Friday, July 22, 2011

Five Things They Don't Teach You in PR School

Since I graduated from college PR School has emerged as the primary feeder for the public relations profession. Unlike today’s PR graduates and like many from my generation, I entered the PR field after spending the earliest part of my career working in the media and after studying journalism in college. In the many years since, colleges have produced countless numbers of very bright and talented PR professionals who learned about everything from communications ethics and new media technologies, to how to create winning communications strategies and how to integrate research into public relations campaigns.

This is not to say college PR instruction hasn’t had some major failings. The dead horse I refuse to beat in this space (beyond this paragraph) is the ever-increasing number of incompetent writers graduating with PR degrees. This is probably the most common complaint in the profession when it comes to PR curricula, and it seems to be largely ignored by the university community. Most PR hiring managers would rather see resumes that showcase extensive and rigorous writing instruction rather than courses like “Media and Sports Relations,” or “Sex, Myth & Media.”

There are, however, some lesser known areas where PR majors enter the profession with little to no clue as to what they may need to do to be effective professionals. Let’s call these the “Five Things They Don’t Teach You in PR School.”

1. “Nothing Happens Until You Make the Sale” – I wish I could take credit for this, but I’m quoting the founder of a company I once worked for, though I doubt he was the first to say it. Bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Public relations is a business whether you work for an agency or a nonprofit. You can’t be effective in public relations if you can’t convince people to buy into a strategy, a creative approach, and garner the necessary funding and resources to pursue that approach. Sales skills and a willingness to sell are major assets.

2. Menial Details Matter – Proofing, media lists, checking spellings and titles, hand-delivering important documents that could have been e-mailed or snail-mailed. Sometimes the most important things we can do for our clients and companies are the most menial. While there may be a place in PR for fantastic cocktail parties and nationwide media events, we can never be above the seemingly unimportant tasks. Remember the old saying, “The devil is in the details?” It’s true.

3. Some Organizations Deserve Their Reputations – It’s almost assumed in PR school that through PR, we can save organizations from themselves simply through communications. There are times communications cannot solve systemic problems. If an organization consistently neglects its important stakeholders, an employee barbecue, a news release and a new Web site can’t fix that. If the organization has been consistently insular PR can’t save the day when the organization finally decides to communicate when it is under fire from the media. Goodwill must be earned over time.

4. Journalists Build Reputations on the Change They Effect – There are many reasons for the changing behaviors of today’s journalists, from the economics of shrinking newsrooms and shrinking market share, to the rise of the “new media’s” influence. Regardless, if you are a journalist wanting to make a name for yourself today you know this is best achieved, not simply by being a good reporter, but by effecting change – forcing management changes, shaming elected officials into resigning, or even driving changes to legislative or corporate policy.

5. Keep it Human – Members of the current generation graduating from college are considered “digital natives,” a term meant to describe people who’ve grown up online through any number of electronic devices. They are not the only ones however, who may have fallen into the trap of distancing themselves from real, in-the-flesh, human interaction. Thanks to email, smart phones, texting and social media, the need to physically meet or even talk personally on a live telephone call seem to be unnecessary. A business editor recently told me one of the best ways to reach her now is simply by picking up the phone and calling her. She said she only gets around five or six real telephone calls a day. Good advice for any PR pro.

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