College students aspiring for careers in public relations gain valuable experience through organizing and executing events such as the recent PRSSA Regional Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I had the opportunity to speak at the conference and observe the talented future professionals in action. University of Alabama senior Cole Lanier describes the program that was flawlessly executed by Taylor Shelnutt, Cole Lanier, Lindsey Young, Kaitlin Goins, Katie Gatti, Emily Clack, Kennedy Studdard, Sarah Dougherty, Sarah Augustinsky, Katrina Swarthout, Bethany Corne, Olivia Ortiz, Jada Culver and Brittany Ray.
By Cole Lanier
Recently, the PRSSA chapter at the University of Alabama, of which I am an executive board member, hosted a regional conference. It was a new experience for all of us, one that proved to be very fruitful for all of us. We hosted over 150 students from all over the southeast, and we had speakers come to Tuscaloosa from around the country, and from many different areas of public relations, from corporate to agency. In a word, it was incredible. For me, there were so many highlights to the weekend, but I’m going to focus on three of my favorites here.
On Friday, one of our breakout sessions was led by Rick White, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Communication and Public Affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the topic was leadership in PR. Last semester, I took a class at Alabama about PR leadership, taught by Dr. Bruce Berger, so I was genuinely interested to hear this presentation. I was blown away. The presentation started with the old question: “Are leaders born, or are they made?” From there, Rick laid out several different ways for PR students to become leaders, no matter the age. One of the points that stuck out to me the most was when he said, “Leadership can happen anywhere…not just at the front.” Sometimes, especially as a student, I think it’s easy to look at the people in authority over you and just let them handle anything and tell you where to go, but that does not always have to be the case. You’ll impress your bosses if you are willing to take initiative and lead, but you have to be careful and pick your spot. That was one of Rick’s five points about preparing to lead as a student. The other points were: Be self-aware, practice every day leadership, have consistency of purpose and have an attitude of contribution. He also encouraged students to make sure they managed themselves correctly, including managing time and priorities. Too often, I forget how to manage both of those things, and it never ends well. Rick’s presentation was truly eye-opening, and I loved it.
On Saturday morning, we were fortunate enough to hear from Ron Culp, a PR veteran. In his presentation, Ron focused on my people: the students. He gave tips on everything, from resume and cover letters to social media and locations. His encouragement to students was to find somewhere they want to be, doing what they want to do. One of the things he recommended for recent PR graduates is to live in a large market city. I am hoping to move to Chicago after I graduate in May, so that was good news to me. He said, “You will find a way to survive if you want to be in that market.” As graduation nears, I think a lot of PR students, especially me, get concerned that an internship won’t pay enough to live, especially with the cost of living in major markets so high, so hearing Ron’s encouragement gave me some relief. Ron’s presentation was one of my favorites for several reasons, but the biggest reason is that it was so applicable; it was tailored to college students, especially ones that are looking for their first post-graduate internship or job. It was timely too, considering many agencies are starting their searches for summer interns. All in all, it was fantastic, and made me more excited than ever to graduate and step out in to the real world.
The final presentation in this post, and the final presentation of the weekend, came from Keri Potts, the senior director of communications for college sports at ESPN. Keri’s presentation was one of the most passionate, heartfelt presentations I’ve seen. From the beginning, it was obvious to everyone in attendance that Keri loved what she did and was very passionate about her work. However, as passionate as she is about her work with ESPN, she is even more passionate about her life outside of work. That was her biggest point in her presentation, to have something outside of a job that fires you up. For Keri, it’s working in Atlanta at a Rape Crisis Center helping victims of rape. For some, it may be volunteering at the humane society because you love animals. Whatever it is, Keri wanted us all to know that our lives are more than a job. “You were made to do something great with your life,” she said. She also encouraged the students to not be afraid and to take risks. She said, “Don’t be afraid to stumble.” She was honest, open and funny. She wasn’t afraid to say how she felt. Although, it was her passion and emotion that really made her presentation stand out to me.
We had some truly wonderful speakers that weekend, and they all had great presentations. The three I’ve outlined here are merely snapshots of a great weekend spent with some inspiring and talented people. It’s always good to be able to meet with like-minded people, and the PRSSA Regional Conference was truly a fantastic experience for me, and for my fellow executive board members.
Cole Lanier is a senior PR student at the University of Alabama. He serves as the social media committee leader for UA’s PRSSA chapter, as well as a member of the digital team for the student-run agency at the University, Capstone Agency. A native of Birmingham, he loves sports, dogs and the beach. Roll Tide!