At a recent PRSA Silicon Valley workshop, two PR pros with very different perspectives shared their insights on how to ace a job interview.
David Vossbrink has nearly a half century of experience in communications and interviewing people. Jasmine Garcia is a recent grad who successfully landed a great job this year as Events Project Manager at LinkedIn after 30 interviews with 13 different companies over eight months. Their interviewing advice applies to seasoned professionals as well as new PR pros.
Research: Do your homework
“Before the interview, do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the company, the position, and yourself,” says Vossbrink.
With research, you’ll gain a better understanding of what interviewers look for, how to prepare for the position, and how to present your experience and strengths that are relevant to the company.
Garcia agrees. “I set up spreadsheets for each organization I was interviewing with, including info about people and products, challenges and competition, and mission and history. That really helped me keep everything organized so I wouldn’t lose track of facts and key points for all my interviews.”
The good news is that research is much easier now, so start with the company’s website and its social media presence. The bad news: There’s a ton of information to sift through.
Use your professional networks and LinkedIn to find people inside the organization who can share what the culture is like, what the issues are, and what the position is about. Find out who’ll be interviewing you and look them up—after all, you know they’re doing that with you, too.
“You need to be able to answer this critical question: ‘How will you help us address our greatest challenge?’ You can’t just wing it—this takes knowledge, thought and practice for a winning response,” says Vossbrink. “If the question isn’t asked, work your answers into your other responses.”
During her 30+ interviews, Garcia learned to tailor her answers to focus on what the company was looking for, and how she could help them.
“An interview isn’t really about you—it’s about the company needing to solve a problem and whether your experience and skills can help,” she says.
Research also means knowing yourself and what you’re looking for. Go beyond thinking about your strengths, weaknesses and how you’ve met challenges and delivered results. What do want in a workplace culture? What kind of company do you want to avoid?
And know your dealbreakers, such as commuting distance, travel expectations, work/life balance issues, and professional development goals.
You’ll also need to be able to account for major gaps in your work history, or negative departures. Have positive answers for job-hopping and short tenures, and don’t share anything negative about past employers.
Only you know your own stories. Long before your interview dig deep to find and refine your stories that show what you’ve done and how you did it. Include your stories of mistakes and failures, too, and what lessons you’ve learned from them.
And if you have any social media baggage (yes, look up yourself, or better yet, have someone else look you up), then clean that up as much as you can. Prepare your explanations for any awkward posts you made years ago. The internet doesn’t forget.
Planning, preparation and practice
After research comes planning—and preparation and practice. If you’re running a PR campaign, you must plan. Getting ready for your interview is much the same.
Anticipate interview questions and prepare your responses. Your goal is to minimize surprises and boost your confidence going in. The first question is almost always something like: “Tell us about yourself and why you’re interested in working for us.”
So, develop your “elevator pitch”—what has made you right for the position. Keep it short and focused (less than two minutes) and related to the job.
“This is not a test of your life history,” says Vossbrink. “I once had a senior-level candidate who took twenty minutes to respond to this prompt—more than half the time allotted for the interview. He didn’t get the job.”
Common questions can include:
- Tell me about your biggest mistake (or biggest challenge) and how your handled it.
- What kind of work environment do you like best? Least? Why?
- Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss about something significant.
- What’s your greatest weakness as it relates to this job? (And what have you done to overcome it?)
“There are amazing online resources and advice about how to respond to specific interview questions,” says Garcia. “Use them to develop your answers and talking points ahead of time, just as you would do to get ready for a media interview.”
“Write them out, whether full sentences or a bullet points, but get them into your system so you have stories at your fingertips during the interview.”
Check your technology, practice your interview skills.
With many interviews conducted remotely over Zoom and other platforms, it’s important to consider how you come across to others.
Is your Zoom background professional? Does it show your personality—books on shelves, pictures on the wall? If you’re Zooming from home, don’t include an unmade bed in your background. Find a virtual background that is relevant to the company and position. Keep your pets out of the picture, and prevent other unprofessional sounds.
And be sure your technology is working, your lighting and audio are good, and your battery is fully charged. Test it!
As any athlete or musician will confirm, practice builds confidence and skill. Conduct mock interviews with people you trust who have been through the interview process successfully. Listen to their feedback. Use your smart phone to record your sessions, and time your answers so you can tighten them up.
At the interview
From the moment you show up, you’re on stage. Be professional with everyone you encounter: receptionist, administrative assistant, and anyone in the hallway.
When you walk in or log on, read the room. Are the interviewers paying attention or playing with their devices? Smiling or frowning? Who’s in charge? Keep reading the room throughout the interview.
Show confidence with your body language and eye contact. Speak with a firm voice and sit up straight. When the interview is over, shake hands and get the correct spelling of the interviewers’ names so you can follow up later.
“After failing to do research, the other biggest problem I’ve seen over decades of interviewing is an inability to tell their stories. It’s so frustrating to listen to public relations job candidates make this mistake, at all levels of their careers,” says Vossbrink. “We’re in a storytelling profession, and job candidates should be experts in their own stories. Yet all too often they don’t demonstrate that essential skill.”
Anticipate story questions so you’ll have stories ready to tell about your successes, challenges, failures, and epiphanies. These questions usually start with phrases like this: “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of when…”
Make your stories short and related to the job and organization; they need to be personal, authentic, and illuminating. Your stories should convey the lessons you’ve learned while overcoming obstacles and delivering results.
Always give credit to your team—you didn’t do this all by yourself—but explain your role and relationship to the team. Pay attention to the clock. Stories must have a point, and you always pivot to their relevance to the company and the position.
Even the playing field
Although interviewers are in charge of the session, remember, you’re interviewing them too. Try to engage in a two-way conversation, not merely a one-way interrogation.
The interviewers also will need to make the case that you should come work there. Help them do that by asking questions (which are research-based, of course):
- What are your greatest challenges?
- Where do you see the business/the technology/the competition in the next five years?
- What’s it like to work here?
- How do you encourage innovation?
- How do you support the professional development of your team?
- What are your expectations for people in this job in the first six months, the first year?
This is not the time to ask about pay and benefits or flex schedules. All that can come later—when you get an offer. The interview is about how you can help solve problems, not about your needs and desires for the perfect job.
Finally, close with a strong pitch: Tell the interviewers why you want this job and why you’re right for the company. Ask for it, as concretely and as authentically as you can. Close the deal, and use the information you’ve learned during the interview as well as from your research to adjust your opening elevator pitch.
Remember that the interview isn’t over until you leave the building. Every person you come across is part of the process and might provide feedback to the interviewers. As with media interviews, assume the mic is always on.
Say thank you as you leave and write thank you notes, either by email or handwritten. As with any good thank you note, be specific, personal and brief. If you promised to provide something after the interview, such as a portfolio, a reference, or a missing fact, do it by the next day.
If you don’t get the position, it’s OK to ask your interviewers how you could have done better or why you were passed over. What skills or experience were they looking for that you didn’t have? What advice do they have to help you with future job hunting?
It’s also OK to ask for leads for potential “informational interviews.” Is there anybody that they would recommend that you should meet to learn more about the industry, the marketplace, or for networking? Asking interviewers for LinkedIn connections can be particularly valuable.
“Most interviewers were willing to become part of my network, and some offered me leads for potential openings to pursue. Even if you don’t get the job, your interview can open doors to professional relationships and further opportunities,” says Garcia.
“Interviewing is a campaign,” adds Vossbrink. “You just have to do your research; plan, prepare, and practice; implement with confidence; and evaluate and follow up. It’s PR—you can do it.”
David Vossbrink, APR, retired after a long career in local government communications in the San Francisco Bay Area and now consults with public sector and university clients. Jasmine Garcia is an events project manager at LinkedIn. Both are PRSA Silicon Valley board members.