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What working in public relations in Toronto is really like

by Alena Blanes

“I don’t think any path should ever be linear.” — Julia Hood, JENNY BIRD

I probably speak for a lot of students when I say this–thinking about life beyond graduation is hard. We can easily fall into vicious traps thinking we’re not good enough. Not smart enough. Not ‘qualified’ enough to do well after we walk across that stage. While this is a common phenomenon, it’s nothing to break down about. In fact, having a little career apprehension can be a good thing.

For any communications, media, or public relations student, you’ll know the media landscape has changed drastically. Thanks to the influx of social and digital technologies, the ways we communicate online and in-person are almost incomparable to what it was just ten years ago. You know, the pre-Instagram days.

To get a feel for current the industry climate and gain insight on where we might be headed, I met up with Toronto-based marketing communications and digital media specialist, Julia Hood.

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With expertise in digital marketing and communications, Julia has worked across the field from Aritzia, Loblaws, Kit and Ace, and Saje Natural Wellness. These days, she does brand communications with Canadian jewelry label JENNY BIRD.

A Torontonian born and raised; Julia completed a bachelor’s in Art History at Queens University. After taking a gap year, she enrolled in the Humber Post-Graduate Public Relations program. Thanks to supportive conversations with former students and encouragement from her mom, she knew it would be an unfamiliar, yet eye-opening experience.

“At the time, I didn’t really know what PR was. But the social element is what appealed to me,” she said.

At just under a year long, the program is intense. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do once I finished, but was open to exploring different avenues,” she said. Unlike university programs, Humber post-graduate programs are very hands-on, something she wasn’t used to coming from an academic background. “I loved the group work, aspect. It was amazing,” she said beaming.

As an extrovert, Julia felt the program would be a good fit. “I’ve always been very social and open to meeting new people. That’s what lights me up.”

Of course, while continuing one’s education is a good way to build up a network, skills and confidence, it’s not the end all be all. Julia experienced this first-hand. “I will be honest; I don’t think school can really prepare you for what you’ll get into. It’s a good taste, but it’s not the full picture,” she said.

And what about internships?

For many of us, myself included, the hunt for an internship or placement can be terrifying. Endless applications, anxious waiting, and empty inboxes are just a few of the common anxieties associated with nailing that position.

As for Julia, her best advice isn’t exactly what we want to hear: “Don’t just go for the ones with a cool website or who are very glitz and glam,” she said. “Listen to your gut and your heart.”

If you don’t end up with the internship of your dreams, it’s not all a loss. “In the moment, you may not feel good, but you’re learning from everything you’re going through.”

As well, if you’re not certain on which stream you want to go into, you’re not alone. Seeking out as many opportunities and volunteer experiences as possible will give you the chance to build your skill set and grow your connections. Do you know what that spells? E-m-p-l-o-y-m-e-n-t.

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Building connections that last

Ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you PR is all about relationships. When talking connections, networking is typically top of mind. For some, however, this usually evokes sweaty palms and swelling stress levels. “There’s just something robotic about the term,” Julia said.

So, what’s a student to do?

“Connections are great, but with a phone, we have everything at our fingertips. If you’re interested in what someone is doing, message them on Instagram or LinkedIn. Invite people for coffee. Bring friends to the events you’re going to. And don’t think it has to be an industry event, either. Just get curious and be open.”

What exactly is an ‘average’ day like?

There really is no ‘typical’ in the PR world. One day could be congested with unread emails where the next could be briefings with journalists. At JENNY BIRD, Julia brainstorms product names, connects with stylists and influencers, and does lots and lots of pitching.

Of course, it’s not all work and no play. “Last week, I was doing a campaign photoshoot. But no day is like the other. It’s always different and I love that.”

Career satisfaction

Despite the leap from art history to public relations, Julia says she hasn’t felt restricted. “It helped develop a creative eye, and an appreciation for art and interior aesthetics in general.” For many, the fear of regret can put a hitch in our career plans. However, through staying open and receptive of opportunities, she was able to carve out memorable career gains.

“I am so grateful for all the waves and ups and downs. Not all paths have to be linear–in fact, they shouldn’t be.”

Social media overload

Of course, the issue of social media in the workplace piques the interest of many employers across multiple industries. According to a 2018 Udemy survey, nearly 74% of millennials report feeling distracted by social media at work.

Couple that with the increasing obligation for maintaining a squeaky clean online brand reputation, and social media and communications professionals often have their work cut out for them.

“You have to be on all of the time. Especially if you’re speaking on behalf of a brand.” While overwhelming at times, the humanistic quality that social media can bring the consumer is incomparable to the former protocol of calling—or worse, mailing an office. Archaic, I know. 

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Future of employment

This year, I’ve made it a habit to ask guest speakers and industry experts where they see the future of employment going. In our digital age, it came as no surprise what Julia had noted too. “I have so many friends that are freelancing and just killing it with the side hustles,” she said.

From co-working spaces, meditation classes, and the “working remote” privileges, there certainly have been several changes across multiple industries in efforts to increase productivity and mental health in the workplace.

“At Saje, we had Fresh Air Fridays. If you got your work done, you could do it from wherever if you were meeting your deadlines. It was very healthy,” she shared.

“I think we will see less of a 9-5 kind of work structure in general.”

Ingredients for success

If you’re ready to take the PR world by storm but aren’t sure where to begin, here are Julia’s 5 tips:

  1. Go in with an open mind
  2. Meet as many people as you can
  3. Be hungry
  4. Leave your ego at the door
  5. Be kind – it will get you much farther than you think

“In PR, you don’t really have the steps laid out for you. But in reflection, I’m grateful I didn’t have those steps. My path has been all over the place and I think it’s made me much more well-rounded. It’s made me different than anyone else.”

*Banner photos courtesy of Julia Hood*


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