Posted At: February 21, 2013 3:02 P.M.
by Grayson Martin
The public relations field is at a point where it is constantly being influenced by changing technology and strategies in communication. All that modern PR students can hope to understand about this ever-changing profession is what they learn from a textbook or their professors. Students try to have at least one major internship within the PR field in hopes of experiencing what it takes to excel at the next level. However, one internship is often not enough.
That is why it is so important to form meaningful connections with PR professionals who have seen where the industry used to be as well as where it is now. When you establish a connection with a seasoned PR pro, stay connected with him. These people know some of the best tricks of the trade and can also advise you on how best to get your foot in the door right out of college.
One of these public relations veterans is Ron Culp. Culp currently is an instructor and professional director of the MA program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. He also chairs The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Culp began his 35-year PR career as a newspaper reporter before working his way into the PR industry where he held senior positions at big-name agencies and corporations like Ketchum, Sears, Sara Lee, Pitney Bowes and Lilly.
Culp said that one of the best pieces of advice he received was from his boss at Sara Lee, Bob Lauer. Lauer told him that he needed to spend an equal amount of time working in the community as in the office. Culp ended up volunteering with a number of organizations with which he is still affiliated.
Culp said that volunteering broadened his networks far beyond the people with whom he worked. “You see the world more broadly when you are involved in nonprofits,” he noted.
It is important for current students not to shy away from classes that might seem too difficult and to pursue classes that will best prepare them for the work force. Culp said that if he could go back in time and change his course of action in college, he would have spent less time avoiding two classes, English and business.
“I had to spend a lot of time relearning remedial English in the corporate setting,” Culp said. “Learning in college would have been easier than learning on the job, same with basic business comprehension.”
The role of the PR professional has changed considerably over time, and Culp said the greatest change has come in the increased importance of the PR pro delivering a message. “The thing I marvel at daily is how much more public relations is important to communications than when I started,” Culp said. “The media used to decide what was newsworthy. The PR pro is much more visible and more involved in providing information.”
The technology developments have changed how PR pros communicate with peers and those around the industry, so much that many once crucial PR strategies have fallen by the wayside. These overlooked strategies are still just as applicable to today’s distribution of information as they were years ago before social media and communication technology.
According to Culp, one of these lost strategies is the importance of relationship building with the media. Culp said relationship building has been relegated to email and social media. “The personal touch is still critically important in PR,” he said.
Many PR veterans, such as Ron Culp and Peter Debreceny, a consultant for strategy execution firm Gagen MacDonald, often share one thing in common. Most universities did not offer PR as an area of study in the past, so Debreceny and Culp both started their careers in the print media industry and then worked their way into public relations.
Debreceny has held high-ranking positions with Edelman Worldwide, Ketchum and Allstate Insurance in the past; his more than 30 years of experience have taken him all over the world, working in locations such as New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. These global travels give him a unique perspective on what students should currently be doing to prepare themselves for the real world.
“Many people graduate in a discipline and end up doing something different,” Debreceny said. “The key at school and after school is to be very open to new ideas and learning. Don’t be stuck in a particular box you are comfortable in.”
Debreceny encourages students to read publications like The Economist to get a global perspective. “We are living in a world of global communication,” said Debreceny.
Debreceny said that he once had a boss who was adamant about solving — not weaknesses — but what he calls opportunity areas. “We all have strengths and opportunities and it’s easy to downplay the opportunities,” said Debreceny. “Be disciplined in improving and be proactive.”
One important decision that almost every college student faces is whether or not to attend graduate school; and if so, when? Debreceny said that grad school is a must, but to leave some time between graduation and enrolling for a master’s degree. He said that taking a break and experiencing the world are good ideas. “Having a MBA is very important,” he added. “Having a master’s in PR is becoming base-level.”
The most daunting task for any up-and-coming college student is trying to land that first job out of college. Debreceny’s advice for getting your foot in the door is to partake in as many internships as you can in your area of interest. Debreceny said to get the most out of your internship and to be aware that if someone is offering an internship, they may also be looking to hire.
“People are looking for someone they can rely on,” Debreceny said. “Those who give internships are looking to possibly hire, so every internship is an opportunity.” Debreceny said that it is important to have a broad range of interests: “What can you do that shows that you are different?”
Today’s PR students are very fortunate to live during a time when all of the resources we need to excel in the field are right there in front of us. It is important that we set ourselves apart from others by building a foundation with advice from the veterans who helped shape the industry into what it is now. People like Ron Culp and Peter Debreceny are everywhere, oftentimes closer than you would expect. On top of that, they are more than willing to take the time to teach and instruct; it all depends on your willingness to reach out to them with open ears to listen.