Dr. Knighton’s Networking Tips in the Age of Coronavirus

Dr. Devin Knighton
Dr. Devin Knighton, a former member of the PRSSA National Committee, has more than a decade of industry experience.

If there’s any silver lining to canceling virtually every in-person event due to COVID-19, it’s that public relations students can delay typically awkward in-person networking attempts. Events like conferences are great networking opportunities in theory, but they’re daunting and hard to navigate in actuality. According to Dr. Devin Knighton, an award-winning public relations professor at Brigham Young University, there’s a better way for public relations students to network — even after the pandemic.

As a preface and general rule, Dr. Knighton says you shouldn’t procrastinate until the only option when you meet someone is to ask them to help you out. He likened it to “proposing marriage on a first date.” It’s awkward.

Instead, you should find ways for natural conversations around mutual interests where there’s no “ask” for an introduction, internship or a job. How do you do that?

  1. Identify and create a list of people with whom you want to network.

Use a digital spreadsheet to list public relations professionals who do something you’d like to do after graduating. Include on the spreadsheet LinkedIn/Twitter profiles of your people. You also should state where they work and their job titles. Most of this information should be readily accessible on LinkedIn or the PRSA website. This process will be good practice for the future, as keeping a media and influencer list is a must for public relations professionals.

  1. Set aside at least 30 minutes per week to interact with people on your list.

Go through the list to see what each person has posted recently on LinkedIn and Twitter. React to their posts in a natural way. Let them know why you’re interested in their posts. That will help you develop a relationship in which they know who you are without you asking for anything. If the people aren’t active on social media, you can instead watch for news coming from the organization or people they represent. You can then email them, asking if they’re involved with the news before saying why it’s interesting to you. The goal here is to start conversations.

  1. Ask your new contacts for short, 15- or 20-minute Zoom calls to pick their brains.

Again, do so in a way that makes them feel safe. Be upfront that there’s no ask for an internship or a job. You just want to get to know public relations professionals and learn about their work. They’ll respect you for this approach. Be prepared for your calls with questions about your contacts’ industries and specific campaigns or projects you’ve discussed with them. After your calls, your contacts will remember you when you continue weekly interactions with them via social media or email.

These three simple steps will help you network in a genuine, natural and human way that doesn’t feel transactional. You’ll stand out from the crowd. Those with whom you’re networking will be more comfortable around you and may even want to work with you in the future.

What other quarantine-friendly networking ideas do you have? Please share them in the comments.

This post is part of a series for PRSSA’s #FlattentheCurve campaign in collaboration with the University of Colorado Boulder Chapter, featuring posts about social distancing efforts and how members and Chapters are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. To submit a post for this series, email progressions@prsa.org.

Riley Gilliland studies public relations at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He currently helps manage the social media accounts for 1-800 Contacts. He wants to study law after graduating and to potentially work in communications law.

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