By Adrian Granzella Larssen, February 07, 2014
The public relations world has changed a lot since 1991, when Liz Kaplow founded Kaplow PR, her award-winning consumer PR agency that represents everything from Timex to Target. But a few things haven’t: Namely, the key skills it takes to break in.
“We all want leaders—people with high enthusiasm, and people who can express that in a succinct way about themselves,” she shares.
As head of the still-growing firm and president of New York Women in Communications, Inc., she has incredible insight about how to start and succeed in a communications career. Here, she shares how she got started, and the most important skills to have if you want to break in and make it to the top.
My education wasn’t specific to public relations; I was an English major. I’m a big proponent of a liberal arts education, because it taught me to learn and think critically, to look at things in a very 360-degree way, and to connect dots.
When I got out of school, that’s when I started thinking about how to focus this background into a career. I did a one-year advertising communications program that was really the opposite of my undergrad education—it was very specific, hands-on learning—and that’s how I discovered PR. I really got to see what it meant to tell a brand’s story to the media, and I just fell in love.
After that, I had an internship and then went on to work at a PR firm for many years. I had little children, and it became very difficult to balance family and agency life. I started Kaplow in 1991. Back then, there was no technology to work remotely. One of the main reasons I started the firm was to have that flexibility, to keep that sense of independence. And it’s interesting—that’s some of the culture that we’re trying to bring back in the working world now.
You’ve been in the PR world for 25 years now—so you’ve seen people come and go. What are the key skills that someone needs to succeed?
When asked this question, I go right to the traditional skills. First, you must be able to be succinct and tell a story in a very streamlined way, especially about yourself. When you interview for a new job, you must be ready to talk about that one thing in your background that’s going to be a solution for the interviewer.
Even if you’re just starting out, think about things you’ve done that show leadership; attention to detail, high energy, and an ability to rally people. If you’ve fundraised for your sorority or been part of a sustainability initiative for your community—those are things that apply to a job. We all want leaders, and that’s something that you need to be able to express about yourself.
In addition, you want to show efficiency at work, the ability to speak and present well and in plain language, and good, strong writing (even if it’s in 140 characters!).
What about the newer skills—what’s become particularly important over the last few years?
The landscape has changed so rapidly—I look at the last five years of this business, and more change has happened in PR than in the previous 20 years!
And so, it’s so important that you’re relevant. You really have to be much more 360-degrees in your skill set than before. You have to be able to understand social media and changes in technology and the way technology is providing solutions. I think it presents an interesting opportunity for young people who are naturally adept at using technology and connecting through social media—in that sense, young people have a lot to bring in terms of skill set.
What do you personally look for when you’re hiring and interviewing candidates?
There are a couple of basic things. When someone comes in with energy—when they are excited—that’s a great start. It’s infectious, and you know that it will be good for the culture and the team.
Also, I look for candidates who have done their homework and understand the business. Coming into the interview understanding that Kaplow has expanded beyond traditional PR and is embracing all of these tools to connect with the consumer is key. And making the link between your skill set and how you can be a solution to our agency is huge. When someone is meeting with me, I do want to know about them, but I also want to know how they can be of service to the agency.
The last thing I look for is what I call a “corporate indie”—someone within a corporation who has a strong, independent entrepreneurial spirit. You don’t have to start your own company to embrace new things, to take risks, and to not live in fear of failure.
Looking back on your career path, what’s something you wish you had done differently?
To say yes, easily, to trying new things. I did this, but wish I had done it more.
What I mean is: Say yes even if something is not in your core area, even if you don’t know if you’re ready for it. If you have determination and resourcefulness, you’ll learn as you go, you’ll rise to the occasion, and you’ll figure it out. The times that I’ve done that, it’s really been successful.
For example, our agency started in fashion and beauty, but it was the ’90s and we wanted to break into consumer tech. And the first opportunity to do so was iVillage—which was sort of the modern day picket fence where these communities of women were gathering online. We pitched that business even though most of our team had no prior internet experience—but I knew we could do it: We understand women, and we understand how to reach them. That’s what we pitched, and they hired us in the meeting. I think it was that “yes” attitude that did it.
You need courage, and you need to not overthink things. That fearlessness will get you there.
Any other career wisdom for people in the PR world—or any field?
You don’t have to have a specific road map. If you stay flexible and open, you’ll see there’s this long road—we’re drawn in along the way and we make stops along the way, and that’s where we find our interests, and we apply that to the next thing.
What I love so much about my work with New York Women in Communications, which empowers women of all communications disciplines to be successful, is seeing that there isn’t one right path for everyone. There’s so much pressure to be finite about what we’re going to do, so I love hearing stories of different paths and hearing women who’ve “made it” be vulnerable and talk about the times along the way that they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do—or that they changed paths or went a different direction.
The beauty about today is you can choose a number of paths. If you love to write, you can write and be published and at the same time be working somewhere and at the same time be fulfilling a dream of photography. It’s not just one ladder at one company. There’s an open mindedness that has created a new kind of success.