Pros reflect on college days, offer advice to today’s PR students

As I shared in a recent blog post, I was very prepared to compete for PR jobs coming out of college. I did “all the right things,” but I still needed a little luck on my side.

Anytime I have the pleasure to speak with a PR student, I try to find out what they’re doing now to best prepare themselves. Are they interning? Do they at least plan to? Are they networking? What courses are they taking? Do they feel prepared?  Do they actually enjoy what they’re learning?

All of these questions have something in common. They’re all about “you,” the student. They’re not about what the school is doing for you because that doesn’t matter.  School decisions and offerings are outside your span of control; however, something greater is in your hands – your future.

Evidenced in my daily Twitter stream alone, there are many talented, ambitious students out there who clearly have a plan to control their future.  The fact you’re reading this blog post right now means you’re most likely one of them.

But sadly even some of the brightest students will struggle to land a job in their chosen profession.  Imagine what it will be like for students who don’t have a plan?  Sure, as I experienced, luck abounds, and could possibly even get you in the door somewhere.  But I assure you that skill and the ability to humbly learn will carry the day everyday, keeping you, not just employed, but on an upward slope to greatness within this profession.

I recently asked three PR pros with nearly a decade of experience a piece about all of this. Specifically, I wanted to know how prepared they felt at graduation, what they’d change given the opportunity and their advice for today’s PR students.  Here’s who they are and what they had to say, which, of course, was solid and a great read for up-and-coming PR greats who presently roam the halls of colleges around the world.

Justin Goldsborough (@JGoldsborough)
Social media consultant at Fleishman Hillard
School: Northwestern University
Graduated: 2003

Ruth Streder (@RuthStreder)
International Account Director at LEWIS PR – Global Communications
School: University of Manchester – Manchester Business School (Note: Ruth did not major in PR.  Rather, she has Management Science and International Business degrees.)
Graduated: 2003

Tara Tocco (LinkedIn)
Public Relations Consultant and Freelance Writer at Touchpoint PR
School: Middle Tennessee State University
Graduated: 2002

1. How well prepared to compete for PR jobs did you feel coming out of college?

Justin Goldsborough

Justin: I wished I was better prepared, but my situation was unique. I decided I didn’t want to pursue a career in sports journalism when I was a senior in college. I had already been accepted to a journalism graduate program at Northwestern. I tried to switch to IMC, but wasn’t allowed to. So I took IMC electives. What did help me feel somewhat prepared was the three PR internships I had done while in undergrad. Because of those experiences, I was confident my journalism skills would translate to PR.

Ruth: The course at my university taught me about the theory and history of PR and compared it to marketing. It was all about how it differs from marketing and is more trustworthy and a better way to reach your target audience. We focused a lot on reporting and measurement to demonstrate the value of PR – but what I lacked was knowledge about the media landscape and how to pitch a story. This was something I learned as a trainee in my first year, and it was learning on the spot. So I was well versed in theory and history, as well as aware of big PR stories, but applying it to my clients and finding an angle to pitch to the press was challenging in the beginning.

Also, the focus on PR was local/national PR. Not so much on international PR and what challenges one faces when it comes to different languages, cultures and media landscapes. In university we discussed how to adapt global campaigns locally in one market, but we did not learn about how to implement global strategies and ensure consistent messaging in multiple countries – while still ensuring that the global campaign is supplemented with different local activities to ensure it’s appealing to the local audience.

Tara: Maybe it was my naïve confidence at 21 years old, but I felt fairly well-qualified to compete for jobs. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to in hopes of climbing the career ladder.  I knew I was smart, able to learn, and hungry to soak up the industry.  I did start at the bottom – I cleaned coffee pots and emptied the recycling and answered the phones every day – but I did it with enthusiasm.  I was lucky enough to have the right people see that behavior and respond to it.

2. If you could go back and be a student again, what would you do differently?  (network more, study harder, etc.)

Justin: I would network more, especially with alumni and people already in the professional world. I got in a comfort zone with my job at the school newspaper, the company I interned at three times and my classes. I should have stepped out of that zone a lot more and met different people. You can NEVER network enough. Not humanly possible. IABC and PRSA are good places to start and often have student chapters at different campuses.

Ruth Streder

Ruth: I left my university in 2006. Back then social media was starting, but it was nowhere near as big as it is now. I had a solid understanding about traditional media, but not about social media. So I should really have started reading more about new trends, tried out different social media channels and services and just engaged more with bloggers. This was something that I then had to take up in my spare time, after work, and while I enjoyed it, it was difficult to find enough hours in the day to work in PR and build my knowledge in social media.

Be more confident – I attended networking and industry events whenever I was invited to them, but what I was afraid to request informational interviews with agencies or professionals that interested me. I should have just reached out to them, commented on blog posts etc. But back then I thought they would not be interested in talking to a PR newbie – big mistake! If you have an opinion, are interested in discussing industry trends and just keen on learning more about PR, go out and meet people. You have to reach out to them (agencies, companies, professionals) to make them aware of you – they are not going to come and look for you. Take initiative!

Tara: Ideally I would like to think I would have had a couple more internships to expose me to real-life settings even more, but the truth is I’m not sure I would have been able to.  I had to work to pay for things like rent and groceries and my car, and most internships were not paid and required a 40 minute drive to Nashville.

There are a lot of students in this exact situation who want to be more involved but just can’t devote the time or commitment to an unpaid internship.

Some colleges have student-run agencies, and I think this is a great way to help those students who want to participate do so in a manner that is easier to accommodate.  It allows for an intern-like experience in your own mass comm building with your peers, learning the ins and outs of providing public relations services.  As an employer, I would see value in a student having that experience.

3. Do you think you received a quality education?

Justin: Yes, I do. I had great experiences in my classes and was forced to push myself and try new things. I really learned to write in college. I’ve always felt like you can do almost anything if you know how to write, how to communicate and in today’s social media world, how to tell stories. However, the best thing about my experience at Northwestern was the people I met and relationships I formed. Sounds cliché, but those relationships have benefited the most – both through friendships and career advice.

Ruth: Yes, but then I did not pursue a PR degree. I enrolled in business and management courses. So I do have a solid understanding of planning, budgeting, forecasting, market research, etc. A lot of my PR knowledge and experience comes from learning on the job, having a great mentor and taking part in training sessions at my agency.

Tara Tocco

Tara: I believe that to a certain level, you get out of education what you put into it.  I worked very hard at my courses and applied myself to my studies, and because of that, I was able to maximize the amount of information I learned.

I do feel that the nature of a public relations job, whether it’s at an agency or in-house, is one that can easily be created to allow students to learn and grow in a replicated setting.  Allowing students to feel like they are part of a communications department instead of sitting in a classroom would have been an interesting approach at teaching that I think would have allowed me to feel better prepared when I entered the working world.

4. Did you expect college to fully prepare you or did you understand a lot that responsibility was on you?

Justin: During my freshmen year in college, I joined a fraternity. I remember one of my “brothers” was a senior majoring in journalism and had like four or five jobs to choose from. I definitely went through a period where I thought, “I’ve worked hard, I got into a good school, the jobs and career opportunities will come my way.” I had a bit of a rude awakening as a freshman and sophomore when I realized how much work I still had to do to get where I want to be. There is ALWAYS someone who will work just a little bit harder than you. Some of the best advice I ever received from a colleague was in my first full-time corporate job. He told me to raise my hand whenever people asked for help, no matter what type of opportunity it was. That’s how I’d get the chance to prove myself. I only wish I had thought that way while in college.

Ruth: No, it’s all about taking initiative – you are not going to receive everything on a plate.

Also PR consists of more than just what you learned in school/college – it’s about your personality, how you go about meeting and engaging people, how you pitch stories (by finding an interesting angle and making it compelling) and also how open you are to new things. The PR industry is involving very quickly, not everything that’s happening ‘out there’ will immediately make it’s way into the classroom. You’ll need to be open-minded, read about the PR industry and media landscape, find out which topics interest you and then dive deeper by finding different blogs/professionals/companies – but also be curious about new technology, new channels to communicate with your audience and not afraid of testing different tools.

There are also different industries that you can do PR for – and a PR course at college/university is most likely to prepare you for PR in general. Not for specifics that are relevant to one industry (for instance building relationships with airlines is unique to travel PR, whereas test products and demos are more likely to happen in the field of tech PR). So you do have to do your own research, read about topics/companies/professionals that interest you, and which are specific to the industry you are interested in working in.

Tara: I always felt the responsibility – and privilege – to learn was on me.  I believe that is true to this day.

5. Looking back, what’s one thing you would advise PR students to do to prepare themselves for the “real world?”

Justin: People want to help. We were all students at one time and we’ve all been through the struggle to find that first job and enter the working world. Ask for help. It’s a great way to meet new people and you’re not inconveniencing the people you ask. I had people help me when my career was getting started and I still have people help me all the time today. That “I’m going to do it all by myself” attitude is BS. You learn from help. You grow from it. You meet new people and build relationships. If you don’t ask for perspective or POV sometimes, you’re in for a long, bumpy ride.

Ruth: 1) Stay up-to-date on industry news, conversations and the leading influencers
2) Network and take initiative – don’t expect that your university or college will provide you with everything you need to be successful
3) Practice writing and editing content

Tara: Try to see the big picture.  Understand the role of communications in an industry, in a company, in a nonprofit, in the government.  Study things you enjoy, like pop culture or music or fashion, and learn to see through it and understand how public relations is at work every single day.  The people who are the most successful in the industry are the ones who are able to strategize based on the overall picture, not just execute one tactical effort after another.  You can start developing those skills now and hone them in as you move forward in your career.

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8 thoughts on “Pros reflect on college days, offer advice to today’s PR students

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  3. Hey Guys,
    I actually enjoyed this post. The various P.O.V’s were excellent. I stumbled across this blog earlier this evening and i have to say; I am a 22 year old male and i recently graduated from Buffalo State this past may where I majored in Public Communication. I always seemed to have a plan on what was next and after graduation I have been struggling to get a foot in the door in my career-field. I feel Tara really hit on what I am presently faced with when she noted most internships are unpaid but require you to commit nearly full-time work hours. I’m considering going to grad school but I feel that most places are looking for experience in today’s economy and grad school wont get me the experience requested of me. I guess i’m just wondering or looking for advice on what should be my next move? I know that i am very interested in entertainment pr and sports pr but whats some tips/advice on what my next move should be?

    • Antonio – Glad the post was useful. Like you, I had a plan for life after college. I did all “right things” in school to compete well against other job seekers. Finally, I met a guy who came into the restaurant I worked at. Long story short, he ended up hiring me a few months later. It was either divine intervention or sure luck. So, my advice to you is go crazy and think differently than other people. 1) Go crazy – Treat looking for a job like a job. First off, cast your net as wide as possible. Try not to limit yourself geographically. Network online and offline. Attend events where potential employers may be and engage people. Don’t be passive. Target potential employers and call them. Work to find out who the hiring manager is and try to have a short intro conversation with them. Volunteer some time with someone you’d like to work for. It gets you in the door and building relationships. As far as offline, ensure you have a Linkedin profile and monitor Linkedin Groups like solopr and other PR focused Groups. Reach out to people. Don’t expect a job offer though. Rather, start building relationships with these professionals. It positions you for a job offer in the future. Participate in Twitter chats like #pr20chat and #journchat. If you’re not familiar with those, let me know. I could go on and on. It’s a tough job market out there with stiff competition for the jobs you’re pursuing. Not only do your qualifications coming out of school need to be strong but your tenacity needs to be stronger. Some times this means sacrificing social time for “business time,” meaning job seeking time. Successful professionals aren’t passive, they kill it every day. It’s spirit, attitude and written goal setting that gets them where they want to be. That’s how you have to approach this especially today. Tell you what, send me your resume. Email it to joelfortner03@gmail.com. I’m happy to review it and provide feedback. Question – are you getting interviews at all?

  4. I feel the same way as Ruth in terms of PR pros not wanting to talk to a newbie. Thanks for the tips! Although I’m a confident person, this made me realize that I need to reach out to more industry pros…and not be scared to do so!

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