It’s always both exciting and stressful to take a new position—it’s a leap into the semi-known and an opportunity to start building a new reputation.
I’ve observed from both my own experience and watching others that the first six months in a new public relations job is when you identify most of the important priorities you should tackle. And then, after six months, you get sucked into the daily vortex of responsibilities and deadlines that take over your brain and your life and squeeze out space for your creativity.
It’s all new only once
Over your first several months, you must build your inventory of good ideas. This includes the problems to solve, opportunities to pursue, practices and systems to change and improve, resources you need, relationships to nurture—and all those flashes of inspiration that occur to you while in the shower, working out or drifting into sleep.
This inventory will become the core of your plan for the long haul, regardless of whether it gets formalized as your achievement plan or remains as simply your own personal agenda.
Also during those first months you have to learn the territory, and being organized and systematic about that is a good thing (though staying flexible is really important, too).
You should always be listening and asking questions—about organizational history, culture, people, issues, policies, politics, processes and relationships—both inside and outside the organization. Your key questions are:
- How do we do things here, and why?
- What are the barriers to change?
- Whose rings do you have to kiss?
- Who’s trustworthy?
- How does your budget work?
This also means lots of reading—old news stories, internal reports and white papers, a deep dive into the company’s website, and old memos and emails. And don’t forget your field trips—whenever possible, meet people on their own turf to get a feel for their work environments, needs and constraints. This is tougher during the COVID era, but one-on-one huddles remain essential whether virtual or in-person.
And geography is critically important, especially if your company’s people and concerns are spread out. Get out into your communities. Meet coworkers from the line to the top brass, as well as your clients, customers and stakeholders. Learn as much as you can about the business. Ask these people to be your guides—they’ll be great for their knowledge, great for your relationships and great for networking.
And all these people are great for stories, too. Always look for stories. Your first six months is when your ignorance is gold, since everything you don’t understand can be the hook for a story you can develop for your PR work. Take advantage of the gift of what you don’t know yet.
No coasting, however
Still, during those early months you’ll have to deliver results and provide good service—you’ll never have the luxury of just easing into a new job. After all, they hired you to solve a problem now, manage a team or a project, or accomplish a goal that’s been elusive.
But this is the time to seek early and easy wins, such as prepping the boss for an interview, getting a story placed or fixing a technical matter. This is when you can develop a positive reputation that buys you credibility in the organization so you can take on bigger tasks. I call it “earning merit.”
As always, it’s a matter of balance. You’re coming in as a seasoned professional brimming with confidence, yet you must also have the humility of ignorance. You know there are better ways, but you have to respect the past and the people who created this present day. And you have to manage expectations—promise small, deliver big. Know your strengths and use them. Know your weak spots and improve them.
Past is prologue
Your reception will be colored by the reputation of your predecessor—learn what it was. If you’re following a saint, a revered long-term pro, it will be harder for you. If you follow a flake, however, it might be easier because you’ll be met with relief. And if this is a new position, you’ll have the unique opportunity to mold it—but make sure you keep your boss on board with your vision.
If you have a team, either direct or indirect, you must cultivate them. Listen to them, and learn their strengths and weaknesses, their reputations, their plans and performance, their goals and dreams—but remember they also deserve a clean slate with you. Work with them on their career development; that will become your development, too.
And don’t come in with the “prior idiots phenomenon” that denigrates everything done before your arrival. I’ve seen it happen too many times, and it really will burn bridges you didn’t even know were there. First, learn what really does need to be fixed. Learn what are the real priorities of the organization, and of your boss.
Change for the sake of change—just to put your personal stamp on it—is costly, unnecessary and really annoying. Unless that’s what you’ve been hired for, rebranding or building a new website isn’t the first thing you should be using your scant reputational capital for.
Make a short term checklist
In your first few weeks and months, Identify a few key items you can focus on right away—which people to meet, which meetings to attend, which reports to edit—but you’ll need to have more context before you can deliver anything major. Maybe you want to create or overhaul the communications plan, but do a communications audit first.
Making relationships with your regular media is a good thing to do early, so arrange coffee or Zoom meetings with beat reporters, but don’t forget your key influencers and bloggers. Find out who they are, since they’re important to understanding your business and community, and they can help make or break your ability to serve as an information conduit.
Your first six months on the job is a tremendous opportunity to set your long-distance trajectory. It’s exhilarating, exhausting and essential to do it right. As the old saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
David Vossbrink retired as director of communications for the City of San Jose after more than four decades as a local government public information officer, and he continues to provide strategic communications consulting services for public agencies and universities. He is a past president and long-time board member of PRSA Silicon Valley.