Friday, April 6, 2012

Helping College Students with their Homework

One of the most common and valuable assignments communications professors give their college students is to have them reach out to working professionals to interview them on what life is like in the PR business.  The professors are doing their students a favor in more ways than one.

First, the students get to practice their interviewing skills, and then get to turn their notes from the interviews into written pieces.  This is the basic template for what PR professionals do.  There is a reason PR often falls under the umbrella of journalism in college curricula.  We are oftentimes internal journalists, working to make sense of events, developments and information so that it can more effectively be provided to working journalists and other targeted audiences.

The second reason this is a good exercise is that it helps current students start to build a network of contacts within the profession.  By making such contacts, students could end up with helpful mentors, contacts for internships and even a resource for their first job hunt.

With so much good that can come out of such an assignment the grade, as important as it always is in college, is secondary in terms of the big picture.

Because we are now predominantly an electronic communications culture, rather than pick up a telephone and call working PR professionals, most students today initiate contact via email.  Quite a few are also making first contact on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.  This may be expedient as students work to fulfill an obligation to a professor, but by removing the human interaction from this part of the process, they are missing a major opportunity to create a good first impression.

Over the years, I have received many of these kinds of inquiries from college students.  I’ve gotten used to the introductory email, and then the electronic Q&A process.  I try not to do their homework for them by only answering the questions they provide and not presuming what they should know or ask.  I don't preemptively answer questions they never mention.

That, however, is not the expectation of most students who now contact me.  The current attitude among most is, “I have this class assignment, I need to talk to someone, I found you, now answer this open-ended question via email.  What do you do?”

If I send them two or three paragraphs they seem happy.  I’m not sure what kind of grades these students get because they never follow up, and usually don’t say ‘thank you.’

Because this is the communications business, and how we go about interacting with important stakeholders is everything, I am always disappointed with these encounters.  I always hope that a student will come forward and actually call me, do an interview, and let me know what the finished product looked like and how it all turned out.  That never happens. 

Perhaps this would change if the professors would ask each student to provide contact information for the professional they contacted so the professor could contact us to get an assessment from our side of the equation.  Otherwise, we’re just doing kids’ homework for them.


  1. Very good thoughts here, Tim. I found myself reliving countless email/LinkedIn contacts I've had with students just like what you describe. I never fail to be amazed, after all these years, at the next generation's reluctance to actually conduct a "live" interview. I'm sharing with ALL my PR students!!

  2. Tim, I appreciate you putting your thoughts into writing. I will be sure my students understand that it's not just me, their out-of-touch professor (in their minds), who expects communication professionals to be professional in their communication.

    And, BTW, thank you for resisting the temptation to provide additional information that will make the student look better than he or she is as an interviewer.