It’s that time again, when an army of newly minted graduates hits the streets (or, more literally, laptops) to land that first job. It may be the tightest employment market in years, but the challenge of finding work is probably good preparation for what’s to come. If you’re determined to break into PR, here’s my best advice.

Use every connection you have. Neighbor’s son-in-law’s girlfriend work at a PR agency? Ask for an introduction. Share a hometown, hobby, or favorite sports team with an employer? Let her know. Be polite, but be persistent, and don’t be shy. This is not a career for the faint of heart.

Ask for advice, not a job. Of course your goal is to be hired, but you may get further if you ask a senior executive for 10 minutes of his or her time to get the best advice about breaking in to the industry. It’s a bit harder to turn that down, and your strategy should be to get on the radar.

Perfect your writing. In a competitive job market, a grammar error, tortured phrase, or typo will eliminate you, plain and simple. (This post about résumé gaffes is just the tip of the iceberg!) Learn to write for brevity, rather than for term-paper-like word counts. Be punchy. Be bold. But be brief.

Don’t spam. It’s amazing how many emails I get with another agency’s name in the body, or with telltale font changes or other signs of an e-blast. A mass email tells an employer that you’re not serious. And never, ever, start a note with “To Whom It May Concern.” Prospecting for a job is a lot like pitching media; the personal approach is time-consuming, but it’s the only way to do it.

Be social. As in following prospects on Twitter, engaging them on Facebook, and participating in industry or company LinkedIn groups. Consider Facebook ads, an introductory video of yourself, a career-themed Pinterest board. Show that you understand the medium and how to use it.

Get real. Experience, that is. Most agencies require at least one internship. Interviewing PR pros about their daily routines, studying the media and developing knowledge in a niche area or vertical category is also helpful. When I co-taught a graduate-level PR course, I was impressed by what the students knew that I didn’t. Cool stuff, like persuasion theory. But, very few had enough practical knowledge to write a solid client recommendation memo. The more practical experience you have, the better.

Have opinions. The best way to persuade an employer that you can help a client stand out is to do it for yourself. In an interview or short cover letter, offer some independent thinking. It’s more impressive if, instead of saying how much you’d die to work on their newest client, you have thoughts or ideas about the client’s business, the category, or a competitor. If an employer asks what you think of her agency’s website, be prepared with a thoughtful answer, not empty flattery. If she doesn’t ask, volunteer it. PR people are recommenders. Be one.

Package yourself. Make your strengths relevant. Be a storyteller, but prepare your narrative in advance. One of my worst interviews occurred when a recruiter asked me to tell her about myself. I babbled a life chronology rather than controlling the interview and focusing on relevant strengths. The open-ended questions can be the hardest, so have your “key messages” ready.

Show, don’t tell. In telling your story, illustrate your strengths with anecdotes and examples. Don’t just brag about your best qualities.

Be a media junkie. Nothing warms a PR executive’s heart like a true student of the media. Drop names, visualize stories, show that you’ve not only done your homework, but that you consume a broad diet of traditional and social media on your personal time and take an interest in PR industry and business topics and developments. You are what you read.

Be curious. Always ask questions. Even if you’re speaking with six executives in a row and have heard the corporate spiel from each of them, ask them something. Even if you know the answer. Your job is to show engagement.

Have other suggestions that have worked? Please share!

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story first appeared on her blog.

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