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Internships are Study Abroad Experiences

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Internships are Study Abroad Experiences

Ideally, Internships aren’t just about getting resume-filler.  They’re about practical experience, networking, and portfolio-building.  One aspect of internships that most of us take for granted is the vital role they play in acclimating young people to  office culture.

Don’t laugh.  I was fortunate to have worked in my father’s insurance office since I was 13, but most young people don’t have that sort of exposure to the white-collar working world and its various intricacies.

Office culture is so ubiquitous and richly-textured that the sitcom “The Office” has spawned numerous adaptations for the varying office cultures around the world, beginning first in the UK but then moving to the US, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden.

Virtually every textbook in Communications and Public Relations stresses the importance of cultural competence in effective communication.  So many of our paradigms for encoding and decoding messages are culture-specific.  Here’s what I mean:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K5SycZjGhI

Tips for Students on Maximizing Their Internships

1. Get Something out of the Experience: Unfortunately there are still a lot of organizations that don’t monetarily compensate their interns.  The practice is unethical in my opinion (and the opinion of the Public Relations Society of America).  The current dismal economic climate isn’t helping matters much, but for students unable to get hourly pay or a stipend (to cover the cost of the credits for the class) for their efforts there are still ways to get value from the experience by ensuring that one of three things comes out of their work:

  • A Name: It’s easier to make the case to take an unpaid internship if the organization is one that has a solid reputation that will look good as legitimate work experience on a resume.
  • Solid Experience: Another intangible value if a name and money aren’t available for an internship is hands-on experience.  Particularly for nonprofits and small companies, the possibility exists for an intern to be given a great deal of responsibility that exceeds the typical student experience.  Being able to oversee projects and produce valuable portfolio content also has a great deal of merit.
  • Cultural Competence: For the rare student that already knows what field or type of PR that they want to practice, gaining exposure to the networks of professionals and world they operate in is also valuable.  Absent a name, cash, or responsibility in return for one’s work – being a fly on the wall in high-level meetings or consuming industry-specific literature on the job can also be valuable.

2.  Keep a Diary: Many people find journaling to be valuable while studying abroad and that also applies to “studying abroad” in the office environment.  Frequently when we’re in the moment at a job, it can be extraordinarily difficult to process and remember everything we experience.  Writing them down helps not only the exercise of processing what we learn, but helping us internalize it so that we can actually apply it to our own careers.  Try the following:

  • Jot down terms you don’t understand to look up later.
  • Keep records of the names of people you meet and the organizations they work for (this may come in handy .  Maintain a running list of all of the unspoken “rules” for office behavior that you encounter (email alone is rife with behavioral norms).

3.  Stay Open to Unfamiliar Experiences: Just as when traveling abroad, working in an office is a richer experience when you keep an open mind and volunteer for (or better yet, seek out) opportunities to do things or go places we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Looking back now after 15 years in PR, I realize that learning what I DON’T like has been just as valuable as learning what I DO like.  The earlier you can develop self-awareness, the more opportunity you have to change your career trajectory toward a career that is fulfilling.

It may not seem like it now when you’re eating Ramen and worrying about affording gas for your car, but money isn’t everything.  Contrary to what many textbooks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and services like Salary.com say – you’re likely not going to get rich doing PR (the “starting salaries” they list are laughably inaccurate) … and that’s okay.  What matters more is that you like the work and find it life-affirming.

4.  Observe Others Reactions to You: Despite egalitarian ethos espoused by the the US, not everyone is equal in the workplace.  Different standards (and in some cases, double-standards) still exist for for race, gender and culture.  Understanding this is critical to navigating office politics.  I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you that a strong work ethic and quality output aren’t all you need to be successful in the white-collar world.

Given how much of PR is interpersonal relationships (with the media, with clients, with co-workers, with customers), every aspiring professional needs to be aware of how they may be received by the people they interact with daily.  Fortunately you have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them early in your career – those opportunities diminish as you get older.

Women especially have to be aware of relationship dynamics in the office, as they are more frequently held to a different standard than men.  Take the adage “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult” from Charlotte Whitton.  Regrettably I’ve found this to be true in the so-called enlightened workplace of the “modern” era.

The curious thing I’ve observed is that women need to worry less about sexism from men than they do from other women.  Throughout my career, the majority of my supervisors have been female and I’ve watched as a female colleague many years my senior in experience and ability has her view challenged where I am not even though I’m making the same contention.

As far as race and ethnicity go, the sad reality is that most organizations put the “White” in “White-Collar.”  There isn’t nearly as much diversity in most offices as there should be.  The upside is that this creates a great deal of opportunity for minority PR students: savvy firms and companies are looking to hire them.  Naturally, PR pros know the intrinsic value of a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints in generating creative ideas as well as in relating to the increasingly-diverse US population.

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Jack O’Dwyer is Less Woodward & Bernstein, More Statler & Waldorf

November 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Jack O'Dwyer is Statler & Waldorf, not Woodard & Bernstein

Jack O'Dwyer is Statler & Waldorf, not Woodard & Bernstein

If Jack O’Dwyer’s journalistic credentials were ever in question before, let all doubt be removed with his recent flurry of scandal-mongering.

Responding to PRSA’s thorough documentation of O’Dwyer’s unethical behavior and rationale for his lack of press credentials at the latest PRSA International Conference, O’Dwyer has ramped up his campaign against the organization and is now incorporating students in the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA).

Unlike Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who have taken an objective approach to covering the US Government in their careers, Jack O’Dwyer is much more like Statler and Waldorf – the comical gadflies on the Muppets who criticize the performers no matter what they do.

It’$ All About the Benjamin$

The economic backbone of O’Dwyer’s operation is, like much of the traditional media, based on “eyeballs” (ie subscribers, traffic to his website, etc).  In order for it to be financially-viable, O’Dwyer needs to be perceived as being an important figure in the public relations industry where his trade is plied, and to have attention-grabbing material to write about. Read more…

Networking Tips for Public Relations Students

September 26, 2011 9 comments

Last week my better half Adrienne Wallace and I spoke with Grand Valley State University’s Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and offered some advice on how students should network with public relations professionals.  Networking is critical to virtually any profession, but it’s particularly important in PR given how much of the job is social (connecting not only with prospective employers, but media contacts, and colleagues who can be great resources one may need for projects).

If you’re a PR student and you’re not networking and taking internships (ie building work experience) – you’ll have a very hard time finding employment when you graduate.  While job posting platforms like Monster, Indeed, Linkedin, Beyond, CareerBuilder, Brazen Careerist and PRSA’s Job Center are great resources – the vast majority of jobs are not posted anywhere and are acquired based on who you know.

Here’s the gist of what we told them in case any other students find it to be helpful: Read more…

On Spam, Josh Bernoff and Pointing Fingers – Responding to the Call to Clean up the PR Industry

February 25, 2011 2 comments

Pointing the Finger at PRSA

While perusing my RSS feeds, I came across a blog post by Josh Bernoff (Senior VP of Idea Development at Forrester Research and co-author of Groundswell) titled “PR professionals — clean up your industry.”

Interest.  Piqued.

In the post, Bernoff excoriates the public relations profession and specifically the Public Relations Society of America for spam email and lazy PR pros who send irrelevant pitches his way.  In the post he highlights five companies:  Seagate, GlassPoint, Calysto, Allen & Caron, and 5W Public Relations.  Arthur Yann, VP of Public Relations for PRSA did a great job of responding the very same day, and Bernoff graciously printed his response on behalf of the organization.

Before my [obnoxious] rebuttal, I’d like to point out that I completely agree with Bernoff; there are far too many PR people running around firing off irrelevant press releases in all directions like so much birdshot from a .12-gauge.

Moreover, I share Bernoff’s loathing for spam and unsolicited contact (so much so that I’ve gone so far as to track down the originators of unsolicited faxes and emails and contact hosting companies and file complaints with the state attorney general’s office).

I’d also like to say that I loved Groundswell; Bernoff and Li wrote a fantastic book that – unlike most nonfiction works – doesn’t coast on a few breezy anecdotal examples and factoids.  It’s grounded in quantitative analysis backed up by research.

However, claiming that the public relations profession has an obligation to clean itself up is as unreasonable as claiming that the sales profession has an obligation to clean itself up.  I’d also like to point out that, in point of fact, PRSA does have a “code of conduct that reflects the difference between right and wrong” and also a “certification for people who behave properly;” two facts that are readily available to anyone who googles “PRSA code of ethics” and “PRSA certification.”

I checked PRSA’s member directory and found the following about the handful of companies he named specifically:

  • Seagate: out of 52,000 employees worldwide, only one is a PRSA member.
  • GlassPoint: zero PRSA members.
  • Calysto: zero PRSA members.
  • Allen & Caron: zero PRSA members.
  • 5W Public Relations: out of 67 employees, only one is a PRSA member.

PRSA can’t spank people who aren’t members.  Part of the problem of unprofessional people equipped with technology is that a handful of them can do a lot of damage with relatively little effort.  That damage can usually only be repaired by repeated positive one-on-one interactions.  It’s kind of like trying to stop the tide from coming in armed only with a Solo cup.

When you point the finger, four point back at you.  Well … if not four, at least one.  Surely Forrester Research has never spammed anyone, right?  Whoops:

I’d love it if all of the spammy, obnoxious, lazy public professionals were loaded up into a rocket and fired into the orbit of a distant planet.  Their poor conduct invariably affects me in my dealings with the media or the general public which may hold past interactions with PR people against me.  But I work to win their trust one interaction at a time.  I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it.  That’s why I embrace the term “flack” (to the point of having it emblazoned on my employee ID card).

In addition to conducting myself in a respectful fashion, I also try to promote those same practices in others.  That’s why I’m a member of the board of the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA, and a professional advisor to the Public Relations Student Society Chapter at Grand Valley State University.

The good thing about bad PR people is that it’s easier than ever to cut them off at the knees for their tactics with the power of social media; email blacklists can easily be shared.  Just ask Chris Anderson.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for Forrester Research to turn the tools against these people.  Create a tool that allows disgruntled recipients of shoddy PR pitches to submit their blacklist suggestions (along with documentation of the pitch) to a database that people can download blacklist updates from.  I’d happily volunteer a few hours a month to help vet submissions.

PR Students: Your Fundamentals are a Strong Asset

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I was talking to a couple of colleagues yesterday over coffee about teaching Public Relations and something occurred to me.

PR students are, in some cases, better experts on some areas of PR than their supervisors.

Public Relations is a relatively young discipline.  Many people who practice PR have no formal education; they’ve acquired their expertise informally – usually through experience.

Areas of Expertise - Students vs. PR Pros

Mapping Public Relations Knowledge

As a result, the people who lead PR departments or agencies frequently don’t have a broad-based understanding of the profession.  They may have come from hospitality with event-planning expertise, or from a news background (which gives them media relations expertise).  While they have a very deep and nuanced understanding of those disciplines – they have relatively little or no awareness or education about some other areas of PR – which is a very broad field that encompasses many responsibilities, practices and tactics.

In my experience, this has proven to be true.  I’ve worked in PR for over a decade and the majority of the leaders I’ve worked for fit this description.  They have very strong skills in particular disciplines, but they invariably have blind spots as a result of how their knowledge was acquired.  They may be experts on handling crises, but lack skills in measurement.  Or they may excel at writing, but know very little about the legal concepts that apply to PR.

That broad base of knowledge is what the Public Relations Society of America’s “Accredited in Public Relations” (APR) designation works to remedy – the gaps in the whole profession that may have been missed through one’s career in the profession.

It can be intimidating to be an intern or an entry-level PR pro sitting at the table with leaders who have decades of experience on you.  PR pros who are young to the practice should take confidence from the fact that in addition to the fresh perspective they can offer, they may also offer leaders knowledge they may not have.

Inspiring, no?

This window of opportunity likely won’t be open forever though.

Public Relations is now a formal degree offered by an increasing number of colleges and universities, so eventually the majority of PR pros will have some formal education.  I tried to track down the first college/university to offer a PR degree and found references to Boston University – but despite Google and leafing through a couple of PR textbooks I’ve not been able to locate a history of PR higher education (and if anyone knows the historical roots of formal education in PR – I’d love to hear about them).

Tip for PR Students: Follow Current Events (Take Your Medicine)

June 17, 2010 1 comment

Today at the West Michigan PRSA chapter event on using video in public relations campaigns, I talked to a couple of people about the accelerating trend of college students being virtually unaware of current events.  One person I spoke to was amazed by how disconnected students at one particular university were – and how refreshing it was to interview Grand Valley State University (GVSU) students because they were much more attuned to the world around them because of requirements for their degree programs (so props to my alma mater).

If you’re a PR student (or really any student working toward a degree in any profession – particularly business) – you can really distinguish yourself from other internship/job-seeking students by being fluent in current events, which is increasingly becoming scarce.  In PR, news is the practically the air you breathe.

It makes perfect sense of course, and it’s not an indictment of the youth of America – it’s just a practical reality of the myriad new options we have for consuming information.  We have thousands of TV channels, millions of websites, and hundreds of different forms of entertainment options (from video gaming systems to social networking sites).

The best part is, it’s not hard; you can set up any number of ways to follow the news (and virtually any TYPE of news, given the granularity with which the content is sorted/segmented):

  • Browse: Set virtually any news site (npr.org), portal (news.google.com) or social news site (like Digg or Reddit) as your start page in your browser and look them over every time you launch it.
  • Email/Text: Sign up for Google Alerts and get SMS texts of news updates throughout the day (or a digest all at once).
  • Feed Readers: Use a feed reader like Google Reader and sign up for RSS feeds of news from any of the millions of news feeds offered by thousands of news sites
  • Facebook: Friend or “Like” any major news organization (I recommend NPR) on Facebook and news/information will show up with all of the other updates sandwiched between Farmville enticements and wall posts from your friends.

What’s happening in the rest of the world invariably affects you no matter what you plan to do with your education; new laws, economic developments, research findings, and profiles of community leaders will invariably affect your employer no matter what your calling is.

Yeah, a lot of it isn’t as interesting as whatever Megan Fox is up to this moment, but just like exercise or downing Robitussin when you’ve got a cough – it’s something you need to do.