move so we could be closer to family. That meant it was time to find a new job.
Fortunately, eight years in politics gave me the skills and experience I needed to change careers and work in public relations. In May, I started as the public relations manager for Tipping Point Media & Public Relations.
Public relations and politics actually have more in common than some might believe. For example, both work on a wide range of issues with a broad array of audiences and stakeholders.
When researching the job posting at Tipping Point, I came across their eight characteristics
of “A-Players.” These do a good job of showing why a political aide like me makes a great public relations professional.
1. Customer centered:
You don’t win elections without voters. Constituent services are the backbone of a legislative office. When a politician or his or her staff helps someone, the word-of-mouth advertising they get is invaluable. Plus, it feels absolutely amazing when you make a real difference.
2. Natural likeability:
If you ever met a politician, chances are they were a likeable person. Candidates and their volunteers don’t want a door slammed in their face, so they are quick to develop people skills. Those who are successful in politics are often charming people who you enjoy being around.
Winning campaigns require thoughtful planning. Once elected, the same holds true for policy. Politicians and their aides need to carefully strategize to achieve their goals.
4. Ownership thinking:
Not only is it important for the volunteers and staff of any political office or campaign to buy-in to the vision, but also they need to take ownership of it. Ownership thinking in politics helps promote a shared agenda, brings people together, and improves accountability.
5. Team player:
It’s nearly impossible to get anything done in politics or government by yourself. Winning campaigns and successful politicians depend heavily on team players working together, even across party lines.
6. Positive attitude:
Many people don’t want to waste their vote on someone they think will lose. Not only do politicians need to believe they can make a difference, they need to show the voters they can get it done.
7. High energy:
Politics isn’t a 9 to 5 job. Nights and weekends are the norm, especially in an election year. Candidates, their staff ,and volunteers all need to be just as energetic as they are enthusiastic.
8. Media savvy:
Politicians rely heavily on the traditional media to get their message out, but social media is playing a bigger role in campaigns and government. It is critical to stay on top of the latest technology and tools.
So, following the advice of my dentist, I didn’t try to become a public relations professional. It turns out I already was. I did what I enjoyed and had fun—and I still am.
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week's Career Makeovers column about a PR professional who left her gig at
an agency to start her own firm.
Mike Kennerknecht is the public relations manager at Tipping Point Media & Public Relations. He is the former chief of staff for New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo. You can connect with him online at www.mikekennerknecht.com.