Advice for Aspiring PR Pros

Dear PR Student:

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

Congratulations. You are embarking on a fascinating career ride in public relations. Here is some unsolicited advice that may come in handy.

1. Take journalism classes. You very likely will be asked to write press releases. You should know what it's like to receive one.

Understanding news media needs and demands puts you in a better position to help, not just send an email with a news release. The goal is to get your client's message into print, online or on air. Having first-hand knowledge of how news is identified, researched, prepared and delivered can guide when and how you approach reporters and editors, as well as what you serve up to them.

Volunteering to work for a student newspaper is a great way to get experience. It will ground you in basics such as Associated Press style and serve as a reminder of grammar. It also will force you to write with the reader, not a client, in mind.

2. Be a liberal arts student. PR clients come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Their needs will stretch your knowledge. There is no way to know in advance everything you will need to know. The best you can do is to learn how to learn — fast.

Luckily, that is what a liberal arts education is intended to provide. All those non-major requirements may seem like boxes to check en route to a degree. In fact, they are important way stations to widen your horizon, to open your mind to knowledge you may have had no idea how to acquire or assimilate.

Take a physics class. You will be surprised how valuable it can be in understanding new technology. Take an economics class so your client's business plan doesn't look like gibberish.

3. Learn the tools of the trade. One of the exciting dimensions of public relations is that it deals with an environment that changes at the speed of light. Ten years ago, designing and building a website was a rarity. Today it is an imperative. Five years ago, people thought social media was a fad. Now it is viewed as an important communication channel.

The PR world five years from now is likely to be very different. However, you won't be able to leverage what's new if you aren't rooted in what's worked for a long time. A great example is how to fashion an effective presentation. The software may change and the animation may be cooler, but the fundamentals of a presentation that does its job won't be all that different.

You may write on an iPad or dictate into your Google glasses, but solid writing transcends the tools. Knowing how to tell a story and basic principles of design, which are universal, are foundation skills you should develop.

4. Know your chosen profession's history. PR professionals in the future will face an increasingly complex set of challenges in choosing the best platforms and the most resonant channels. A knowledge of how PR professionals in the past innovated is invaluable.

The use of events, contests, third-party validation, outrageous stunts, clever ads, smart writing and guest columns were all new in their time. Study to see how these ideas evolved so you understand, with some helpful perspective, how you go from problem to solution with creativity and élan. You don't need to discover gravity or reinvent the wheel. You can learn from your peers how they did it, so you can do it, too.