“Must Ask” PR Job Interview Questions

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In addition to being an extremely successful jobs site, CareerBuilder produces a great deal of interesting research about work life. Among their most often-quoted survey findings: Two of five employers estimate that the cost of a bad hire exceeds $25,000, and one-quarter say such hires cost more than $50,000.

Companies can avoid the fiscal burden, of course, by asking the right questions during job interviews. Once again, CareerBuilder helpfully addresses this by presenting what I’d call “tricky tough” but fair questions to ask candidates. This inspired me to come up with my own inquiries to pose to PR position interviewees. They’re not quite as tricky as the ones cited by CareerBuilder (one example: “If you were trapped in a blender, what would you do to get out?”). But they do drive toward the “must have” skills that I’d want to see in a PR pro. So here are my top three PR interview questions candidates should know how to answer:

“Tell me what’s wrong with the following sentence: ‘On Sept. 4, 2015, Acme Company will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their launch in 1965.’ ”

Well, the math works out fine. There’s nothing stylistically incorrect about the sentence. However, it contains a grammatical error that I see all the time in press releases: A company is not a “they.” A company is an “it.”

Am I playing “grammar police” here? Probably. But here’s why: Clients pay PR firms sizable monthly retainers. Because they’re staffed by communications professionals, these firms should hire people who have a command over the basics of the English language. True, in the texting/Twitter era, there’s little attention paid to such details. But, again, if all things are equal, I’m going with the candidate who at least knows the fundamentals and can incorporate them into any communications – including a Tweet.

“How much time have you spent reporting and writing news?”

Why? Because if two candidates come to me with equally appealing qualities and credentials, I’d consider news experience to be the deciding factor. That means any experience – a year with a media outlet, an internship, a freelance gig or some assignments from the college newspaper. Yes, just one journalism class would “count” here because it would require the reporting and writing of at least one news story. Even a minor brush with reporting will at least give the candidate an edge in understanding how news gathering works, and what editorial staffers define as a story and what they don’t. PR pros need to develop a sense of what sorts of stories/angles are interesting to reporters and editors. Spending some time in their shoes (again, even if just for a semester of Journalism 101) can help greatly here.

This helps not only with pitching, but in responding to journalists’ inquiries about a pitch. When I was a reporter, I could tell within a short phone conversation or email exchange whether the PR pro had legitimate news experience (or at least awareness) or not. And, if so, it went a long way toward establishing credibility and, thus, the trust factor.

“Show me your three best press release headlines/subject headers.”

Unfortunately, in the modern age of information overload, a PR person needs to “sell” the reporter with the press release headline (as viewed on a newswire search) or the subject header (as received via email). It’s not like the old days when press release faxes would pile up, and editors would at least read the first paragraph or two before making a judgment. Today, those editors start their mornings by calling up dozens (or hundreds) of pitches in their email in-box, and then review as many headlines in a newswire search. Logistically speaking, there’s no way they’re calling up anything that doesn’t scream “news!” in the subject header/headline.

So if I’m interviewing PR job candidates, I want to see whether they frame a pitch by highlighting its newsiest elements in the header/headline. If so, that tells me they’re able to identify the most impactful factors within the pitch, and convey them within a very limited number of words.

At our high-tech PR firm, we’re constantly looking for talented people who understand the significance of these and other essential skills. We recognize that such qualities directly translate to a higher standard of services that sets us apart from the competition. If that’s a standard you like to see in a full-service communications firm, then please do contact us.

Dennis McCafferty is Director of Content for W2 Communications.