What is Public Relations?

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Posted At: April 23, 2010 10:55 AM
by Scott Young

We see many articles and blog posts about what PR isn’t, but rarely do we see information about what PR really is outside the classroom. Students seem to be confused as they enroll for PR classes. I hear students in class say, “I am going to be a spokesperson for someone famous or just plan events because I am not a good writer.” While that would be a great job for some, I think it’s important to understand what most PR jobs entail, especially for those of us just entering the PR field.

As I searched for jobs, I realized what many of the potential employers were looking for: several years of PR experience. How do college students expect to land the perfect job without the necessary experience? Many of us will work for an organization as either a lower-level employee or an intern to gain experience. Others will find great jobs with organizations — starting at the bottom of the hierarchy. Most of these positions are not as glamorous as being a spokesperson for someone famous; however, they are good examples of what most PR practitioners believe are the more traditional PR jobs, and they are a great way to gain experience.

As students, our classes require us to spend many nights writing news releases, media advisories, communication plans, campaign proposals and newsletters. I write many of these same things as an intern in the public relations field. My typical days include disseminating messages through social media, outside electronic signs, indoor TV system, Web site, Intranet and e-mail. I am responsible for writing the quarterly e-newsletter, a 12-page publication resembling a magazine. The demand for high-quality production sharpened my writing skills and allowed me to mature as a future PR professional.

What can students expect as they transition from students to professional working in the traditional PR setting?

Most government PR job positions involve using many of the same traditional PR tactics learned in the classroom. I talked with Public Affairs Officer and Chief of Stakeholder Relations Damon Stevenson at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center about his perception of public relations and what students can expect as they enter the job market searching for employment.

“I think that solid writing skills are the most important thing recent PR graduates need to have when trying to enter the job market,” said Stevenson. “If someone can’t express themselves in writing without grammatical errors, punctuation errors and other blunders, then they certainly can’t give the impression that they can actually benefit your organization. When I see poor writing from not only PR graduates, but also other graduates, it makes me wonder what they learned in four years of college. I know the writing courses I received in college as a PR major set the foundation for which I’ve built a career as a PR professional.”

Stevenson said having solid writing skills was the key to landing an interview with a reputable company. He said most employers will discard a poorly written resume or application, giving the applicant no chance at an interview.

Due to the large numbers of people searching for employment, today’s job market is very competitive. Students must be prepared for the challenges they will face as they search for employment and as they begin new careers. Stevenson offered interesting insight from the viewpoint of a supervisor in the PR field.

“For someone just entering the job market, they will be expected to be able to write in AP style, use desktop publishing software and help write speeches or develop talking points,” said Stevenson. “The most important thing to remember is to not be too prideful – remember you may be the one who is asked to perform some basic clerical duties that you will wonder why a college graduate is being asked to perform. If you perform these somewhat mind-numbing tasks with the same energy and enthusiasm that you handle other projects, it will show your new boss you are a team player.”

Stevenson said bosses assign basic office tasks to see how new employees will react to different situations.

Stevenson wanted to remind students studying PR that their job won’t always be glamorous.

“Someone has to order punch and cake for a ribbon cutting ceremony or other function,” Stevenson said. “Someone has to secure servers for such a function. There are a million small details that must be addressed for every event.”

Many PR positions don’t include publicity. Stevenson talked about the behind-the-scenes work.

“There is so much work that happens behind the scenes to ensure the success of an event,” said Stevenson. “Even as a manager with 15 years’ experience, I still get my hands dirty with the details. It isn’t all just kissing babies and wearing the right suit.”

What about working for an agency?

Agencies offer more of a variety of daily job tasks because of the many different types of services offered. Some agencies offer strictly PR, while others offer a combination of marketing, advertising and PR. Carol Woodruff, founder and CEO of Checkpoint Marketing, spoke about what her job requires of her on a daily basis.

Woodruff said she finds herself performing many of the tasks most organizations would probably assign to less experienced subordinates. As a small business owner, she wears several hats each day. One minute she’s working with a client to develop a crisis management plan; in the next minute, she’s planning an event at one of the local shopping malls. Most people think small business owners have more free time to do things other than work. Woodruff felt much of her time was spent working on things related to basic operational tasks.

“I do whatever it takes to make things happen,” said Woodruff. “I wouldn’t ask any of my employees to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do. Each day I find myself writing communication plans for my clients, delivering printed materials at all hours of the day and just handling everyday office duties. It takes teamwork from everyone to offer a good service to our clients.”

Are all PR jobs the same?

While these perspectives may not apply to every PR position, they do represent what the majority of beginning PR jobs entail. However, there are exceptions to the rules; some agencies are taking on a new appearance in defining today’s PR field and what daily tasks entail.

Although she’s not a celebrity spokesperson, Phyllis Neill, president and CEO of WeMentor Social Media Marketing, has a job that is “one of those exceptions.” She developed a marketing firm specializing in nothing but social media marketing. Recently, she talked about her perspective of PR and how she came to be the first marketing firm in the Birmingham area that offers nothing but social media marketing to its clients.

Neill felt the PR industry has gone through lots of changes throughout the years, but one of the biggest changes has been social media.

“Social media has COMPLETELY changed the way PR professionals do their job,” said Neill. “For example, in the old days, when I graduated from college (1990), good PR professionals had strong relationships with all the traditional media outlets so that when one of their clients had a press release or a strong story lead, they would reach out to those traditional outlets in hopes of getting coverage. Nowadays, so much of this is handled by social media, since there is a much better opportunity of getting coverage in this manner.”

Neill said many traditional PR firms hope college graduates understand the networking capabilities of social media, in addition to being able to write and edit well.

“Developing a really strong network on LinkedIn is absolutely essential for a PR job these days, as is the ability to think in terms of what’s hot in the industry right now, and how that can relate to your clients’ need for press,” said Neill. “For example, if you are doing PR for a new engineering firm who is looking to get corporate identityrecognition press, you must be able to figure out a way to tie in something that is popular in the news currently, and tie it to your client in order to get attention. For example, you might suggest that an executive from the engineering firm lead a free workshop on getting engineering jobs in this economy, and then reach out to your news contacts about this – with unemployment and job searches being a hot topic in the news today, they might be very interested in writing an article on this angle.”

Neill said she spends much of her time networking. She said meeting new people and reconnecting with former colleagues and industry professionals were important; many of her business leads come from networking. She keeps up with changing trends, providing her with the necessary information to give her clients the best possible service.

Whatever your PR passion turns out to be, remember to make sure you are happy with the job you choose. If you don’t like writing, reading, editing and working hard to ensure success, you may want to rethink your career path. I can assure you: your first job most likely won’t be a management position or owner of an agency. Expect to work your way up the ladder.

Now that you know what a few PR professionals in the field think PR is, what is your take?

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