Trends come and go, but networking isn’t one of them. The concept has been around just about as long as humans have. Today, though, it’s more important than ever. Solopreneurs making more than $100,000 a year report getting 84 percent of their work assignments through word-of-mouth. And in PR, networking features even more than in other fields, as we are eternally seeking new clients, new associates, new connections with the press, and new understandings of trends and human behavior. 

Many people think networking should be intuitive and that it comes down to doing a good job on one assignment, then being referred to do more good jobs for more people. But successful networking takes additional time and effort. The downside? It can become a full-time job that prevents you from doing the full-time job you actually need to be doing. Luckily, some easy steps can minimize the time you invest in networking even as you rake in all its rewards: 

Manage Assumptions and Expectations

Don’t assume that you don’t need to network because you’re already fully employed; you might well need that connection next year when your current employer puts you out on the street. And don’t attend a networking event expecting much more than a plastic plate full of shrimp cocktail or a cup of coffee—it’s not about getting a new job or a client today; it’s about shoring up opportunities for the future and maybe meeting a new friend. Don’t assume you will hear about a job opening, either. Perhaps only 20 percent of jobs in the Western world are advertised. The rest are acquired the old-fashioned way—by people talking to people. So to stay on the industry radar, stay ever connected. 

Why Kindness Doesn’t Count

A topic discussed more and more often—especially with regard to women in the workplace—is whether people should so earnestly aim to please. Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” says, “People-pleasing is poison. It is enemy number one for women who want to grow personally and professionally. It actually saps your value. If you are trying to be all things to all people, you will not leave a solid impression on anyone, nor will you make any genuinely useful contacts. If you keep it up, eventually you will be seen as a sycophant, someone not to be trusted or taken seriously.” Brzezinski says she often advises women to be powerful, open and fearless rather than giving people what we think they want.

An Alternative

Instead of pouring all your time into traditional networking, it’s best to pour that time into something that represents who you are and what your passions are. Maybe that’s a blog or a website with a gorgeous portfolio of your work or a handsome business card you always have on hand; maybe that’s a LinkedIn profile and a Facebook page that you update with content and links that make your achievements and interests clear. Even better, learn to see every human interaction as an opportunity for networking; in this way, performing jury duty or running into a former colleague in line at the coffee shop can be even more powerful than attending a networking event with hundreds of strangers. And the networking secret above all other networking secrets? The most valuable network is the one you establish with sleeves rolled up, doing real work for a charity. 

A Word on Social Networking

The same survey that found that a huge majority of solopreneurs locate jobs through word-of-mouth discovered that only 1 percent of the highest paid have found a job through social networking (it’s only 3 percent for those working freelance 15 hours a week or less). Nevertheless, an Oxford University study suggests that online word-of-mouth is actually more important than ever as a reaction to the information overdose we’re all subject to through social media—as in, we’re more likely to download an app that we see a friend has downloaded as opposed to researching what apps to download on our own. Says that study’s co-author Felix Reed-Tsochas, “Copying in the social network environment is driving behavior more than best-seller lists are.” 

Just as WOM marketing is being hailed as the most powerful way to sell products and get apps downloaded, word-of-mouth remains the most powerful way to sell yourself. Believe in yourself, do good work and you’ll get people buzzing about you. Keep on doing it, and they’ll keep on buzzing. 

By Marian Salzman, CEO of Havas PR North America and Chair of the Havas PR Global Collective