“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry.
This week Best Advice speaks with Carrie Baker, chief communications officer for Canada Goose. Baker also serves as chief of staff to the president and CEO, leading strategic cross-functional projects. She was instrumental in managing the communications strategy for Canada Goose throughout its IPO process in 2017, bringing the brand’s story to life for investors and consumers alike. Before that, Baker spent 12 years at High Road Communications.
What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome at the start of your career?
I’ve often heard how rough the PR industry can be to get started in—especially at an agency. But I had a positive, welcome entry into the world of PR. I started at a fast-growing agency that was focused on technology during the height and tail end of the “dot-com” boom.
One struggle I remember intimately was pitching story ideas to reporters in front of my peers. I’ve always considered myself a confident person, and would say I actually enjoy “performing”—but when it came time to pick up the phone, knowing everyone around me was listening, I was a bundle of nerves. My desire for perfection reared its ugly head and it became my least favourite thing to do, which was a problem given that securing media coverage was a priority. I’d love to say I just learned to get over it, but instead, I adapted. I was pitching mostly U.S.-based reporters, so developing a face-to-face relationship wasn’t an option. Instead, I found other ways to generate coverage, which included doing lots of research to understand exactly what story ideas would get them interested, fine-tuning my topics to be relevant, and crafting the perfect e-mail subject line to increase open rates.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned early in your career?
In my first year, I was working with a director who I admired and was also intimidated by. She was brilliant and accomplished, so when she asked me to provide an account update to her boss—the president of our agency—I was eager to get it right. For my update, I outlined the issue in great detail—thoroughly including all aspects of what was involved, who was doing what at what time, as well as all possible next steps and expected outcomes. It was probably three pages long. Afterwards, the director immediately came by to provide feedback. Her conclusion? It was not what was needed for a C-level update—far too granular, way too long. It felt harsh at the time, but from that moment forward, I thought about it every time I crafted something. The lesson was invaluable: know your audience.
Another lesson learned: don’t delay in giving feedback, good or bad. If she had waited until my next meeting or even a performance review, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact. She was honest and direct (but not brutal) and I respected her for that. It’s something I’ve taken with me into every other situation as a manager.
What’s the best advice you can offer young PR and communications people today?
- Don’t be afraid to get rejected, early and often. Honestly, I can’t think of any better way for improving your skills, your confidence and your expertise than learning from what doesn’t work. It’s hard to take, but you learn quickly and you get tough. You learn what you can handle and you learn to think on your feet. It’s going to happen a lot, so the earlier you get used to it, the faster you will thrive.
- Have an opinion, and voice it. When someone asks for your thoughts or recommendations, don’t be so scared of saying the right or perfect thing that you say nothing at all. It’s important to say something then. It’s okay to revisit later if you change your mind or have a different point of view, but getting in the habit of voicing your thoughts on the spot helps to move decision making along quickly, teaches you to anticipate questions, and helps you develop a better gut instinct that only improves with time.
- Do one thing more. It doesn’t have to be a big thing that takes hours and hours, but providing something extra that wasn’t asked for (a contact number, an article, an idea, etc.) shows drive and maturity. It’s always going to be appreciated and certainly will help you get noticed.
What qualities do you look for in new staff?
Someone with lots of energy, who likes to take initiative, has tenacity to get a job done in the face of challenge, is a storyteller by nature, and an explorer—of ideas, of new ways to do things, of new possibilities—at heart.
How has PR and communications changed since you started?
At its heart, it hasn’t—great storytelling will always resonate with people. In every other way though, it’s a completely different ballgame. The rise of social media, the impact of influencers, regulatory issues, merging editorial and advertising and a shrinking media pool where clickbait rules, means communications people have had to expand their skills and their tools to keep generating results.
What is your one golden rule for someone planning a career in PR today?
Know the answer to “So what and who cares?” Context is everything in communications. If you can answer those two things, whether that’s in how or what you write, or orally, you’ve got it solved. And if you can’t, stick with it until you can.