Monday, August 16, 2010

The importance of educating college students in public relations

"Today is our intern's last day and in honor of his final hours with us here at C. Pharr, we asked him to write a blog post to tell us about what he has learned and also to impart some advice to future interns and current students. So, let us introduce you to Colton Wright and his PR stream of consciousness..."

I am what they call a super senior, which I’m told is pretty common “these days.”  “They,” being the many students who came before me and gave a good name to not graduating on time.  My last semester is about to begin at Baylor University and I’m about to take my final journalism and public relations classes.  When recalling my undergrad career, I’m constantly thinking “did I do enough?” “Have I learned enough?” and “What can I do this last semester do improve my communication and PR skills?”.  So, did I do enough?  I don’t think so, but I don’t think anyone can say they have done everything possible to prepare themselves during college until they start their career in public relations. There’s always something to learn to better yourself before you get that first job. And for many students, that something is interning.

I didn’t have a clear picture of what the public relations industry was when I chose my major.  I chose something that I excelled in, but my major classes didn’t show me what my future career would look like. I recommend any student going into public relations to obtain more than just one internship to truly see what happens in the day-to-day life of public relations.  There is a whole subset of areas a person can go in to when picking a career in public relations:  corporate, non-profit, government (careful, it’s “public affairs” when dealing with government) and the agency world to name a few.  I didn’t know anything about those areas from school, all I knew was the theory behind PR:  Network, meet the reporters, write, take on the masses and score an “A” on the final.  Well that’s easy.  In theory I can do all of that and, theoretically, become successful in public relations.

But when I started to intern I learned a lot more than writing and networking (those are just perks).  I have interned in the corporate, non-profit and agency spears, and each one provided a new PR lesson; a jumpstart of what PR actually is.  Public relations is more than planning events; trying to spin a disaster (BP Oil); a popular TV show (The Hills, Sex and the City and PoweR Girls – Why aren’t PR males represented on TV?); and a pretty smile.  Public relations is a lot of writing, a time commitment, the ability to improvise quickly (but knowledgeably and calmly), addressing a crisis and reflecting on previous projects.   PR is constantly evolving and a person in PR should be able to adapt to new situations and learn how to engage the target market.

Assignments completed for school (and those I complete during my final semester this fall) are already out of date.  Jeremy Porter, a writer from Journalistics , asked, “Do [journalists] want to receive news releases?  Do they find news releases the best source of information for finding story ideas?”. “No” to both inquiries.  Well that’s scary since I spent most of my college career writing news releases.  Instead of writing “at them,” Porter says to engage reporters in person and have a conversation with them; connect through Twitter and other social media websites.  That seems pretty obvious – humans like interacting with other humans – but apparently it’s not common practice because a lot of PR blogs mention this over and over.

With the digital age of micro blogging and other social media tools, PR is changing.  I haven’t seen “social media 101” on a university course listing but can recommend Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics as a good start to learn the potential of social media.  Through an internship I’ve learned how to use TweetDeck, Hootsuite and the crux of those two; Twitter.  Social media is a market that many find confusing when applying it to jobs but the importance of social media has long lasting effects.  Companies have seen this and have started hiring social media experts. @Mashable regularly Tweets jobs in social media – some request 10+ years experience … 10 years? Wasn’t that the peak of Xanga? – and posts these job opportunities to its website,  The need to be flexible and adapting to change is necessary now more than ever, and public relations practitioners need to adapt to remain competitive in the market.  

Understanding what public relations is and how to effectively use it and learning to adapt is something an internship can give a shining hopeful.   Writing skills, interacting with social connections on the Internet and remaining competitive with market trends and experiencing the demand is what an internship can provide.   For my fellow peers graduating in December, let’s find something more to do than Underwater Basket Weaving.  Tempting I know.  Let’s stay competitive and learn something that we can bring to a future career.