The Freestyling Art of Networking

networking students

By Maret Montanari

You either love it or you hate it, but we can all agree on one thing: Networking is an essential skill for a rising public relations professional. Networking is consistently a trending topic, and often hundreds of posts about unlocking your networking potential clog my social feed.

I frequently find these articles don’t tell you the truth behind networking — there’s not one set of rules you should follow for success. As each person is unique, each person’s approach to networking should differ. Through my work with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, I realized it was finally time I debunk the traditional networking myths and forge my own path to building relationships.

Use networking to secure a job. Wrong. Networking should be based on forming connections to help you grow as a professional. Don’t worry about making yourself employed; instead, focus on being employable. Use networking to find mentors, not a job.

I participated in a round-table discussion with some of the most respected industry professionals during The Plank Center’s recent board weekend. I chose to absorb their wisdom on agency issues and trends rather than mention my search for a summer internship. I don’t regret it one bit. Instead of focusing on myself, I focused on getting to know the individuals around me.

Try to find common ground. Correct. Discovering something professional or personal in common with an industry expert can lead to a bond developing. By no means should this force you to find something similar. Sometimes, two people won’t have much to talk about. That’s OK. You’ll discover when you truly are yourself, you’ll connect with the right people.

Handfuls of insightful professionals surrounded me during the board weekend, but I guarantee you I would not have found similarities with several had I talked to everyone. We all have differing experiences and personalities, and that’s what allows each of us to bring something unique to the industry.

Plan questions to ask in advance. Wrong. I’m not advising against thinking ahead and researching who you will mingle with at an event, but don’t plan out every question. If you have a topic you’re dying to get a professional’s take on, ask away. Otherwise, let your personality shine. Don’t ask a question for the sake of appearing intelligent.

I was lucky enough to pick up Ron Culp from the airport for last year’s board meeting. I frantically Googled networking articles for tips on how to not sound like an idiot in front of one of the most esteemed PR pros (Don’t judge me, as I was new to this professional thing).

My preparation made me feel uptight around Mr. Culp. I channeled my best impression of an intelligent young professional as I braced myself for the hour-long car ride. Ironically, I missed the airport exit and any hopes of building this facade quickly faded. However, I realized Mr. Culp was down-to-earth and easy to talk to despite all of his accomplishments. We chatted about everything from our families to where we saw ourselves in 10 years. The conversation flowed naturally without using any pre-selected article questions.

I finally realized I placed too much pressure on myself to follow what society considered the best networking practices. So, save yourself the trouble, and write your own rules. Put the relations back in public relations by using networking to get to know the person on the other end of the conversation.

The first lady of public relations Betsy Plank once said, “I confess that I cannot recall ever having consciously planned one single step of the career way.” I’m going to bet this included networking, so take a play from Betsy’s book, and let yourself discover your own path to building a network.

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