When I first interned at a Delhi-based IT company in the corporate communications team immediately after my post-graduation in the late 90s, besides my formal education and a half-heartedly completed year at Aptech Coimbatore (R.S.Puram!), I did not know anything about corporate communications. At all. 🙂
Heck, I had been to New Delhi just once before that, as a tourist, and I have no idea how I found the confidence to just land in Delhi for the first time as a non-tourist, find my own PG accommodation (after a false-start of humorous proportions) and just get on with life away from home!
But the first job exposed me to the innards of a corporate communication team. Not the front-line part of media relations, senior executive and spokesperson management, or internal communication, but the tasks in the background because I was an intern. The front-line tasks were handled by the more experienced people in the team, of course.
What were my background tasks? Managing the production of the company newsletter! Before joining this team, I had never seen even a single edition or copy of a company newsletter. These were the pre-internet days and hence access to such things was vastly limited and strictly on-demand, based on your connections.
And I had to work with external vendors for the newsletter.
My other task was to oversee print advertisements for the company’s educational division that competed with the likes of Aptech and NIIT, in computer education. I had never worked with an ad agency prior to that and didn’t know anything about the operations of advertising while only being interested in the function from being obsessed with the magazine called A&M.
So, my internal task was to ‘learn’ how to do my job better/well.
I sat with my vendors in charge of designing and printing the newsletter. Besides bringing my skill (content writing, by scouring for stories within the organization and prioritizing noteworthy stories), I learnt Aldus Pagemaker, Photoshop, and a few other software by simply spending enough time with the design vendor, and the very process of printing. This included learning about different paper grammages (GSM) and the kinds of papers that exist, and which ones are used for what purpose. Then, the printing production, by staying while the printing happens.
I could have stayed back in the office, taking refuge in my role as a ‘client’, but I wanted to know what is happening and how… so that I sound like the most knowledgeable person in the room – as knowledgeable as I can afford to sound because I was the junior-most in the entire team – an outsider.
For the advertising part, I spent time at the agency (Foresight Advertising) to learn the nuances – the size of the ad, the how of media-buying including costs, getting ‘creatives’ ready, the deadlines involved, and so on.
But, the learning came immediately handy in my new job when I moved to Bangalore. It was to be the sole corporate communications person for a software product company and it involved everything I had painstakingly learnt on the job earlier – in-house magazine and advertising.
Then, there were new things to learn.
I started handling public relations for the first time in my life. So, with the help of the company’s PR agency at that time, I learnt the ropes of that line of work, right from the basics of creating the messaging framework for the organization, to the operational tasks including press release, press conferences, media interviews, and so on.
The company had recently gone public, and so that opened up another avenue for learning – annual reports! This involved more hands-on learning – sit with the designer, plan the content inside out, and of course, sit with the printing vendor to understand the basics all over again, because this was a much longer process and thicker output 🙂
There was also employee communication to handle, besides recruitment communication. Every new item was a tremendous learning process that required only one thing from my side – be curious and go after them to learn the innards from scratch.
This helped me move confidently to a PR agency, away from the client-side.
Once again, there was a new learning opportunity again at the PR agency. Besides the regular PR-related tasks and work, since this was the late-2000s, social media was just beginning to make a mark in India and I couldn’t help but observe how things in the PR would change dramatically with social media. I went after social media, beyond my own personal use, to how brands can use it, and learning and doing that reasonably well eventually opened the opportunity to my next job, heading the digital arm of another PR agency.
Then, I inverted that perspective, away from brands using social media to individuals using social media considering themselves to be a brand. I learnt as much as possible in that direction for a decade, tried it on my own self and these helped me build enough confidence to not only write a book on the subject but also offer it to companies professionally.
Right from my internship, there has never been anyone asking me to learn things. It was my own self-interest, to learn and do my job well. And to be able to understand what ‘well’ means in the context of ‘do my job well’ – unless I know what the job involves by getting my hand dirty, how would I know if I have done it well? Merely focusing on the output was tempting but I wouldn’t really know it myself – I’d need to take the word of the vendor or partner.
My curiosity to know things was my only driving force, amidst lack of access because these were largely early-internet days, at least in the first decade.
Now, with the ubiquitous internet, any and every learning is a click away, but the only thing you need is the curiosity to know things really well. No formal education can prepare you for the on-the-job things you may end up doing even as they help you with the larger context.
I have seen interns and freshers in the agency side of both PR and advertising – have interviewed many of them and hired many too. Barring some fantastic exceptions (that I recall well), many seem to believe that their first job entitles them to be taught how to do their jobs. I have heard this in exit interviews as well – that the learning was not adequate. Consequently, I have heard many managers rue the fact that they seem to be running a school for interns and freshers!
Constant learning powered by constant curiosity has helped me immensely all through my career. In fact, learning on the job means you need to be constantly curious and expand your perspectives towards newer things to learn. The larger point is that this curiosity and zeal for learning anything is not rocket science – it is simply a life skill and an attitude. It is within the grasp of anyone who is… curious 🙂