Students and Agency Heads Discuss PR’s Future

Thanks to Kathy Cripps of the Council of PR Firms for the following post summing up an amazing day of interaction between agency heads, faculty and students at DePaul University last week.

We know our success depends on our ability to maintain a continuous flow of bright, motivated professionals into our industry. But with rapid change now a constant in the communications business, how can we assure that recent college graduates have the required skills and competencies? And how can we can communicate to them the many new opportunities that a career in public relations now offers?

We’re happy to report on a Council event held last week in Chicago entitled, “Taking Flight in Chicago: The Talent Imperative.” In a morning session, Council chair and Fleishman-Hillard President/CEO Dave Senay led an engaging roundtable discussion with area communications professors and PR firm principals. Topics included the greatest talent needs of PR firms, critical skills for the future and recent innovations in college programs.

As one professor noted, today more parents know what public relations is, therefore, she has noticed that more students are aware of our industry as a viable career choice. But some young people think PR means handling publicity for the stars, like Beyonce and Jay Z. We help them understand the other facets of PR, such as reputation management.

As the roundtable proceeded, it became clear that the curriculum at many colleges has changed over the past five years. Social and digital media now figure more prominently. Meanwhile, the talent needs of PR firms are changing. Tactically, today’s interns seem strong, but participants agreed that firms also need deeper, more strategic thinking. Indeed, the Council’s own recent survey of PR firms found that about 40% of respondents wished that colleges were teaching more business strategy skills, second only to the approximately 60% who wished that better writing skills were taught. There was consensus among firm leaders that writing remained the most important skill, with many firms using it as a filter to weed out prospective candidates. Math and analytic skills are also becoming desirable in the emerging era of big data.

Reflecting on the session, Senay remarked that a meeting of the minds had taken place, one that would bring benefits to all parties. “Educators have their finger on the pulse of the next generation and can open the eyes of agency leaders about the evolving attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and expectations of youthful recruits of the future. Agency leaders provide an unvarnished look at the increasing demands on practitioners, driven by client needs, which educators can use to adapt their curricula to meet the needs of our rapidly changing industry. This dialogue should continue on a regular basis.”

Our evening session brought a panel of executives face to face with students themselves. Fred Cook, CEO of GolinHarris, urged students to branch out, be different, and try new things, whether it’s traveling to new places, learning new languages or simply reading different magazines. He noted that his firm is hiring different people than it used to, people with backgrounds in video production, for instance, as opposed to a traditional communications degree. He urged students to “find the thing you love and specialize in it.” PR firms today don’t just want to teach young recruits about PR; they also want to learn from young recruits.

Others on the panel echoed this message. Take chances, they told the students. Don’t be afraid to fail. Savor the unpredictable twists and turns of life. Don’t rush, because you have plenty of time to decide what you want in a career. Panelists also told students that PR firms are looking for candidates with curiosity, persistence, an ability to listen, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Students added much to the discussion, asking questions that reflected considerable thought and preparation. They wondered how panelists had developed their careers, whether opportunities for global account work were possible, and about the reputation of the industry.

Overall, participants seemed to find the event extremely helpful and worthwhile. Anne Marie Mitchell, PR Studies Program Coordinator at Columbia College in Chicago, told us that events like this one “are so important for our students. The students are making a big investment in their education, and the least we can do is ensure that we’re working together with industry to ensure we’re all doing what’s needed to help them succeed.” Ron Culp, Instructor and Professional Director at DePaul (and panel moderator), noted that they “provided essential feedback and insights that allow academics to speak with authority to students in the classroom as well as with college officials who determine academic curricula.” Students proved just as enthusiastic, with one attendee tweeting that the event was a “once in a lifetime” experience.

As the Council celebrates its 15th Anniversary, our focus on attracting great people to the industry continues with upcoming “take flights” programs on U.S campuses, the annual Diversity Distinction in PR Awards and the student video contest. We hope you’ll join with us to proactively educate and engage with today’s young talent. And please stay tuned for more exciting developments in this area throughout the year!

This article also appears in the Council’s blog, Firm Voice. Special thanks to Kathy Cripps, Matt Shaw and Matt Soriano of the Counci of PR Firms for their efforts to help produce an incredible day for students and faculty in Chicago.

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