CK Insights

January 6, 2012

A word about cover letters…

Anne Green

I made time today for an informational interview with a student who will be graduating in the Spring of 2012, and is eager to break into the PR field. She has already experienced the fierce competition that currently characterizes the entry level when trying to obtain an agency internship for Summer 2011. We had a good conversation about the various avenues to consider to strengthen both her experience base and her impact on prospective employers. And then she asked this question: What about her cover letters?

I made time today for an informational interview with a student who will be graduating in the Spring of 2012, and is eager to break into the PR field. She has already experienced the fierce competition that currently characterizes the entry level when trying to obtain an agency internship for Summer 2011. We had a good conversation about the various avenues to consider to strengthen both her experience base and her impact on prospective employers. And then she asked this question: What about her cover letters?

Ah, the cover letter.

I thought for a moment, and then came clean with my first and most honest reaction: I don’t read them. Or, if I do read them, the letter gets maybe 3 to 5 seconds max of my attention. Then I’m immediately off to focus on the resume.

After this somewhat guilty admission, I launched into a whole series of semi-connected perspectives on the subject. Having gone on for a minute or so on the subject, I had a little internal dialogue with myself. The dialogue went something like this:

‘Wow, Anne, apparently you have a lot of heated opinions on this topic, don’t you?’
 
‘Yes, well, I guess I really hate cover letters. Or at the very least, I find them impossible to read.’
 
‘And then you feel bad about it, right? Like: “Gee this person wrote a cover letter and I hardly read it.”’
 
‘Yep, that sounds about right!’
 
The next logical question came from the prospective candidate. Which is, so what should she do? How could she write a cover letter than would help her break through? It’s a valid question, since a “disembodied” resume is not necessary the answer.
 
In response, I shared these tips that would work for me:
 
♦ Lose the big blocks of prose. When confronted with a full-page letter of four dense paragraphs, I tend to shut down. Yes, I will scan the page with my eyes. But what am I actually reading and / or comprehending? When I am in hiring mode, I am moving fast – usually because I am dealing in volume.
 
♦ Bullet points can be your friend. Yes, the business community has been PowerPoint-ed to death. But bulleted information works for a reason. It parses info into bite-sized pieces that are easier to scan. And since that’s all I am doing with most cover letters anyway, isn’t that a more ideal way to topline your most vital info for me?
 
♦ Pick out the four things (or three, or five) that really connect YOUR experience to date with what the PR industry needs right now. That is your core narrative. It’s why you would be an asset to a firm that has so many entry level candidates to choose among. And if you can’t articulate a few of the ways your background really connects to what’s needed in our field today, then do some crash-course industry reading to spur your thinking. Check out industry organizations and news sources like the Council of Public Relations Firms, PRWeek, The Holmes Report and O’Dwyers. Dig into the many great PR blogs and bloggers out there for commentary and insights (The Bad Pitch Blog is a good place, for example, to learn what NOT to do). And see what kinds of connections you can make between what you can offer, and what’s being talked about right now in the industry.
 
♦ Help your most relevant points pop through both language and design. A simple example, using bullets, is below:
 
o Measurement & Monitoring: I have hands-on experience monitoring, capturing and helping to measure the impact of PR campaigns. I did this for two of my internships using tools like Cision and… (etc., etc.)
 
o Social Media: Not only am I personally immersed in several social tools and platforms, I’ve also supported a variety client work in the social space – helping me understand the connection between the tools, the audience and the strategy. I’m hands-on with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and others, and have used Google Analytics… (etc., etc.).
 
♦ Let the text breath – get some space in there! See how one line space between the bullets above makes them SO much easier to read than lots of dense copy. And see also how those brief “headlines” in bold and color pop off the page (or email).
 
♦ Use your email as your “cover” (e.g., no separate cover letter may be needed). I often get one line in the email, and then attachments for both a resume and cover letter. Drop the separate document when you can, and grab me with the email intro. That’s one less attachment to open.
 
This all adds up to the kind of piece I’d be more likely to review. Am I typical of all resume readers in the PR industry right now? Who knows. But getting a piece of anyone’s mindshare these days is tough, particularly when you’re competing in a difficult job market. So if any of these approaches helps to grab just a bit more of that hiring manager’s attention…all the better.
 
 
 


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