It seems like a lot of my conversations with students at Curry College, where I teach most of the Public Relations courses in our undergraduate Communication major, lead off with the question “Where do I start?”
Most of the time they’re talking about their job or internship search. But occasionally we’re talking about their future at Curry…what should they study…what’s best for them and their interests…should they stay at Curry??
I often assure (or perhaps frighten) them that we all have had to start somewhere…that there are no cleanly and clearly marked roadmaps to show them the way.
But there is guidance available:
- There are personal examples, which I share willingly and readily.
- There are the experiences of others just like them who have gone before them.
And sometimes they just have to forge their own path.
Whatever the case, my message always contains the reassurance that they’re not in this alone…that we all (or at least some of us) started out unsure of ourselves and where we thought we should be heading.
I’ve told my own story countless times…
- Started out wanting to be a civil engineer building highways and bridges.
- That idea didn’t work out so well, so switched to English thinking I would be a college professor (note: this was 1966!).
- Wound up after college in the Air Force first as an English language instructor, then as an audiovisual specialist.
- Stumbled upon the concept of public relations and the rest, as the saying goes, “is history.”
The funny (probably better said as “ironic”) thing is, I had no one to show me the way until I got into the Army’s public affairs intern program. I just made it up as I went along.
Thinking back on it, until I moved to New England and subsequently joined the Public Relations Society of America’s (then) New England Chapter…now Boston Chapter…I did not know one single soul outside of the military who worked in the public relations arena!
But that was then, and that was me.
Today, I would argue, is better. College students today have more resources to call on, from professors like myself who have spent a substantial amount of time working in a particular profession to others…career services folks in particular who keep their fingers on the pulse of the business community-at-large but also alumni who are ready, willing, and able to talk about their own experiences and lessons learned.
But it all has to start somewhere…asking questions…listening to advice…following up on recommendations…taking action.
There will be, as I so often caution, bumps in the road that threaten to derail plans. There will be opportunities that, on the surface, seem ideal…until you actually “see how the sausage is made.” But it all counts. It’s experience. It’s lessons learned. It’s life.
And it all has to start somewhere. Have you started??
I’m back from the Public Relations Society of America‘s International Conference and am more-or-less reasonably refocused on my “day job” of teaching most of the public relations courses in Curry College’s undergraduate Communication curriculum.
Had a chance to hang out with some very smart PR professionals while at the Conference as well as some very bright young PRSSA (PR Student Society of America) members who hold great promise for our profession’s future.
But now back to the “reality” of higher education and its challenges and opportunities.
This afternoon, though, while waiting for our shuttle to ferry me to the local subway station, I had an unexpected yet very invigorating chat with two former students, one of whom is interested in pursuing a career in public relations, the other undecided at this point.
The young lady is set. She’s actively involved in the Curry College PR Student Association, is diligently taking all the required courses for the PR Concentration, and has her eyes set on an internship that will get her foot in the door of the profession.
The young man is hovering. He kind of knows where his interests lie. He just doesn’t know exactly how to proceed both in college and in life after. But as he and I talked, I realized that he has his act firmly together.
What struck me was the unabashed youthful enthusiasm both of these young people showed. They are eager. They are interested. They are motivated.
This, in turn, reminds me that my job as a public relations professional now teaching the next generation(s) of PR pros doesn’t end when my “troops” head off the stage with their diplomas clutched tightly in their hands.
No. This is a long-term commitment that promises these young people that I…and countless others…are standing by to help, to advise, to console, and to encourage. Our “bond” says that I, as the veteran, will share my knowledge, my experience, my lessons learned, and my dreams with those who choose to listen.
While this sounds daunting…and to otherwise “normal” people it probably would be…this should be the norm, especially for those of us in public relations. That’s our job…providing guidance and counsel.
But there is a “payback” in this that comes from seeing our young charges mature over the course of four years into eager, competent young men and women for whom the world, as Forrest Gump said, “is like a box of chocolate.”
From us, they get the introduction to their futures…a peek at what lies ahead as a reward for their diligence and dedication.
From them, we get the assurance that the future lies in good hands…that the groundwork we have laid either as PR professionals or PR professors or a combination of the two will be maintained and strengthened.
It all starts with a simple(-ish) state of being, that of unabashed youthful enthusiasm.
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Essays: First Series. Circles”
Not a huge deal, but I figured, “What the heck? Give ‘em a ‘throwaway’…a no-brainer.” All they had to do was read an article carefully and find the mistake…a fairly obvious mistake.
So I gave them the title of the article and said it was in the Boston Sunday Globe. My mistaken assumption was that they would all leap merrily on this chance to get a guaranteed “A” for accomplishing a simple task, and I would be inundated with responses.
Within a couple of hours, I had gotten four responses…
- One asked, “What section of the paper is it in?” (Apparently no attempt whatsoever to look…as the article began at the top of Page One.)
- One asked, “Where can I find the article?” (Ditto above)
- One asked, “Can you give more information so I can find the article?” (1-2-3-4-5…)
- The last was more a statement: “The least you could do is give us the link to the article so we can find it.” (Won’t comment on that one.)
The fascinating part of this is that these are not newly-minted freshmen just learning the ropes of college. These are, for the most part, juniors and seniors…many of whom are starting to set their sights on “life after college” and…jobs!
This isn’t a new topic for me. I’ve gone off on a spree before venting about the reluctance (inability?) of today’s generation to look for solutions to problems. My perception is that they are sitting back complacently waiting for me…or someone…to waltz in the door with the answer for them on a silver platter.
I do have to hasten to add that this characterization doesn’t apply to all…but It’s real.
My challenge, and that of my academic colleagues, is to drive home the point that life doesn’t come with a preset menu of choices. We have to help/make our young charges come to grips with the fact that, more often than not, they will have to sift through the rubble of decision-making to find the solution to the problem at hand.
I’m not totally discouraged by this most recent exercise, however, as I can cheerfully report that, by the end of the evening, I had received a half-dozen correct responses from others, including one who pointed out an error that I had missed.
So there is hope! But the basic point remains. Thinking…It truly IS critical.
“To most people nothing is more troublesome than the effort of thinking.” – James Bryce, “Studies in History and Jurisprudence – Obedience” 
I had a somewhat frustrating experience recently trying to help a group of would-be public relations practitioners understand the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. These are reasonably bright young men and women…juniors and seniors…all of whom should know how to format a direct quotation and use the correct wording.
Didn’t matter that I had provided them with examples. Didn’t matter that I had pointed out some excellent resources for fact-checking.
Nope. They stared at their computer screens or a printed version of their second draft with a baffled look…much like they had seen their first Martian.
One thing that I constantly and consistently hammer home to my students both at Curry College, where I teach most of the Communication Department’s undergrad PR courses, and at Regis College, where I teach part-time in the graduate Organizational and Professional Communication program, is that they know where to look for information.
Knowledge doesn’t fall out of the sky or grow on trees. It is the result of hard work, diligent study, and ability to conduct at least elementary research.
I assure my students that I neither know everything needed to succeed as a public relations professional nor wish to know everything.
What I do know is where to look to find what I need to know.
There are the reference books on my bookshelves. There is, of course, the internet. There are the hundreds of human contacts I have made over the years who have become part of my global network.
These are the resources that I turn to when I need answers or information or “how-tos”…in addition to the decades of experience-based knowledge that I have stored in my fuzzy brain.
The point here is, Grasshopper, that you have to take control of your own knowledge-building and education. First, you have to know what you don’t know. Then, you have to know where to turn to get the answers that you need.
You have to know where to look.
“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt; Nothing’s so hard but search will find it out.”
Robert Herrick, “Hesperides. Argument of His Book – Seek and Find” 
I’m a few weeks into the fall semester at Curry College, where I head the undergraduate Public Relations Concentration and teach most PR courses. The usual bumps in the road have occurred along with a couple of pleasant surprises.
Bumps include a newly-enforced cap on class sizes that ensures I don’t have eager young disciples sitting on the windowsills because all the real seats are filled due to my inability to say “no” to anyone who says he or she wants to take one of my classes.
This “problem” is the result of unbridled enthusiasm from two sources: yours truly…and my students.
I absolutely love what I’m doing…because I’m introducing young men and women to a profession that has consumed my life and been my passion for more than 40 years.
My students get a whiff of my devotion and find themselves being lured into my world. They want to jump in and learn how to swim in the whitewater of my PR pool…a pleasant surprise.
For the students, this is completely voluntary…if they wish to focus their studies on a specific area. I have to stress again the voluntary part. We have a boatload of concentrations in the Communication Department, and we also have a lot of students who choose not to specialize.
What is important is that these folks have figured out that they like and are interested in Communication as a general study area. Some will go on into the communication profession; others will go into another career field. Some will focus on Public Relations; others will find another passion and pursue that.
Whatever the scenario, they all will have been exposed to and have gained a solid understanding of the role that communication plays in business as well as in life.
My goal as the resident PR prof is to ignite not a spark, but a flame of rabid enthusiasm for the opportunities and the challenges that lie ahead, regardless of the individual student’s focus, and most of the time it works. (I’m a realist…can’t convert everyone!)
This happens for one not-so-simple reason…my unbridled enthusiasm for what I am doing.
Students then get caught up in the excitement of the possibilities that lie ahead. They ask the pertinent questions and ensure that they are taking the appropriate courses in preparation for “life after graduation.” And, as part of that preparation, particularly in the PR Concentration, they are encouraged (required in PR) to successfully complete at least one internship although I strongly encourage multiple so that they can experience different professional environments and philosophies.
The end result? The public relations profession, in this case, gains enthusiastic fresh viewpoints, ideas, and eager disciples. And the students themselves gain entry to a career path that can lead them along the way to wonderful adventures.
Although I know the reality is that not everyone is madly in love with what he or she is doing for a living or as a career path, even after all these years I can’t fathom someone working at something day in and day out that he or she loathes. And, working with that mindset, I do my best to show my students that…when you do find the profession that you truly do love…go at it with unabashed and totally unbridled enthusiasm!
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Essays: First Series…Circles”
I’ve embarked on a new challenge this semester that is taking me way out of my usual “comfort zone” so far as my own capabilities are concerned…I’m taking “Introductory Mandarin Chinese.”
Some of you may wonder what’s significant about this given that I’m always taking advantage of the on-site and on-line learning opportunities offered by the Public Relations Society of America, PRSA Boston Chapter, Publicity Club of New England, and other organizations.
My students at Curry College (where I’m taking the course and where I teach most of the Public Relations courses in our undergraduate Communication Department) are somewhat bemused, and my wife…who has patiently put up with my shenanigans for many years…is baffled.
There were a number of factors that played into this decision, among which were timing (the course runs at a time of day that works for my own teaching schedule) and a concern on my part that I’ve gotten a little complacent in my own education. Hence…Introductory Mandarin.
A commitment to professionalism is more than just learning the tactics and techniques of a particular career field.
You can become very, very good at what you do through years of practical application. But, or at least this is my take on it, professionalism is more than that. Professionalism itself implies a commitment to continued self-education and development. It’s a promise to yourself and to those who rely on you for advice and counsel that you will take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to add to or refresh your knowledge base.
In my world, the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach is insufficient. The world in which we live and conduct our business is changing dramatically and continually.
No surprise here, but that change requires…no, demands…that we have at our fingertips the latest communication methods, tools, and techniques. And that demands that we be constantly seeking out the newest information…testing ourselves by delving into the new and the unfamiliar to see how it can be used to our advantage.
Which is an excuse for me to circle back to Mandarin Chinese. Why am I doing this?
Because it hit me while I was on vacation during the summer in Taiwan that I’ve been going there for more than 30 years…and barely know enough words to order a cup of coffee.
Then, to cap it, I made a new friend while there and “forced” him and his wife, along with my own wife, to converse throughout a roughly two-hour dinner in my native English. It worked fine as both of them earned their master’s degrees from universities in the United States. And, for Margaret (my wife), English is just one of about a half-dozen languages in which she comfortably converses.
The reality finally sank in that, if I truly do want to spend greater amounts of time in Taiwan…and make new friends in the process, I have to shake myself out of my comfortable shell and test myself…test both my ability to learn a new language and my commitment to that learning.
We’ve just started the course, so it’s too early to tell. But I pride myself on my professionalism and my commitment to learning. It will be a successful endeavor.
“Leadership and learning are indispensible to each other.” – John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Remarks prepared for delivery at the Trade Mart in Dallas [November 22, 1963])
September is “Ethics Awareness Month” for the Public Relations Society of America, and I had plenty of time over the summer to reflect on what I see as “progress” of some sort in ethics education for PR professionals.
Now that fall semester has kicked into full gear at Curry College, where I head the undergraduate Public Relations concentration and teach most (but not all, thankfully!) of the PR courses, I’m giving the topic even more thought because I will be talking about it in both my “Intro to Mass Communication” and my “Principles of PR” classes.
PRSA is doing a commendable job of providing educational opportunities for its members…and the public…on the provisions and intent of its Code of Ethics. Other PR-related organizations are doing an equally fine job.
So why the “two-one” intro?
Simple…I don’t believe we’re there yet…not completely. Although most of our colleagues are, and always have been, highly ethical in their practice, ensuring that their advice and counsel to clients or employers honors the ethical principles that should be our hallmark, there are still those who “stray.”
And these are the folks whose names are splashed on the front page of the still-surviving print publications or are the leads on the evening news.
Our challenge as PR professionals is to constantly remind others that there are guidelines that can help everyone act ethically if followed. In addition, there are expectations on the part of the many publics impacted by our activities that we will be conducting our business in an ethical manner.
The “problem” as I see it, however, is that the perception by many is the opposite…that we don’t act ethically…that we somehow manipulate everyone and everything that we come in contact with in order to accomplish our mission.
Two steps forward…
- Educate…Be advocates for ethical public relations practice. Speak up and speak out on the subject, and encourage others to do the same.
- Demonstrate…Explain when appropriate why we take a particular course of action or decline to do so.
One step back…
- You see the headlines and read the stories.
I think I speak for the overwhelming majority of my colleagues when I say that one of the things that attracted me to public relations was the opportunity to provide services openly and honestly on behalf of clients or employers. I was raised with the expectation that I would act in this way. I feel very comfortable acting in this way. I have no desire to act otherwise.
“The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education.”
Plutarch, “Morals. Of the Training of Children”
I’ve just finished re-reading Charlene Li’s excellent “Open Leadership,” a fascinating look at how social technology can be used to create a success-focused business environment. This isn’t a book review, though, so you’ll have to get and read the book yourself.
One chapter toward the end really caught my attention…“The Failure Imperative”…with the basic message of “It’s okay to fail”…as long as you have learned something from the experience.
I realize that “failure” has a gazillion different meanings depending on where you are in life.
On the student side, it’s the “F” you got on an exam or assignment. Not being the brightest bulb in my family’s tulip bed, I’m more than familiar with this…took three tries to finally squeak through the statistics course required for my business management bachelor’s degree.
On the professional career level, it’s the great idea you have and champion that, when actually put into action, bombs spectacularly. In my 30-ish years as a public relations practitioner, I racked up a bunch of these puppies including a “singles-night, line-dance blood drive” that never should have seen the light of day!
My takeaway from “The Failure Imperative” is that a willingness to take chances and do things a new way is the mark of someone who truly believes in him- or herself and is willing to jump into the deep end and learn by doing.
I’m not talking about “being stupid” here. That was, in my toddler years (seems like only yesterday!), sticking a metal nail file into an electrical outlet to see what would happen…don’t do that anymore!
What I’m suggesting is that just because it’s never been done that way before is not a reason not to try.
This holds true in college life just as it does in a professional career. There are those…look around you; you see ‘em…who just won’t venture off the tried-and-proven path. And many of them will go on to become “good employees” and, eventually, “good managers.”
But they won’t become great leaders unless something dramatic changes in their outlook and action.
You can do this. Take a long, hard look to yourself…your interests, your strengths…your weaknesses. What is it that, when you think about or do it, gives you a little thrill of excitement?
Once you’ve taken this step, as Nike would say, “Just do it.”
As you progress, you’ll have opportunities to try new ways of doing what you love doing. You’ll think of quicker, easier, more efficient approaches. Try them!
Sometimes everything will fall right into place, and you will have improved the process in some fashion.
Sometimes things will go wrong in ways you couldn’t imagine in your scariest nightmare.
That’s okay, too. When the dust clears, ask yourself, “What did I learn here?” Then apply that new knowledge to the challenge and try again…or not, depending on the results (see wall socket/nail file above).
But at least you will have tried. You may have failed on the first go-round, but you learned.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Okay…I’ll start by saying that, for many of you reading this, it’s not a “new year” per se. But, for students and for those of us who guide these students along their newly-forged educational trails, it is…or soon will be.
But…it could and can be a new year for anyone at any time.
“New,” for me, is when I do something for the first time. And life, in all its many forms is always re-creating itself…for me, at least. So every day is new.
With “new” comes the opportunity for change, for refining, for retooling…tweaking old routines, reaching out to old friends and acquaintances and refreshing relationships, adjusting the way certain things are done.
So I, for one, am celebrating the “new year” by having coffee with a friend (Curry College alum, coincidentally) who I’ve only known for a few years and lunch with another friend (not Curry College, but definitely a major player in my life) who I have known for more than a quarter of a century.
I’m also starting classes at Curry on the Tuesday after Labor Day…one class will be an “Intro to Mass Communication” class that will have around 30 folks…all Communication majors…who I’ve never met before, and the second will be “Publicity Techniques” (Writing for PR), populated by about 20 COM majors who have also taken my “Principles of PR” class before, so I know all of them…and am luring them into the PR Concentration!
And the day will have started with our Convocation during which we will welcome several hundred brand-new members of our Curry College community…our incoming freshmen.
This will be roughly the tenth year that I’ve done this…and it will all be brand-spanking new for me!
Why? Because my take on this is that every day is a fresh start on that wonderful adventure called “life,” and I will do whatever I can to enjoy and appreciate every minute.
The lesson here, Grasshopper, is that you can find “new” in lots of different situations. But it takes a little effort on your part…
- Same company…but what about that new client you’re supporting?
- Same workday routine…but what about the new software that your IT folks installed?
- Same responsibilities in your job…but what about your upcoming performance review?
This may sound weird, but I once felt like I was in a rut at what should have been a very cool job…bored senseless, not happy. I started coming into the office through the back door, passing the maintenance and supply areas…the “innards” of an organization…before getting to my own work area. That “new approach” reminded me of all the behind-the-scenes folks who made my own job easier, and it renewed my appreciation for their support…and for my own job.
Sometimes you just have to create your own special occasions…why not make this one a “happy new year”?
“New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.”
Samuel Johnson, “Lives of the Poets…Pope” [1779-1781]
Several meetings with several former students from both Curry College and Regis College got me thinking…seriously…about whether or not I’m making a difference now that I’m a teacher on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
In addition, we were talking this past week in my Conflict Management class at Regis about expectations…me, the teacher, of the students…and, vice versa, the students of me.
On my side of the fence, I expect them to be motivated, prepared, and inquisitive. This is a graduate course, so the stakes are a bit higher.
On their side, I am expected to provide information and insights that will enable them to get a firmer grasp on their professional development…to gain knowledge that will help them better grapple with the challenges of the workplace.
My quandary is that I’m not convinced I’m doing as good a job as my inner self says I should.
Granted the troops are going out with their degrees, undergrad or grad, and are moving onward and upward.
My nagging question to myself, though, is “what impact did I have on their progress?”
Maybe this angst is just in my head. After all, I’m just a public relations professional who, by a wonderful stroke of good fortune, wound up in the classroom teaching the next generation(s) of PR pros (and others). But it’s also a sobering reality check for anyone charged with educating up-and-coming future professionals.
Edward L. Bernays, who I consider to be the “Father of Public Relations” and who I had the honor to know during his later years here in Boston, had this to say in his 1961 book, “Your Future in Public Relations,” about education and the public relations profession: “If an individual is to give advice to others, he should have knowledge and understanding. A liberal-arts education or its equivalent is a necessity.”
Both Curry and Regis are small liberal arts colleges focused on providing their students with a well-rounded education that exposes them to the arts and the sciences. That was my education, and the things I learned…in all my courses…even the pre-engineering courses which were not among my more shining moments…played a huge role in getting me where I am today.
Eddie also went on to say, “Properly speaking, for the public relations man, as for every other person whose life is more than unthinking routine, the processes of education should never cease.” Hence advanced degrees and professional development courses.
He also recognized the value of real-life, hands-on experience and was an early proponent of internships: “…it clearly would be advantageous to have…a system of internship.” And that is where I hope I am making a difference…by urging and helping students to get internships, to get their first jobs, and to chart their course for the future.
I expose my students to as much of the reality of the PR profession as I possibly can in the classroom, presenting the theory, the history, the tactics, and the techniques. Then I push them (gently) out of their ivy-walled nest to meet the asphalt of reality.
So far, it seems like it’s working. But I’ll always wonder…
“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” – Henry James, “The Middle Years”