Partnerships that make the grade

PR students benefit from the ties their schools have with future employers - and it works both ways.

PR students benefit from the ties their schools have with future employers - and it works both ways.

When Chris Gillespie "discovered" PR, he was enrolled at Valparaiso University's business school. Now a third-year AE at Hill & Knowlton LA, Gillespie had learned he could supplement his business degree with a PR major from the communication department. From then, he was hooked.

As more universities have added PR-specific sequences, companies and agencies are finding more ways to partner with schools to help develop talent. Further, with PR's increased visibility as an educational path worth following, many students are migrating from their original course to an education in communications.

Valparaiso has a "really innovative program where business people would come to our school and evaluate us on our presentation, writing, teamwork, and leader-ship skills," says Gillespie, whose school-aided internship at Ketchum in Chicago allowed him to work on accounts including Cingular and Wendy's. Valpo's stress on real-world experience, he says, "helped me decide that I wanted to begin my career at an agency."

Another reason Gillespie found the school's PR program so valuable was its emphasis on writing. "If you can influence people not only verbally but through your writing, you'll be that much more effective," he says.

"For individuals entering PR, the most valuable traits are writing, understanding clients' business, and incorporating communications in the mix," says Erica Amestoy, SVP and director of H&K's Irvine office and Gillespie's direct report on such accounts as Johnny Rockets and Coldwell Banker. "If a school gives students these skills, [they] comes out ahead."

Firms go to school

Indeed, many firms are keen to hire graduates from certain programs, and not because their starting salaries are low and they're keen to learn. Many of them bring rich experience gained from the intensive internships that educators are pushing them to pursue, as well as real-life wisdom imparted by the many senior industry pros who serve as adjunct professors.

Bonnie Goodman, EVP and GM of H&K LA and the person to whom Gillespie and Amestoy report, receives internship requests from students at schools throughout the country. She and Amestoy often recruit interns from nearby USC, which has a PR sequence as part of its Annenberg School for Communication. That program encourages students to apply their liberal arts educations and practical PR orientations to any field they wish to explore.

Among USC's program standouts is an agreement with GM, according to Edd Snyder, executive director, corporate communications for the automaker. Since 2004, GM has sponsored an annual scholarship and internship with the school, allowing one PR student to join the GM communications staff for three months.

"Students bring a fresh edge," Snyder says of the USC partnership, and they go back with real-world experience for the class- room. "It's a learning process for both the school and GM." Plus, he adds, it offers GM the chance to tap into a potential goldmine of top-notch communications-staff candidates. "If a student is outstanding enough for a scholarship, [he or she] might be outstanding enough to be an employee."

In addition to mastering a curriculum of writing, research, and strategy skills, PR-track students at Howard University participate in an average of five internships during their undergraduate years, says program supervisor Dr. Barbara Hines. At Howard - the first historically black school to present a PR course - the John H. Johnson School of Communications journalism program has offered PR as a major since 1986.

"With its location near DC, opportunities [abound] for internships," Hines says. Students take part in school-arranged internships with the World Bank, BET, Apple, Fleishman-Hillard, Congress, and numerous nonprofits and trade groups. They also spend at least one semester working with CapComm, Howard's student-run ad and PR agency.

Eric Nathan Hall graduated with a PR degree from Howard in 1999, and credits much of his professional success to the school.

"It was challenging, but realistic," says Hall, now assistant manager of PR at Kerzner International's Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas.

At Howard, Hall says, some vital lessons came via the school's required "real-world projects." For one, he recalls, he was challenged to design a campaign for the school's Caribbean Students Association, "to do something they [could] actually use." For another, Hall had to craft a speech to be delivered by his professor, as if he were a corporate spokesperson.

"It made me realize," Hall says, "that this role is really important. You must be the person who really has this organization's back."

PR students at Temple University's School of Communication and Theater's Department of Strategic and Organizational Communication begin with a solid academic background - and plenty of strategy, says program head Gregg Feistman. Specializing in PR, organizational leadership, and public communications, all with a nod toward advocacy and social-influence work, Temple's approach to PR encourages students to zero in on a technical skill set, stressing a strategic focus even in more skills-oriented classes, Feistman says.

"We'll teach students how to write effective press releases [and] the reason why," he explains.

Like many PR programs, Temple relies on both academic instructors and working PR pros, the latter serving as adjuncts who "bring the real world into the class," Feistman says.

The school serves its PR majors with a robust first job-assistance program, featuring an annual series of workshops addressing "interview techniques, rŽsumŽ- and cover letter-writing, how to dress for interviews - stuff they don't necessary cover in the classroom," Feistman adds. And Temple's professional advisory board, a 10-person team of local PR pros, meets monthly to consult faculty regarding local issues and their relevancy to course topics.

Temple alum and former PRSSA chapter president Danielle Cohn, now VP, PR for the Philadelphia Visitors & Convention Bureau and a Temple adjunct professor, says the first thing she tells students each semester is that they need to write - a lot, and well - or choose another major.

Temple's program, Cohn says, gave her "a sense of what the industry was about and the basic tools you need." It also provided a broad range of skills "in terms of marketing, as well as strictly PR," she adds. "That's valuable, especially in the nonprofit world."

Diverse Thinking

At the University of Texas-San Antonio, the PR "program is growing rapidly among diverse populations" in terms of ethnicities, age groups, and family situations, says department chair Steven Levitt. And in keeping with the university's mission to contribute to the development of the region," the PR sequence emphasizes communication practices in "a multicultural and multiethnic metropolitan setting."

While the school's PR concentration includes all the basics - news writing, case-study exploration, campaign planning - it also stresses economics, statistics, and accounting. Undergrads are encouraged to go beyond required courses in literature and the humanities and explore language and its connection to thought and integrated marcomms.

The school's internship program, Levitt adds, helps place students in posts with agencies from Fleishman-Hillard to the NBA's Spurs to Clear Channel; an annual Communications Week draws professional speakers from across the communications spectrum.

One issue that schools currently face is whether PR curriculums should make a clean break from their historic journalism and liberal-arts backgrounds, and become more substantially immersed in business programs. As H&K's Amestoy notes of Gillespie, his business training has proved to be a huge asset in terms of "making a client succeed."

Gillespie agrees - so much so, in fact, that he's currently enrolled in an MBA program. "Clients constantly tell agencies they don't understand their business," he says. "A lot of that is because when it comes to sales and financial implications, sometimes agencies falter. Having someone that understands all the business components, as well as the communications strategies, will make the firm more credible to the client."

Schools of thought

Many schools' PR programs have gained a reputation for a specialty. Some include:

Auburn University, Auburn, AL
School of Liberal Arts, Communication & Journalism Dept.
Strength: New media

Howard University, Washington, DC
The John H. Johnson School of Communications, Dept. of Journalism
Strengths: Writing, real-world experience

Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Medill School of Journalism, Integrated Marketing Communications Dept.
Strengths: Business communications, metrics analysis

Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ
College of Communication
Strengths: Heritage (one of the original university PR programs), student organizations

Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
School of Communication and Theater, Dept. of Strategic and Organizational Communication
Strengths: Advocacy, strategy

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Annenberg School for Communication
Strengths: "Hands-on" experience

The University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX
College of Liberal and Fine Arts, Communications Dept.
Strength: Multicultural, electronic media

Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN
College of Arts & Sciences, Dept. of Communication
Strengths: Online coursework; general PR studies

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