Erica Iacono learns the key lessons students should take from university PR programs
An article in Fortune last year cited PR as one of the 20 fastest-growing professions in the country. That statistic is likely fueled, in part, by the vast number of university programs that specialize in educating the next generation of PR pros. And while those students are learning a great deal in the classroom, there are certain things they should pay special attention to as they prepare to become important contributors to the PR industry.
Perhaps the most critical thing aspiring PR pros can do while still in school is to hone their skills.
"There are certain technical skills required in PR and corporate communications," says John Doorley, founder of New York University's master's degree program in corporate communications. "Most people don't think of the profession that way. [They] think that you sort of wing it in PR."
The need to write
One of the most vital skills to develop is writing, says Maria Russell, executive chair of the PR department and academic director for the MS in communications management at Syracuse University.
"Writing will always be critical," she adds. "Now it's even more challenging because you're not just writing for placement in a paper or on radio, but you're aiming to send a message to a variety of media."
LeeAnn Kahlor, PR professor in the advertising department at the University of Texas-Austin, notes that she advises all of her students to "sleep with the AP Stylebook under their pillow," adding that reintroducing students to the basic rules of grammar and punctuation is also necessary. And that kind of learning shouldn't end with a graduation ceremony.
"Continually build your vocabulary," she adds. "Always have more words at your disposal so that the precision with which you can write is there. And that doesn't mean filling space with words that are unnecessarily complex. It means really understanding the words you are using."
Another important skill to develop is the ability to research thoroughly. "Employers are interested in students being able to put their fingers on information quickly," says Elizabeth Toth, communications department professor at the University of Maryland.
Along with those research skills is the ability to listen, adds Kahlor. "Americans, in general, have a tendency to be better talkers than listeners, but it doesn't bode well if you have poor listening skills and you're entering a career where your whole goal is to be a professional interpreter," she notes. "You need to fully understand the messages that you're interpreting to the intended publics."
Such skills, she adds, can be especially helpful for graduates trying to obtain jobs in specialized areas, such as tech PR. "A lot of graduates won't have a strong background in that industry," she says, "but if we have taught them to listen well, to be active learners, they will be able to serve in various industries."
Even for graduate students, most of whom have professional experience, an education provides them with strategic-thinking skills that can help them in their professional life.
"We work to create an environment that fosters their ability to think critically and analytically," says Trudi Baldwin, director of the MS in strategic communications program at Columbia University.
"So we urge them to question, to not make assumptions, and to be creative in finding appropriate communications strategies to solve business problems, in the corporate or nonprofit world," she adds. "We hope that they take this passion, this desire to push, to understand, back to their jobs."
While learning technical skills in the classroom is a start, the best way for undergraduate students to truly put those to the test is by experiencing a real-life work situation. While an internship used to be something that set a prospective employee apart in the applicant pool, these days it is not uncommon for a student to have completed two or three internships before graduation.
Students can also gain real-world understanding of PR in the classroom, NYU's Doorley notes. At NYU, some of the instructors and lecturers include such industry veterans as Lou Capozzi and Fraser Seitel. "We try to help them understand from people who have been tremendously successful," he adds.
Other schools take the "real-life" scenario to a global scale. The University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, in partnership with Weber Shandwick, is in the fifth year of a program which sends grad students abroad.
This summer, 15 PR aspirants are spending eight weeks in either Hong Kong, Capetown, South Africa, or London. In many cases, these students will work at WS' offices in those cities and be given mentors to add depth to the experience.
Jerry Swerling, PR management consultant and director of PR studies at USC's Annenberg School, stresses the need to find successful professionals to act as a mentor. Joining professional organizations like the PRSA is a good start, he adds.
Upon entering the workforce for the first time, there are several things budding pros need to keep in mind. The first, Swerling notes, is to be honest with themselves about their skills, desires, and abilities.
"Do a personal audit and be very objective about it," he says. "Analyze what you can and can't do well. Don't put yourself in a position of going after roles where you're getting responsibilities for which you're not well-suited."
Instead, Swerling advises young professionals to be forward thinkers and concentrate on their strengths.
"Students who are now graduating know far more about consumer-generated media...than do the people they're working for," he adds. "They can be the experts and really bring added value to the organization if they're able to properly organize that insight and demonstrate how it's relevant to the company. This is one of the unique points in history where young people coming into the profession can really be ahead of the game."
Still, perhaps the best advice for young pros to keep in mind is that PR has a potentially important role to play in every organization.
"It's really tempting to become task-oriented, but if you have legitimate hopes of promotion, you must always have your eye on where the organization is headed, what its objectives are, what its mission is, and how they fit into that on a daily basis," says Kahlor. "It might sound trite, but I tell my students that they should begin every workday [by asking], 'How am I going to help out my organization today?'"
Swerling also advises learning how to read the company's annual report to gain insight, something Kahlor notes that University of Texas alumni have reported to be an invaluable skill they learned from her classes.
A successful PR career depends on many things. But in the end, it may come down to one piece of simple advice: "You have to love what you do," says Baldwin, "and believe in yourself."