Published on March 27, 2018, at 8:57 p.m.
by Alyssa Comins.
If you want a job in public relations, experience is crucial. As a student, I am often reminded of that fact. In an industry where even internships require previous PR experience, the pressure to find the perfect way to occupy our summers is immense.
Lately, I’ve noticed my classmates are worried about what kind of experience “counts.” At times, I’ve had the same concern. It’s as if we feel certain internships or jobs don’t qualify as real experience. While it is true some positions prepare students for a career in public relations better than others, we shouldn’t scoff at nontraditional experience. Diversity of thought in the communications industry is important, and someone with uncommon internships can often bring a unique perspective.
The past two summers, I worked with The University of Alabama’s Bama Bound new student orientation program. My first year, I was a member of the Parent Ambassador team. My fellow teammates and I ran orientation programs for the parents and families of incoming freshmen. The next summer, I served as a student manager for the team.
Although many wouldn’t consider this job to be real communications experience, I believe those two summers taught me many skills that will be useful in my future PR career. Here’s what I learned:
1. How to communicate with different audiences in unique ways
Although I mostly assisted parents and family members, I did answer many questions from students. It was important for me to understand that families and students required different information. For example, when parents asked about on-campus housing, I knew pricing and safety were most relevant. When a student asked about UA’s residence halls, they were typically more concerned about floor plans and social activities.
The ability to correctly identify audiences and their unique needs is an important facet of public relations. Every communication tactic needs to be tailored to the specific public the campaign is trying to reach. Generalized information is simply ineffective.
2. How to handle pressure with grace
One of my jobs during orientation was to work on-site registration. Families who hadn’t registered or paid the fee were sent to my table. This was often a tense area. Some of the parents I helped thought they had already registered, and some weren’t aware of the $80 parent orientation fee.
When these families found out they couldn’t attend sessions without registering, I was often met with anger. In addition, this process required paperwork that took several minutes, adding to the frustration. Working on-site registration was the most stressful part of my day, and I learned quickly that I needed to handle the pressure with grace. If I got flustered, I couldn’t do my job effectively.
Many situations PR practitioners encounter require the same skill. Communications professionals have to balance angry clients, sudden deadlines and even full-blown crises. The ability to handle pressure with a level head is important.
3. How to listen
Orientation can be incredibly redundant. For 26 sessions, I gave the same presentations and answered similar questions. When you’ve been asked a question about dining halls hundreds of times, it’s easy to find yourself tuning out. But it’s important to really listen.
At orientation, every parent had a one-of-a-kind story. A mom might ask a question I’d heard before, but she had a perspective shaped by her own unique circumstances, and if I didn’t listen — not just listen to reply, but listen to understand — then I would never be able to give the personalized answer she needed.
The same holds true in public relations. A communications professional often works for clients with similar problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to stop listening. Listen to clients. Listen to data. Listen to publics. Doing that will ensure each problem receives the special attention it deserves.
4. How to smile, even when it’s hard
Working for a new-student orientation program is difficult. Some days I was yelled at by frustrated parents. Sometimes I had to answer awkward or incredibly personal questions. During many sessions, I would work 15-hour days. But an orientation leader is always “on.” I knew every interaction I had with a parent or student mattered. It was important that each attendee felt like The University of Alabama was home. If a parent or student left Bama Bound feeling like the faculty and staff at UA didn’t care about their needs, they could decide to enroll elsewhere. So, even when it was hard, I smiled.
PR professionals deal with the same level of scrutiny. They are expected to handle difficult situations and long days with ease. And when things aren’t going well, they must keep smiling.
Traditional public relations experience is valuable, but so are other opportunities. Maybe you didn’t get the PR internship you wanted. So what? Go be great elsewhere. Never forget that experiences are what you make of them.