Saturday, February 12, 2011

PR's new career path starts in school, not the newsroom

In the next week, 70 or so first-year Creative Communications students at Red River College will declare their "major" area of study for their second year: Advertising, Journalism, Public Relations, or Media Production (formerly "Broadcasting").

Many already know what they want to do when they leave college, but some are still on the fence, weighing their options and trying to figure out which major will be the best fit for them.

A fair number have come to ask me for advice, and I tell them all the same thing: they should major in whichever of the fields they plan get a job in, because that's what their portfolio will be best-suited for when they graduate.

I read an interesting article on the New York Times Education blog recently, about Mary Ellin Arch, a news editor who'd been 'downsized' from the newspaper where she worked, after 29 years in the news business.

Not yet ready to retire, she did what many journalists had done before her: she decided to look for work in public relations.

And after four months of  “no bites, no interviews, no calls, no interest whatsoever,” she realized she was losing all the PR jobs to people who were educated in PR.

The way it was

Not that long ago, it was a pretty normal thing for journalists to make the move to PR once they either realized they weren't going to become Walter Cronkite/Barbara Walters/Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein, or they decided they wanted a job that might be a little more family-friendly.

In fact, if you talk to many veteran PR pros today, they'll even tell you that you should go work in a newsroom before making the move to PR, because it'll make you a better PR guy.

They say that, because that's how it worked for them, back then.

It made sense, really. Even a decade ago, a good understanding of how the mainstream media worked was sometimes the most important characteristic of a successful PR professional. The mainstream media represented one of the very few ways we could practically get our messages out to our external audiences. Logically, who'd know better than someone who'd been on the other side, right?

On top of that, working in a newsroom was how you learned to write like a journalist, which is what PR folks aim to do.

The way it is

Today, a few variables in the equation have changed.

First, public relations programs have grown and expanded in colleges and universities around the world, at the certificate, diploma, degree, and graduate levels.

Students in these programs learn the fundamentals of organizational communications, and put them into practice. They learn what they need to know about their audiences in order to get -- and hold -- their attention. And they explore the creativity they need to figure out how to break through today's noise with a meaningful and persuasive message, on top of learning how to write for PR.

The "learn-it-by-watching-it-from-the-outside" approach of reluctant journalists doesn't hold up as well anymore. They are competing for PR jobs against people who can show employers work samples illustrating the range of skills they're looking for. PR grads don't have to say "trust me -- I have experience in a related field, so I'll probably be pretty good at PR."

Secondly, while understanding how the media work remains important for PR pros, organizations' reliance on media relations for mass communication will decrease steadily as social media grow.

There's a reason newspapers and magazines are fighting for audiences these days -- and it's because those audiences are getting their information online. Today's PR pros do need to understand how to work effectively with the mainstream media, but they also need to be able to communicate much more broadly -- a skill that requires a far greater breadth of PR knowledge and experience than having written for a newspaper.

Don't get me wrong

Please don't think I'm saying it's impossible for a journalist to switch into PR today, because it isn't. It continues to happen, and I expect it always will, for certain people.

When I was the director of a corporate communications department, I hired a number of former journalists -- all of whom demonstrated in their portfolios and in interviews their understanding of how PR works.

I also interviewed and declined to hire many more, who didn't.

If you want to work in PR today, you'd do yourself a favour by entering a formal PR program in a post-secondary institution, and by building a portfolio that shows your understanding of the fundamental principles of effective communications and how you respond creatively to a range of communications challenges.

Writing articles is only one of many writing-based skills a PR pro needs -- not to mention the need to understand different stakeholder motivations, to be able to create effective strategies to reach them, and how to use the growing number of communication tools at our disposal effectively.

I got lucky.

I entered this profession in the mid-1990s, before the Internet was even widely used. I received my PR education "on-the-job," when I was mentored by a partner in the communications firm that hired me based on my English degree, my strong writing, and the strength of my interviews.

Today I wouldn't stand a chance. There are far too many grads of public relations programs who can prove they already know what they're doing, and are ready to hit the ground running for their client.

My PR majors would have beaten me out for that first job in a minute, I can guarantee it... and I'd have been back to school.


  1. Wow, I have some resume revising to do :)

    The reason I like PR is because it's always evolving and it's multi-faceted. I like how I can always find ways to relate what I'm doing to PR.

  2. Thank you for writing this post, Melanie.

    I talked to many "veteran PR pros" during my work placement and all but two strongly suggested that I get some experience working in a newsroom of some media outlet. It both worried and confused me: Though I love writing and seeing my name in print, I know the world of journalism isn't for me - that's why I majored in PR!

    I understand and appreciate where these veterans are coming from, but it's a relief to hear things have changed. I definitely feel that CreComm has prepared me well for dealing with the media - from hands-on journalism courses in first year to media relations training as a PR major.

    Now I can go after the PR job I want right from the start, and not a newsroom gig! :)

  3. I don't think either of you has anything to worry about!