Three tips for people starting their career in communication

The prospect of meeting with intern candidates this month has had me thinking about what advice I would give to someone who is about to embark on a career in corporate communication.

There are many possible pieces of good advice worth sharing – and I’m interested to hear what you would add to the three I’ve focused on in this article.

  1. Be a business person first and a communication person second

On the face of it, this might seem like strange advice to give to someone who has just spent three years (or more) investing in a university education that qualifies them to specialise in communication.

But there are sound business reasons behind this thinking.

As a communication professional you limit yourself when you think, or project to your colleagues in the organisation, beliefs such as ‘I’m just the communication person’ or ‘this is a business issue, not a communication issue.’

Business leaders need communication partners who understand and can contribute to driving business momentum and solving business problems.

The current operating environment has increased the potential for communication to contribute as a communication strategist and also as a business strategist, but only if we think and operate like business people.

This doesn’t mean you have to have skills that rival the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Operating Officer or the executive in charge of products and services. But it does mean understanding the competitive landscape, the customer, the core products, services and operations of the organisation, the threats and opportunities and so forth.

Without this understanding, how can you identify where communication can add value and how can you engage credibly in conversation with your business partner?

Obviously there’s a lot that can be learned on the job if you apply yourself to the learning (see point 3), but if there are key gaps it’s worth considering short courses to fill them.

Soon after joining the banking sector from the world of politics in 2006, I enrolled in a Finance for Non-Financial Managers course (also known as finance for dummies!) because I knew I would need stronger financial acumen to work in a specialist financial institution.

The course was a good investment because it gave me a framework for understanding and for building knowledge every day at work, helping set me up for many years in global executive roles in banking.

  1. Don’t be a specialist and don’t be a generalist

Confused? My advice would be to become a ‘multi-specialist.’

By all means specialise in one sub-function such as internal communication, but then spend some time specialising in media relations, government relations, community relations, investor relations (the latter of which does call for some CFO skills) – or any of the other streams of communication and stakeholder engagement.

The convergence that’s taking place right now in communication means that many of these lines are becoming more arbitrary, so the function of the future may look very different.

However for the time being, there’s no doubt that if you wish to rise through the ranks of the profession it’s an advantage to have experience in more than one of the sub-functions.

Great communication professionals can be knocked back for head of function roles when they are so specialised in one area, they can’t demonstrate sufficient depth of experience and capability in other key areas such as media relations, internal communication or government relations.

You may not have an aspiration to one day run the function. Even so, you will be a better practitioner if you have experience in multiple specialty areas of the function and the ability to integrate different thinking into your core role and to collaborate effectively across the function.

There’s a fair bit being written lately about the rise of the ‘generalist’ communication professional and there’s certainly more value for a business from fully-integrated communication thinking and delivery.

However, my sense is that being a generalist in the function of today is most powerful when it comes after time spent specialising in more than one area because more often than not the function continues to be divided into specialist sub-functional teams.

That’s why I currently prefer the term ‘multi-specialist’ – although it’s something that needs a watching brief to see where this will head over coming years.

  1. Take accountability for your own learning and development

It’s wonderful when your organisation invests in your training and development – and when it does, you should grab that opportunity and apply yourself to learning.

But what if the company isn’t currently investing in training opportunities and neither are you? Given the current pace of change, if you’re not moving forward, you’re not just standing still. You’re actually moving backwards.

Communication is being disrupted and the only way to keep pace with the change is to be continually engaged with what’s happening.

For example:
– How is it changing?
– What’s the latest thinking?
– What are the emerging technologies?
– What does all of this mean for our profession and for the organisations we support?

In addition to seeking out extra duties or special projects as opportunities to learn on the job, there are plenty of short courses on offer in communication these days that enable practitioners to top up their knowledge and build new skills.

Joining a professional association is another great way to build your network and learn from fellow communication professionals. A shout out here to the International Association of Business Communicators, and particularly the Victorian chapter where I’m a member.

Continual learning should also be a daily habit and social media is a great place to start.

Joining professional networks and following thought leaders from the profession on LinkedIn and Twitter will give you around-the-clock access to latest thinking, trends and breakthroughs for the function.

These forums are also a great place to test your own thinking and get feedback by putting out content and engaging in conversation with others.

To get ahead and have a successful career, you shouldn’t sit back waiting for someone else to invest in you – be responsible for managing your own development.

The opportunities for new graduates joining the communication profession today are exciting.

The business world has a lot to impart to new recruits and as digital natives, they in turn have the opportunity to apply new mindsets and skills as businesses apply new technologies and approaches to deliver on the changing needs and expectations of customers and staff.

by Mairi barton

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in communication?
Is there something you wish you had been told when you were starting out? Or is there something you think is important to share about the current landscape for communication?

Please join the conversation via the comments section below.







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Mairi Barton is a strategic communication and public affairs leader who has influenced and delivered outcomes at the highest levels of the Australian corporate, government and non-profit sectors. Mairi is the founder and Chief Executive of strategic communication agency Pinch Yourself Communication. She is an award-winning former journalist who served in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra. Mairi enjoys photography and posts to her Instagram gallery: @pinchmyself