Up until a few months ago, I never considered the option of conducting informational interviews with companies I was interested in working for. I would do the usual: Search online for internship or job postings, apply by the deadline and wait. It wasn’t until my good friend and mentor Brian Price suggested foregoing the online application process and reaching out to companies in a more organic way—by conducting informational interviews.
An informational interview is an opportunity for students to be the interviewer and ask questions in order to learn more about a company: its values, culture, the type of work it does, etc. It allows you to see if the company is a right fit for you and vice versa.
Informational interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone or via Skype or Google Hangout. If you have the ability to conduct an informational interview in person, you can really get a sense of the office and employee culture. By showing your face to an employee or human resources representative, they might be more likely to take note of your initiative and remember you when time comes for them to hire interns or entry-level professionals.
So, when I was in Chicago for winter break celebrating the holidays with my relatives, I decided to do just that. Use some of these tips to help you secure an informational interview and potentially land the internship or job of your dreams:
1. Research the company. This might seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t take the time to do this. Scour the company website before emailing someone from the company, as you can use what you find to form purposeful interview questions. Follow the company on all of their social media platforms, even following a few employees you’d like to connect with. Make sure you know whom you’re emailing as well, whether it is someone from human resources or another employee — sending an email form on the company’s website probably isn’t the best route to get in touch with someone. If there is no specific contact listed on the website, turn to LinkedIn and search for contacts there.
2. Keep your options open. I knew that Chicago was top on my list of places I wanted to work post-grad because the opportunity for those working in the public relations industry are endless. There are several corporate headquarters, agencies of all sizes and everything in between. I’ve recently been attracted to boutique and mid-size agencies because I have previous internship experiences at agencies of smaller sizes — it’s what I’m familiar with. However, I decided to go out of my comfort zone and visit a mix of companies, ranging from a local social-media start up called Social Deviant to the powerhouse that is Edelman. Don’t box yourself into place and maintain an open mind. You’ll never know what you’re interested in unless you give it try
3. Keep it casual. Even though you’re the one asking questions the majority of the interview, think of it as just a conversation between two people meeting each other for the first time. Ask them: -How they got their start in the industry. -If they have any suggestions for increasing your skill set. -What they thought about Facebook’s latest update or that new K-mart commercial.
In addition, don’t think of your informational interviews with different companies as “competitors.” I was surprised when every professional I met with offered to give me names of their friends and contacts at other agencies. Professionals understand they were once in your shoes and know that networking is important — everyone in the industry has a mutual respect for each other. My plan was to conduct only four interviews with three companies, but I ended up conducting seven interviews with four companies because of the extra connections I made.
Important Interview Tips and Etiquette:
Do not make the interviewers feel pressured to hire you by whipping out your resume. Remember that this is not the same as an internship interview (think of an informational interview as a prelude to the real thing).Bring a copy and if they ask for it, give it to them. If they don’t, keep it tucked away for now and send it to them during your follow up email or phone call.As far as attire, business casual or even jeans may be acceptable. Use your best judgment. Is it a meet-up for coffee? Jeans and a nice shirt can work. Is the interview going to be conducted in the office? Go for business casual.
1. Send a thank-you note. Again, pretty common sense, but it can make or break a decision. I was once chosen over other qualified candidates for an internship because I was the only one who sent a thank-you note. Don’t be generic with your message either. Personalize it by referencing a take-away from your conversation: “Thank you so much for the blogging tips. Couldn’t have increased our client’s web traffic without your help!”
2. Follow up later. If the people you talked to said, “Please stay in touch,” make it a point to do so. Send them an updated version of your résumé in a few months. If you have an industry-related question, ask them. But don’t spam them — be respectful of their time, and they will reciprocate.
Have you ever conducted an informational interview? Have more questions about how to set one up? Want to learn more about starting a PR career in Chicago? Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’d be more than happy to chat!
Mallory Richardson currently serves as the 2013-2014 PRSSA National Publications Editor in Chief, a social and digital media intern at FUSE and a Manship School of Mass Communication ambassador. She formerly served as the 2012-2013 PRSSA at LSU Chapter president. Follow her on Twitter @malrich10 or connect with her on LinkedIn.