Whether it's established pros pursuing a degree or recent grads using their new-media savvy, education can benefit all PR pros.
In 2001, Jane Berg was working in communications for Northwest Airlines when, she says, “the airline industry went spiraling in a bad direction.”What could have been a bleak stretch in Berg'scareer became her call to action. She'd been pondering going back to school to get her Master's in public health at the University of Minnesota, but as a mid-level pro, she initially struggled with actually taking the plunge. “This just seemed like a natural break,” she says. Now managing supervisor at Fleishman-Hillard in Minneapolis, Berg credits her two years of full-time school work – and résumé-enhancing position as a grad-student communications director for the on-campus Center for Infectious Disease Research – with getting her there. These days, she says, “I'm often the ‘go to' person when there are public health communications opportunities.”
With solid PR industry experience behind them, many mid-level pros are considering furthering their education – and marketability – by earning their master's or MBA. But they face potential challenges, such as crazy schedules, overwhelming workloads, and the sacrifices of straying from conventional career paths.
A graduate degree “is probably not going to get you the job, but probably [will] put you in the interview pile,” says Fred Whiting, director, strategic communications at Washington-based Points of Light Foundation and PRSA National Capital Chapter mentoring committee chair. But earning a master's or MBA can equip mid-level PR pros with an invaluable confidence boost, he says. And “it does distinguish you from many of your colleagues.”
Case in point: Ellen Davis, now director of communications at Texas' Southwestern University, wanted to take her academic PR experience to the next level. Unlike some of her colleagues, though – media-relations execs pushed up the organizational ladder without the necessary skills – “I wanted to learn how to be a good manager,” Davis says.
Employed full time, Davis enrolled in a flexible MBA program with a focus in nonprofit management. “The degree hasn't helped me much financially,” she admits, “[but] it has helped me better understand some challenges that our top-level administrators face.”
For other mid-level pros, too, an MBA can serve as a route to heightened marketability, helping PR execs better understand the discipline's business aspects and manage communications from the C-suite down.
Some returning students may benefit more from a graduate program with a strategic emphasis, says Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at USC Annenberg School of Communications. A master's degree, he explains, can help mid-level pros “look beyond PR, to how an organization as a whole functions.” And it can provide the kind of strategic, philosophical, social, theoretical, and even tactical PR training they aren't likely to get in an agency or corporate setting.
That was the situation for Kim Newman, a former book publicist who traded the world of publishing to focus full-time on her master's degree in media studies at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.
“I wanted to get a bigger world perspective of PR,” says Newman, today, publicity manager at New York-based Krupp Kommunications. The advanced qualitative research and analysis skills she learned in the classroom honed her skills as a practitioner, she says, helping her transition from in-house to an agency.
And “as an adult learner, any one class you take, you can immediately apply” to real-life business, adds Michael Meath, a Newhouse School Executive Masters in PR graduate who is now president of his own firm, Syracuse-based Strategic Communications. He adds that grad school provides exposure to and connection with other executives in a wide range of fields.
But if a mid-level pro decides to take the grad-school plunge, how does one determine the right program? Potential students should begin by assessing their own needs and ambitions, says Swerling, and then speak with representatives from all the schools they're considering – not just admissions staff, but faculty, as well.
Really, he says, deciding where to go back to school is “not unlike any other strategic planning function.” ¦
Putting your social skills to good use
For college students interested in PR,work time may look a lot like play time.The networking sites – like Facebook and YouTube – that define their social lives are also redefining the way the PR industry conducts campaigns.
So has the melding of these worlds attracted young people to the industry who are eager to surf MySpace for work? Possibly – but not yet at alarming rates,experts say.
Bonin Bough,EVP of social,interactive,and emerging media at Weber Shandwick,say general awareness about the PR industry is low among college students.
“I just don't think there's that much PR around PR at that age group,”he admits. And often people do not fully understand what the profession entails until they've worked in the field,he adds.
Making the connection
“I don't think there's enough association with social media and PR – as of yet – to create a surge in recruitment or interest as a result,”Bough notes. But once young people step through the door, their social media radar is on full alert.Young recruits generally have a passion for social media and focus on using it for outreach,he says.
Bough thinks college students would be drawn to PR at higher rates if agencies let them know how much socialmedia is integrated in campaigns.Firms should also search popular sites to recruit college students who are already established members of online communities,he adds.
David Krejci,VP of social, interactive, and emerging media at WS,says one reason the firm's Minneapolis office reaches out to local bloggers is to let college students know that WS gets social media – and their generation. He says WS'online presence will likely pay off when the online-savvy students look for jobs.
“We would be conspicuous by our absence, or example,if they weren't reading about us in these blogs,”Krejci says, adding that social media is a case where younger staff have more real-life experience than senior execs.
Joel Postman,EVP at Eastwick Communications,says young people like working with social media tools – not only because they associate them with the social scene – but because they fully understand the intent and interface of the applications.And whether it's familiarity or affinity for social media,recruits who have a grasp on social media are assets to agencies.
For instance,Postman says,clients are increasingly using Facebook to make business connections.In fact,many predict the site will soon become a prominent networking tool for professionals.
“That does have a dynamic with younger staffers here at the agency because many of them came up through Facebook,”he notes.
On the flip side,however,sometimes there is a backlash when companies use social media – and students today also understand that perspective, says Gene Kincaid, a communications lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
He says students are interested in social media and consider it to be a new,viable tool to add to the existing outreach arsenal.But they have also seen companies make high-profile gaffes in social media,so while it can be an effective communications tool,it can also hurt a company's PR efforts, he adds.
Even so,agency executives like Krejci say college students'zest for social media should draw them to the industry.
“This is the first age group that this is all normal to them – it's not something that they heard about,learned,and started to do,” he says.“This was part of their junior-high, high-school,and college lives.”
Back to school: Are you ready?
For an initial list of schools, check the local PRSAchapter, search Peterson's online (petersons.com),and seek colleagues'advice.Then start making informational calls.
Once you have a shortlist, ponder your schedule.Some programs demand a full-time, in-person commitment,while
others just require occasional meetings,complemented by Internet and phone sessions.
Stressed out about the cost? Go to your HR department. Many firms offer education subsidies for school- and job-
juggling grad students.And don't overlook scholarship and grants.One free resource is www.scholarships.com.
Don't worry about your “non-traditional student” status.These days,being an older grad student is practically a non-issue.
Not quite ready to dive back in? Test the waters first by enrolling in a community college program or an online course.