3 Essential Tips for Launching a Successful Communications Career

James Kent

A/E/C Stories is an ongoing series of posts featuring individuals who excel in the architecture, engineering and construction industry.  Nominate someone.

Communications may be a popular career aspiration for college graduates, but it’s a competitive, demanding vocation that requires talent, determination and a unique skill set.

James Kent, chief marketing and communications officer at Thornton Tomasetti in New York, offers a few tips for those who are seeking to enter the field.

1. Prepare for the job interview.

Kent knows exactly what he looks for in a candidate and how he approaches the interview process: 
•    “I listen for evidence of critical thinking;”
•    “Of not being derailed by every mosquito wing that falls on the track;”
•    “Of taking work seriously but themselves lightly;”
•    “Of a good will toward others;”
•    “Of resourcefulness and courage;”
•    “Of the ability to deal quickly and effectively with ambiguity;”
•    “Of defining their success as how much as they enable the success of others.”

And that’s just the first 10 minutes.

“Then I ask them about their heroes and the best joke they ever heard, the most influential book they ever read, and the teacher they remember most and why,” he says.

2. Identify the differentiators.

An effective communications strategy requires differentiating factors, yet architects and engineers may not realize what sets them apart from the crowd. While they may be eager to discuss their work, individual projects rarely prove to be a strong differentiator.

“What makes the difference is often not the work you do, but how do you it,” he says. “The ultimate differentiator, I believe, is what values you hold as a firm.”

That’s much more difficult to talk about, he says, because architects and engineers tend to focus primarily on the projects at hand. As a communications professional, it will be your job to get them to recognize and articulate their values.

“Few people can articulate that because they don’t put in the time to think about it,” he says. “If you get it right, if you define what your values are the right way, they are yours and no one else’s.”

3. Learn to adapt.

Originally hired as Thornton Tomasetti’s communications director, Kent had his responsibilities expanded after the department merged with marketing.

“I joked that I suddenly had two jobs and one paycheck,” he says.

Kent had to learn and adapt, which all communicators should expect to do throughout their career.

“In the last few years our communications side has moved aggressively online,” he says. “Social media now takes an increasing percentage of our energy. On the marketing side, our firm has scaled up, going from three practices seven years ago to 10 today, and a team of about six to over 12 coordinators. Organizationally, that means structural and functional adjustments since some things that worked before don’t scale.”

If you can learn to adapt, differentiate and embrace the unexpected, a career in communications could prove to be rewarding. 

"One of the greatest opportunities comes from the collaborative and honest nature of engineers," he says. "They truly want to share credit and get the story right."