PRacticing Outside of the Box

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Posted on November 30, 2015, at 5:45 p.m.
by Luke Thomas.

Nursing degrees beget nurses, pharmacology schools create pharmacists and culinary academies pop out chefs. But what does a school of communication produce … communicators? As you can see, the answer isn’t as clear-cut. Public relations degrees, in particular, can take you well outside the walls of an agency.

To some, the profession of public relations still stirs up images of Samantha Jones and her boozy lunches and fabulous events, or the spinmaster who dresses even the most disturbing facts in a cloak of purity and benevolence. While neither of these depictions is generally accurate, there’s yet another misconception that prevails. So often as PR students, we get the question of agency or corporate. My peers are guilty of it, my teachers are guilty of it, and even I am guilty of it. But considering the incredibly applicable skills one learns in studying public relations, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to in-house or agency communications positions.

Alice James is the press secretary for U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. It’s a lofty position, but she didn’t get there by majoring in political science – she used the skills she learned in The University of Alabama’s public relations program.

“One thing that’s critical to my job is speech editing,” James said. “Without having studied PR, it would be a lot more difficult. It really gives you an advantage knowing what people are looking for in a speech, which messages resonate, how to word things concisely and how to sell a message.”

Another skill that opens doors for PR students is the ability to network and maintain relationships. A lot of emphasis is put on interning, meeting industry leaders and learning how to communicate with an audience different than yourself. These types of interpersonal skills are highly valued by employers and aren’t focused on as heavily in some majors.

For Blakely Blakeney, coordinator of student services at The University of Alabama, the skills she learned through her PR major were just as instrumental as those she learned in her internships when it came time to start her career.

“My writing skills have been beneficial to me in every single position I’ve had since graduating, even if it wasn’t a PR position,” Blakeney said. “Through my internships, I learned the value of creating relationships, stewardship and networking. Those were things we touched on in classes, but during my internships I was able to really see how beneficial those skills are by watching public relations professionals work and interact with their clients and contacts.”

For James, learning how to sell a message has translated into selling a person.

“I look at Sen. Graham like a CEO,” James said. “Whether I’m on the phone, face-to-face or speaking in public, I have to cater my messages in the way that sells him the best. It’s communication, but you’re also selling and advertising.”

It’s obvious that these two PR majors are succeeding in their not-so-cookie-cutter careers, but what drew them away from the agency vs. corporate paradigm?

A few months before graduation, Blakeney began her job quest. It was 2005, and the market was not at its peak. She didn’t set out for a job in any specific field, but after several “your résumé looks great, but we’re just not hiring”’s, she decided to broaden her horizons. After landing a job as a personal assistant and house manager, one of the organizations she had reached out to contacted her with an opening. She was hired onto its communications team and began paving the way for her eventual career in higher education.

James’ case was a similar one. She began first with a marketing job, but in her spare time volunteered with a political campaign. Through her involvement with the campaign and the connections she made, she eventually ended up in her current role of press secretary.

From hearing these two success stories of careers outside the confines of traditional PR, it seems that the key is to remain open and make use of the skills you spent your time polishing, even if the job you found seems out-of-the-box.

Blakeney said that her one nugget of advice to students is to get out and network. Make connections and practice those networking skills.

“I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to develop skills that can’t necessarily be taught – like creating relationships, organization, time management and professionalism,” Blakeney said. “I am confident in saying I’ve been given jobs based on some of those skills alone when up against other applicants that may have had more experience than me.”

So when graduation time begins to creep up, keep your options open. The skills you learn studying public relations can take you just about anywhere.

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