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A Seat at the Table: Insights from a PR Professionals Roundtable

Published on March 1, 2018, at 5:44 p.m.
by Halle Russo.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. You’re sitting around a table in Reese Phifer Hall at The University of Alabama with other public relations professionals, educators and students discussing everything from integrated agencies to PR in the digital age. You are truly living a PR practitioner’s dream.

On Feb. 3, 2018, the ideas and plans of the advertising and public relations graduate class at The University of Alabama and the writers/editors of Platform Magazine came to life in the form of a Public Relations Professionals Roundtable.

Mackenzie Ross, an A+PR graduate student and one of the masterminds behind the event, said that the idea came from both A+PR graduate students and Platform Magazine students who wanted to have a chance to interact with top industry professionals who were in town for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ annual board meeting.

“We wanted the conversation to be relevant to students, but also to industry professionals and educators,” Ross said. She also emphasized her hope that these conversations would help everyone do their jobs better once they were back in the office or classroom on Monday morning.

“It’s a highlight for our board to be able to interact with students on campus, especially when they’re in town, so it was great to see those two worlds come together,” Jessika White, communications specialist for The Plank Center, said.

The event was organized into three different sessions. The first two, “Communication in a Polarized Society” and “Issues and Trends in PR,” occurred simultaneously. Attendees were able to choose which of the two sessions they wanted to attend prior to the event. The final session, “Traditional PR vs. Digital/New Age PR,” brought the entire group together.

“Communication in a Polarized Society”
Discussion for this breakout session focused on how PR practitioners can best communicate messages that unite as many people as possible in a society that seems to become increasingly polarized politically and socially each day. Ross said that this session essentially covered how to bring together both sides of a story and maintain a favorable long-term brand identity.

One of Ross’ favorite quotes from this discussion was: “PR means public relationships. We seem to have lost the relationship side of that role.” Ross attributed this quote to Rick White, the former associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The conversation stemming from this idea focused on the fact that PR practitioners often get caught up in portraying their brand’s side of the story, but need to be able to tell every part of the story in order to successfully cultivate relationships.

Heather Griffith, a sophomore public relations student, also participated in this discussion. She said, “I liked this topic because it is something we don’t discuss very often. It was interesting to hear from people with such different sets of experiences … and talk about how we have to constantly change how we are handling things and be aware of everything.”

“Issues and Trends in Public Relations”
According to Ross, this breakout session aimed to be more of a “catch-all” for current PR trends, such as artificial intelligence, integrated agencies and PR’s impact on business decisions.

Bethany Corne, a senior public relations student and the president of UA’s chapter of PRSSA, said that one of the most beneficial parts of this discussion was the insight that the professionals provided about the timeline of when young professionals should be pursuing their MBA or APR certification in order to keep up with the industry.

“It was interesting to see how things tended to turn back to having business acumen,” Corne said. “[Companies] want you to be a generalist in terms of understanding what everyone else is doing. You don’t have to be able to do everything; you just have to be able to understand everything so when you’re communicating with people you know where they’re coming from.”

White was very impressed by how well the students were equipped for this discussion.

“Our faculty are setting the bar extremely high as far as developing and mentoring our students for the profession,” White said. “It was a great conversation bringing everything the students are learning in the classroom together with the industry experience that the professionals are offering.”

“Traditional PR vs. New Age/Digital PR”
The group discussion during the second half of the event focused on how the public relations industry has changed in the digital world. The session began with an image comparing a traditional businessperson to a millennial representing the “new age,” and the distinct habits and preferences of each group. From here, conversation covered everything from SEO and the flow of information, to how to approach new business opportunities.

“My biggest takeaway from this session was the understanding that PR is not just traditional or digital anymore. [The industry] is so intertwined that it’s important to understand both sides,” White said.

“The group session flowed really well,” Ross said. “No one really dominated the conversation, and everyone got the chance to contribute.”

Ross also shared some advice for others thinking about planning a roundtable event.

“First off, don’t be afraid to do it. Sometimes it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the magnitude of planning,” Ross said. “Second, find a great partner.”

She attributed much of the event’s success to Giselle Casadaban, another A+PR graduate student. Ross noted that it would’ve been hard to do something like this alone, but luckily Casadaban was there to help her every step of the way.

Ross’ final piece of advice was to “start early. Something like this doesn’t happen overnight.”

For those interested in attending a similar event, Corne offered her advice: “Be prepared. Know who’s coming. Know what they do. Have a question that kind of fits their industry, even if it’s not PR-related.”

White also shared her insight about networking at this type of event. “Build those relationships and continue those conversations even after the event is over,” White said.

“I really enjoyed [this event]. I walked out and thought: I love PR,” Griffith summarized with a smile.

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