Last night I spoke to a class of marketing seniors at Davenport University, some of whom are considering a career in Public Relations. I shared some advice as they start their careers (below), and I shared some of my experiences over the past 20+ years, including decisions I made that led me to a career in PR. Because, frankly, when I was their age I didn’t even know what PR was.
I decided to study journalism at a community college near my hometown after high school because my top university choice didn’t accept my application on the first try. Thanks Queen’s. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life anyway, and my mom had MS and was confined to a wheelchair, and I didn’t want to leave my dad with the sole responsibility of her care. So, instead of going to my second or third choice universities, both of which had accepted me, I went to Loyalist College which, like other community colleges in Canada, was very focused on providing career training. The only program that sounded appealing to me was Print Journalism, which prepared students for a career as a two-way (editorial and photography) community journalist.
I loved it. I liked telling stories through words and pictures. I loved the art and science behind good page design. I loved working in the dark room and at the big Olivetti typewriter — the kind you needed muscular fingers and a lot of enthusiasm to manipulate well. I loved being a reporter for the school paper and for my internships but, upon graduation, I did not immediately go to work. My girlfriend decided to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I followed.
She and I didn’t last. But I did meet the beautiful girl who would become my wife and I did obtain my B.A. in English. And I did get a job as a reporter several months after I graduated. The Grand Rapids Business Journal wasn’t a big publication, but that probably was a good thing for me. I got to cover stories and conduct interviews I never would have been assigned had I worked at a larger publication. The pay wasn’t good, but I really liked what I was doing.
As newlyweds sometimes do, we had a child, and “I really liked what I was doing” no longer was enough. When the PR sirens came singing, I boldly took the plunge. Even though I hadn’t studied PR (few had, at that point), I knew it involved writing and that it still was part of the reporting process. Journalists called it “selling out” and, well, that’s how I felt about it too. But there were bills to pay.
What I came to discover, however, was that PR was indeed an honorable, respectable profession that includes a responsibility to the public good. PR certainly has some image problems of its own, brought on by some practioners within its own ranks. It’s one of the reasons I am such a big fan of PRSA — the Public Relations Society of America. The PRSA educates on best practices and advocates for ethical behaviors and awards Accreditation in Public Relations to its top practitioners. What I learned about being a PR practitioner came from working with excellent professionals at Amway and through PRSA involvement. Next week when the West Michigan PRSA chapter board meets I assume my new role as 2010 President. I also served as WMPRSA President back in 2003.
My advice to the students? First of all, I told them if they weren’t passionate about PR, they shouldn’t do it. Lack of passion is a dead-end street in the PR profession. Besides, who wants to do a job for the rest of their lives that they are not passionate about? I want to love what I do, and do what I love.
Next, I told them to write. Write for paying clients. Write for non-paying clients. Write for fictional clients. But if you’re not writing in this profession, you won’t get far. The PR professional won’t ever reach campaign planning status if they cannot write persuasively.
And I told them to be true. I told them that Honest, Open, Transparent communications are critical to the reputation of a firm. Dishonesty is eventually discovered and reputation is destroyed. Avoiding the tough conversations about your business destroys trust. Selectively sharing only the facts that you believe place you in the best light is an invitation for your critics to share the facts you’re avoiding. Outing yourself on difficult information is always better than being outed by someone else.
To the students at Davenport, and at Calvin, and Grand Valley State University and Loyalist College and Queen’s University, at Harvard College and Grand Rapids Community College — do what you love, and be true.