How to Create a Rewarding Career in Association Publishing

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Association publishing careers offer robust opportunities — if you never let yourself go unchallenged in your job.

By Stephanie Kern

A high school teacher. A public relations specialist. A journalism graduate. Like so many of the professionals in the industry today, the panelists of the May 20th AM&P Lunch & Learn, "How to Create a Rewarding Career in Association Publishing,” didn’t set out to obtain a career in association publishing. Rather, it was a happy coincidence.While the panelists come from different backgrounds and the amount of experience each has with association publishing is varied, they unanimously agree that the diversity of work that association publishing brings them is why they love what they do."Association publishing is more robust than most careers,” says Stacy Brooks, communications manager for the American Physiological Society and former public relations specialist. "On the PR side, it is very one-note — professionals feel they have a niche and are above working with or blurring the lines between other departments. On the other hand, associations are so diverse — especially in the scientific and health industries.”

"While working at a newspaper, the scope was so broad that I could never be too specific in my writing,” says Brian Davis, senior manager, communications and publications, for the American Health Lawyers Association and a 2008 journalism graduate. "In associations, the topics and audience are much more defined, giving me freedom to publish on a variety of topics in much more detail.”

Chris Murphy, senior director, communications, and publisher at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, agrees. "With associations, I get to become a subject matter expert in each subject area that I am exposed to. I also get the chance to wear numerous hats in the organization; this is especially true for very small associations.”

Let Your Skills Shine

The panelists further agree that during the first couple of years that a person starts out in association publishing, industry knowledge can take a backseat to publishing experience. "Communications skills help you succeed even with a lack of knowledge,” Davis says. "Time is needed to become an expert at any job.”

Murphy sees it as more of a 50-50 balance, claiming that a professional must bring his or her own skills to the job, but knowledge is absolutely vital. "I’m never going to be an expert in my field, but I can carry on a conversation with the experts well enough that they might not know the difference,” Murphy says.

"Knowledge of the field, when I’ve gained it, is the most important asset…though as a communications person, I’m never going to say those skills aren’t important,” adds Brooks.

Movin’ on Up

When moderator and president of AM&P, Erin Pressley, vice president publishing for NACS Media Group, asked the panel whether they thought there was room for career advancement in associations, the answer was almost universally yes — but not always in traditional ways.

"Even if there’s not an immediate vertical move available, you can always move horizontally to a different department to get more experience,” says Brooks. Sometimes, she admits, it’s about waiting it out until a position becomes available. In the meantime, there is an opportunity to gain more responsibility, develop skills, and get recognition from your peers.

For Murphy, working for a variety of associations — from a six-person company to a corporation-size — was his key to development. "Most of my advancement came from moving from one association to another, as I rarely had opportunities for vertical moves,” he says. In small associations you can gain knowledge about a variety of jobs (for instance, in the smallest company Murphy worked for he handled PR, editing, writing, and selling ads, among other jobs). But in large "corporation-like” associations, the roles are very specific, and there is more opportunity to move horizontally or vertically.

Best career practices from the panelists include:

  • Develop an editorial advisory board made up of members.
  • Constantly research the field to plan for the breaking stories — that’s the only way to be relevant to members.
  • Take more proactive than reactive actions.
  • To advance, you must make people know that you’re aware of and working to further the association’s goals.
  • Don’t get caught up in sticking with one position or title — that’s limiting your possibilities.
  • People are and will continue to be overwhelmed with content, so your publications have to be the best to get noticed.
  • Understand the business model of your organization. If the model is bad, you should learn how to fix it — or be ready to leave.

What’s in the Crystal Ball

And as for the future of the industry? The panelists agree that while things in the association publishing industry have changed a lot (especially how we get content out to people), the basics haven’t changed — getting information to people in the best way they can digest it.

Murphy makes a valid point: "The audience is not changing as rapidly as the technology, so part of our job is not jumping on the latest thing just because it’s the latest thing. You have to know your audience.”

And how do you know when it’s time to move on to another job? When you’re not being challenged anymore, the panelists advise. "Don’t get bored or outgrow your job — you will find your skills may be outdated as well,” says Murphy.

Stephanie Kern is assistant editor at the American Staffing Association. Association Media & Publishing sincerely thanks her for covering this Lunch & Learn for our members who were unable to attend.

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