Dear undertrained PR graduate: It’s not your fault

America’s institutions of higher learning are letting their public relations graduates down. And as a result, you recent PR graduates have little choice but to let America’s marketing and PR agencies down. Big time.

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There’s no other way to look at it. Here at 919 Marketing, we take a back seat to no one in the quality of the PR associates we hire, and the standards to which we hold them on behalf of our clients, whether our new employees are heavy with industry experience or are still hungover from their college graduation party.

But these times are pushing us to the limit. Peers agree that the public relations profession is facing a crisis of competence when it comes to the quality of many potential hires. And because of it, we literally are worried for the future of our profession.

The problem is that U.S. colleges and universities churning out PR graduates have failed you. Somehow, they missed ensuring that you all learned basic journalistic and communications skills, not to mention some of the more sophisticated skills necessary for success in today’s marketing environment. This includes critically observing the world and building relationships with media practitioners.

This may seem a bit like another indictment of millennials, but that’s not what this is about. As freshly minted PR graduates, many of you have the smarts, abilities, instincts and other attributes to be star performers—we hire the best of you at 919 Marketing.

Our profession desperately needs budding superstars like you. With so many brands targeting millennial customers, we need your voice. We want you to have a seat at the table and to hear your ideas and opinions. We know that PR graduates have energy and ambition and innate capacities to do these jobs. But even with amazing raw abilities, it’s impossible for PR graduates who join most firms to become star performers because you’ve never been properly trained to play our “sport.”

In fact, agencies are finding it incredibly difficult to recruit not brilliant, but just competent, entry-level associates, and it’s mostly not your fault. If you want to succeed as new agency employees, you must learn the required PR skills largely on your own and with a willing agency’s time-consuming help.

Most of the people whom our industry interviews can’t write their way out of a Chipotle bag; they don’t really follow the news cycle or life outside their social circle; and they are afraid to call a local TV assignment desk for fear of hearing an actual human voice on the other end of the phone.

Take one of the time-honored tasks that has fallen to PR newbies for a half-century or more: building a media-contact list for use by an agency campaign to generate publicity for a client.  This is accomplished by painstakingly evaluating rosters of news-media personnel and determining who’s appropriate for targeting.

In the past, we gave this media list pulling duty to entry-level hires who tried to find shortcuts and just didn’t have the stamina or attention to detail to do the job. So, we veterans still must do this entry-level work we can’t trust you with; there’s no way around it. PR grads, you simply never were taught the task by professors who apparently were much more interested in passing on their gassy ideas about communications theory, ethics and “rhetoric” than in showing their students how communications actually occur in the real world that you will soon enter.

At an even more basic level, agencies are finding that new PR graduates display a personal mastery of social media tools. But, assign you to translate those skills into creative and effective social media campaigns for agency clients? Too many of today’s whiz kids too often can’t make the leap.

How did it come to this? Look to your local college or university.

For the purpose of illustration, let’s follow the latest hire in the modern public-relations department, Susie, at the fictional Lightweight Marketing Agency.

Susie nabbed an interview with Lightweight largely because of her impressive 3.79 GPA at Snowflake College. But what that rarefied statistic actually reflects is the fact that the Communications curriculum at Snowflake is among the easiest at the school.

So, it turns out that Susie can’t actually write in complete paragraphs or even understand a narrative flow. She never was pushed by her professors at Snowflake to master the building blocks of good writing.

Thanks to her “training” in school, Susie does not understand in the slightest how journalists actually work or how to appeal to them and to entice them to write a story about a client.

And neither does Susie follow the news in a holistic sense so that she understands what the major trends are, how the world works, or how to connect developments to what her clients make or do. Her professors never explained this, much less demanded it.

Susie’s professors at Snowflake didn’t bother to challenge her to create a portfolio of actual press releases, news articles, or video clips that she could present to potential future employers to verify she has the right stuff to make it in a PR job.

This is as simple as producing a flyer pro bono for the local homeless shelter. Or writing press releases for the congresswoman whose district includes Snowflake—and who ran twice during Susie’s college career.

You get the idea.

At 919, how do we make sure we avoid professional disasters like hiring Susie? We keep sifting, so we’ve found some really good entry-level folks who have the raw skills—but they’ve developed nicely mostly because we teach them what they didn’t learn in college.

And we really value internships—for helping PR students understand the demands you’ll face in a real job and for giving you opportunities to nurture those skills—even if your professors never did.

After all grads, you need to know this PR life is nothing like Sex and the City where Samantha, Carrie and the gang prance from SoHo to Paris in their Manolo Blahniks. We don’t spend our days and nights at high-priced parties wearing sexy clothes and flirting. And unlike Hannah and Shoshanna and the gang on Girls, we don’t get paid to write about our fancy vacations or get hired for sweet marketing gigs in Japan. In fact, on a typical day, we’re hunkered down at our computers wracking our brains over how to develop the next big marketing campaign, embroiled in that dreaded of all tasks—writing!

So how can you PR students make sure you’re prepared to dive into the real world? Before you apply for your first real job:

  • Make sure you learn to write a press release and have some to show on an interview.
  • Learn to build a media list by navigating media-practitioner databases.
  • Intern in a newsroom to understand the players and how they make decisions.
  • Take a journalism class to understand how journalists think and work.
  • Write for the college or local newspaper and show articles in your portfolio.
  • Work on social media for a local business to show how you drove engagement on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Develop marketing campaigns on campus to drive attendance and engagement to…anything.
  • Demonstrate results, such as how you got local media to cover the event.
  • Create a “book,” a portfolio of work during your four years that you’ll be proud to take on your job interviews at agencies.
  • When it comes to social media, include in your own personal accounts, posts about your profession, articles that may have inspired you as a young marketer, brands you follow and admire—and why the marketing excites you.

Bottom line, grads, you are currently a CEO—of your own career and life that is. Learn that your college degree is not enough and the bigger part of your education will come from you seeking out opportunities and learning critical skills that truly prepare you for the real world.

Oh, and when we hire you, we are willing to teach you alright. But in turn, can you teach me how to snap?


Sue Yannello

Sue Yannello

Sue Yannello is the head rainmaker and VP of Public Relations at 919 Marketing, a national content marketing agency with a proven track record of helping companies of all sizes. She is an expert at creating public relations campaigns that drive big media coverage and create buzz for her clients. Before she made the leap into PR, Sue was an award winning 25-year TV news veteran.