As a budding professional at a PR firm, I have been exposed to many different facets of the industry. I’ve drafted press releases, compiled media lists, and learned plenty of different terms I didn’t otherwise know. But my PR agency job has got me thinking back to what I learned about the industry when I first took a college course about it. What did I learn then, and how similar is my current experience to it? Here are some things I certainly didn’t learn about PR in college.
How to pitch media
Given how integral media pitching is to the practice of public relations, I was shocked to look back and realize how much I didn’t know about media, and the most effective ways to approach them about stories. Looking back through my assignments, I found press releases and some campaigns. I learned the basics of PR tactics, like the different parts of a press release and how to write one, but now that I’m in the industry I consider pitching one of the basics of what we do. I feel like I should have known more about it, since generating earned media coverage remains an essential goal for most PR agencies.
Business knowledge is important
It’s a no-brainer that you need to know about client companies to represent them, but what I’ve learned on the job is how important it is to know about a given client’s business. It’s not enough to just know about the organization. It’s also key to learn about any given industry so you’re better equipped to monitor news, suggest new pitch angles, spot trends, and keep an eye on competitors. That competitive intelligence is really critical, because it enables the PR and media strategies we use to help differentiate our clients through press outreach, branded content, and positioning.
Conferences and awards are a part of a strategic PR program
You don’t learn everything in school. For example, I had no idea just how integral to a typical PR program the visibility earned through conference speaking opportunities are. Securing coverage in the media is a great way to gain exposure and build credibility for a company or brand, but prestigious keynote or panel opportunities for client executives can complement that coverage. Conferences can reach a new audience that might not read the publications that feature a given company, and they reach them directly. One term I heard a lot in my PR course was “media gatekeepers” and how to attract them, but it was mostly explained through press releases and how to write killer hooks. Conferences represent a new avenue, and one that college students should be more aware of before they enter the job market. The same is true for the recognition that comes from winning high-profile awards, like those 40 under 40 lists or Best Places to Work rankings. They all work together to build an organization’s reputation.
You need excellent research skills
I became interested in PR because I was looking for fields adjacent to journalism, so I assumed there would be plenty of research involved to go along with writing. But I was not prepared for the sheer amount of it! I’ve sometimes spent entire days monitoring the news, digging through databases for emails, scouring news sites for relevant articles, reviewing analyst reports, or finding public-domain information about a given topic. And that doesn’t mention studying reporters’ work when making briefing sheets, where we document their histories and interview style. I’ve had plenty of experience researching during school, but what I’ve had to do on the job still surprises me.
PR is not marketing
Sometimes outsiders lump PR, marketing, and communications into the same boat, because they all have similar job functions. People may boil it down to “all about promoting a brand,” and while that’s true, it’s more complicated than that. PR and marketing can both promote products, but in different ways. For example, the kind of press coverage generated by a good PR campaign, earned media, can be more persuasive than advertising (paid media), but we don’t fully control the story. By contrast, paid media exerts control over where, when, and what message is communicated to target audiences, but it’s perceived as an ad and is therefore less credible than earned coverage. So, they work together. But the difference to me is that marketing isn’t as focused on corporate or brand reputation as what we typically do in B2B PR. While they can overlap, they have their differences which should be recognized.
No two PR jobs are the same
Even as a young professional, I’ve had the opportunity to work in PR across several industries, both in-house and at an agency, at a non-profit and at a start-up. And one thing that college certainly didn’t prepare me for is that every single experience I’ve had is different. PR is not a “one size fits all” industry, and every experience is different. I’ve had to apply different things I learned in college to each position, and I used ingenuity and initiative to get things done. Some jobs involve more writing, others involve more research. With some I was able to do more social media. But overall they’re all different, and my college experience was preparing me for the industry as a whole.
I’ve seen these points echoed by other people in the industry, showing that maybe there’s room for more practical or granular topics when it comes to what PR professors teach their students. The more they learn, the better prepared they are when they first get a job, and they will be more than ready to impress both their coworkers and their clients.