I recently accompanied a group of 37 college students on a fact-finding trip to Atlanta. The purpose of the trip was to provide these students - mostly seniors majoring in communications - a first-hand view of the world of professional corporate communications, a world they are about to enter. Observing that world through their young eyes was both fascinating and revealing.
We visited the global headquarters of UPS and The Home Depot, and the Atlanta offices of Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard. They met some of the leading voices in PR, people like Ken Sternad at UPS, Brad Shaw at Home Depot, Lorraine Thelian of Ketchum, and Karen Kaplan of Fleishman. But we also made sure they were able to interact with junior staffers at each stop - men and women who had been in their jobs only a few years, including some who only recently graduated from college themselves.
Through their questions, comments, and observations over the course of two days, these students helped me realize how difficult it is to explain our profession in the classroom alone. Although many of these students had served as interns at various agencies and companies, most had never grasped the range of issues confronted by these professionals on a daily basis.
As one student expressed it: "The main new insight I gained is just how critical these PR departments and agencies are to the companies they serve. The professionals we saw have handled situations that have truly shaped how the company is perceived by the public. I think many students have thought PR departments were all press releases and pitching stories, but we learned it is so much more than that."
In addition to experiencing the impacts of decision-making, these students picked up valuable insights on what it takes to succeed in PR, such as the need to build networks early.
Many times the students heard about the importance of developing their writing skills. Brad Shaw of Home Depot stated it unequivocally: "If you don't truly love to write, and you're not willing to learn to write well, this probably isn't the profession for you."
At each stop, the students were also reminded that PR is changing by the second, and keeping up with this evolution won't be easy. "Agencies are looking for graduates with an in-depth knowledge of new digital media trends," one student said. "That means reading and researching, both in established media and in blogs, RSS feeds, and other forms of new media."
After interacting with dozens of practicing professionals at these companies, listening to their descriptions of the issues they face, and hearing in detail how they spend their days, most came away with a new appreciation for PR. "Now I know what I want to do with my life, and this is it," one young woman said.
These students will no doubt encounter the usual frustrations, tedium, and disappointments that every job entails, but for a brief few moments, it was refreshing to see their enthusiasm on display.
Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, The College of Charleston. He also serves as a senior counselor for Feldman & Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.