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?


Join the discussion
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.


Discussion

  • Hello Sue, thanks for the insider perspective. As an educator, believe me, we’re trying. We really are. But, often the students have not been taught critical thinking skills as they progressed through the education system, so by the time they hit college, they are remedial in that area and never catch up.

    Other times, admittedly, it is that the students are not willing to work hard or actually listen to what they are being taught. Sometimes, also admittedly, it is antiquated course requirements and other obstacles that departments and educators put up as roadblocks. Creating a curriculum that can “pivot” to new ideas, technologies, etc. is not one of higher ed’s strengths.

    I’d like to think that there are ways to forge stronger partnerships between agencies and educators, beyond just having a PRSSA chapter or student-led on-campus PR “agency.” I would love it if educators had a central location (maybe like the ESPN football/basketball draft stuff) to highlight talented students to the “real world.” A kind of clearinghouse for strong PR students might also motivate students to want to get on that “draft board,” just like their peers who want to play professional sports.

    Thanks again for the essay and strong leadership!

    • Sue Yannello

      Bob I love the idea of a PR draft!

  • Haley

    Typical blog generalizing and bashing millennials. When will people realize you can’t group an entire population as any one thing? There are indeed incompetent new grads, but to say that agencies are “struggling” to hire just competent grads seems more like a personal struggle of this author’s agency than a factual statement regarding the industry.

    Many PR new hires don’t come out of communications but from journalism, english, marketing, business, etc. and as a result are very competent and can, in fact, “write in complete paragraphs.”

    This article is uncreative and a joke.

    • Sue Yannello

      I’m not at all bashing millennials Haley. We need your voice at the table. I’m just trying to wake up the universities to teach what you all need to hit the ground running. I appreciate the feedback .

  • Deborah Silverman

    Whoa! I spent 25 years in the public relations profession, completing my Ph.D. along the way, before becoming a full-time professor and then tenured at an accredited college. We value good PR writing skills; I’ve taught that course many times and our students finish it with a solid portfolio to show to prospective employers. They get experience in campaign planning in our introductory class and then again, in our PR Campaigns class, working with actual nonprofits. We teach them media pitching skills and most do PR internships – but quite frankly, they probably aren’t going to do much media pitching, as students in my classes, unless their internships give them that opportunity! As for ethics – I used to chair the Board of Ethics & Professional Standards for the Public Relations Society of America and I can assure you that ethics education is important (I’ve done applied research with PR firms). So….please don’t generalize about an entire generation of college students or all of the PR faculty who work so hard to educate them.

    • Sue Yannello

      Deborah my goal was never to insult educators but rather point out how colleges need to teach more hands on skills so graduates are prepared for the real world outside of the classroom. Thank you for your feedback.

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  • Faye

    Interesting viewpoint. Perhaps a media list of accredited journalism and communication schools should be compiled. Check core required classes and note if all majors are taking basic reporting and other writing classes. Also, the industry needs to do its part. Start paying student interns. Your profession should know students are not just going to school these days. Most are working two and even three jobs to pay living and tuition expenses. New graduates have massive student loan debt and entry job pay is often inadequate in meeting basic living costs so many of the talented students look to other professions to pay the bills.

    The industry can focus its attention on education in our country. We are at a disadvantage given the visible non-support of general education in this country. Students are not coming to college with strong writing or critical thinking skills. As a profession consider creating a social responsibility campaign so a future work force, and the country in general, starts to value writing and engaging in real world issues. The trend you touch on is not going to change without industry support. The industry will have to invest if they want a better educational “product”.