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From Academia to Industry: A Richard Rush Profile

Published on April 10, 2024, 1:54 p.m.
by Jackson Olmstead.

Someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who is obsessed with telling the story of something they’re passionate about, and someone who is ethical and responsible. These are hallmarks of a public relations professional — these are also hallmarks of Richard Rush.

Photo via Richard Rush

Rush, a three-time graduate of The University of Alabama, currently serves as executive director of strategic communication for the city of Tuscaloosa and has served with the city since 2019. In his role, Rush supports the public affairs and image of the city, working to form a bond between the city and its residents.

Rush’s many career choices and the journey that took him to his present role inspire others to continue pursuing new avenues in their careers. But, his journey wasn’t what he originally had planned for.

Finding his destined career
Believe it or not, Rush’s first prospect during his undergraduate education wasn’t public relations — not even close. “I started off pre-dental,” recalled Rush, “and my electives were what you don’t want to be your electives,” talking about “Organic Chemistry” and “Biology for Majors” courses. Ultimately, he decided to switch to the communications field after remembering the words of his dad, who was a travel writer for Southern Living as well as an artist. “‘If you can write well, if you can speak well, you can do anything,’” remarked Rush. “It was really something that I grew up with.”

Photo via Southern Living

With an early interest in the political realm of PR, he traveled to Paris to stay with a friend, with hopes of working at the U.S. Embassy in Italy. He stayed there for six months and never worked at the embassy, but decided to return stateside to pursue graduate education. Rush said that he felt his trip to Europe helped him decide to continue his education, once again leaning on his father’s advice — “you can never go wrong with more education.”

A paradigm shift
After leaving The University of Alabama, this time with a master’s degree, Rush set his sights on diving in to all the PR industry had to offer. He worked briefly for the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation before moving to Birmingham to work as an account director for CCG, staying there for almost three years.

It wasn’t until an opportunity presented itself in the communications department at Birmingham-Southern College that Rush considered higher education as a potential career option. During his three years at BSC, he was mentored by Bill Wagnon, the vice president of communications at the time, who encouraged him to pursue a doctoral degree in the field. Rush did just that, returning to his roots at UA and completing his degree in 2015.

“It was a complete paradigm shift,” expressed Rush, reflecting on his first position after finishing his doctoral studies as an assistant professor of public relations at Belmont University in the heart of Nashville. “I love being in the classroom, I love working with students,” stated Rush. “One thing I have always enjoyed in any job is helping people out,” thinking about his time at Belmont and then a four-year stint at Samford University as an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication.

Mentoring the future of PR
Mentoring is a large part of the public relations profession, and Rush finds it to be a passion of his as an educator. John Dodd, former mayoral and communications assistant at the city of Tuscaloosa and master of public administration student at The University of Alabama, said that Rush’s knowledge of the field of public relations is crucial to his growth as a professional.

“He was definitely a mentor to me,” described Dodd, who worked in

Photo via Adobe Stock by Rawpixel.Com

the mayor’s office but wanted to learn more about public relations for the city. “Richard has such an abundance of wisdom when it comes to his profession. He’s had a lot of positions where he’s been in a mentor-type role.”

Rush has also been involved in many causes in West Alabama, such as working as a youth minister, serving on the board of visitors for the Office of Teaching Innovation and Digital Education at The University of Alabama and speaking at PMI Central Alabama meetings.

Rush’s advice to PR students
The three main recommendations Rush offers to current PR students or recent graduates are to work hard, stay sharp on the basics while diversifying in new skills, and network with those in the industry. Acknowledging that this advice may sound generic, Rush said there is nuance to the statement “work hard.”

“You can outwork your competition,” said Rush, but he also noted that keeping up with the basics of PR can be helpful all around. Rush continued, “If you are a good writer, you can think strategically, and learn to work under pressure, that’s something to work with.”

One of the biggest things that Dodd said Rush has taught him is the ability to slow down and think critically when a PR crisis arises. “He’ll call the whole team together to get other opinions before reacting,” Dodd explains, “I have always admired his diplomacy skills and his ability to work with others.”

Networking is a key skill to learn in Rush’s book as well. “It’s gotten me further than anything in my career,” he said. Rush noted that networking with other PR professionals and making yourself memorable are ultimately what gets someone a job. This doesn’t come as a surprise, because around 70% of people are hired at a business where they previously had a connection, according to a 2016 study from LinkedIn.

Rush also noted the ability to tell a story in a relatable way is paramount in the industry. “If somebody wants to read the story, or watch a video, or see two or three bullet points about something, I need to give them that option,” emphasized Rush, “and we strive to do better at that every day.”

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