In the course of a typical day, an account executive might spend the morning writing a news release and photo caption, a company backgrounder, an executive biography, or doing research or interviews toward this end. Drafts of the materials are then faxed to the client for review, and revisions taken over the telephone for immediate document entry via computer. Next, client media lists are reviewed and customized for the specific project and a work order, describing exactly what is to be mailed to whom, is completed. The afternoon might be spent telephoning reporters to present a client's story or point of view on a particular issue, preparing a layout for an article reprint, or reviewing clippings and writing thank you notes to editors who have printed news of our clients.
The day's progress is not so tidy as this example reflects. Reporters may call at any toe, especially near deadline, with questions or to request interviews, photos, or product samples. The account executive must break his routine to order a messenger or prepare an overnight mail package. Or a client may call with news, questions, or a request. This often seems to occur at lunch or 5 P.M. A successful account person is a juggler who always knows exactly which balls are in play and can keep them in the air, with (seemingly) little effort Grace under pressure is a valued ability.
Dedicated public relations professionals don't punch the clock. The work day often extends in both directions according to the needs of our clients. One may come in early for a breakfast meeting or meet after the work day. The evening, without telephone interruptions, can be the best time to put in some undisturbed writing or thinking time. And, finally, there is the required reading, the homework of the professional. Account executives must keep up with their clients' industries, which means, reading the leading trade journals. The best time to do this is on the train or at home at night.
Who We're All Looking For
An entry-level candidate must be energetic and eager to learn the PR business from the ground up. And, since I'm the boss, they must do things my way (what boss is different?). Candidates are more appealing if they demonstrate related communications job experience, whether in journalism, broadcasting, marketing, advertising, television or film production, etc. Whether one majors in public relations or in journalism, it is still important to obtain a solid grounding in all communications processes, as well as in the liberal arts, sociology, psychology, business, marketing, etc.
In my opinion, the days of entering the public relations profession without a college degree are over, especially as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) strives to secure the status of "profession" for its members. It is also increasingly rare that small agencies will hire college graduates fresh out of school, unless they have interned or can demonstrate exceptionally strong journalistic skills or PR credentials. Many of these potential "rising stars" can hope to land their first job at a medium size or even a large PR firm. The older generation of journalists made the transition to public relations most successfully, followed by a generation of liberal arts graduates (I have a master's degree in history), and, more recently, by public relations and journalism majors. Today, the pendulum appears to again be swinging back in favor of those with a broad liberal arts education.
Classroom success in itself is not enough. Successful job candidates should demonstrate involvement in extracurricular activities, especially those related to their chosen profession. Involvement-especially leadership in the PRSSA chapter or journalism society, editorship or reporting for the college paper, PR internships with local firms, or volunteer PR work for nonprofit organizations-is what will set you apart from your peers.
In my experience, intensely-curious, self-motivated generalists are better candidates than narrowly-focused, academic specialists or MBAs. However, if one hopes to earn the full respect of one's superiors and clients, especially if one hopes to one day enter the corporate or big agency arena, I cannot stress enough the importance of a solid understanding of basic business principles, of marketing, and of 33 financial markets. In addition, becoming a consummate public relations professional requires a desire to understand how the media works and a curiosity to widely explore its print and proliferating electronic offerings, even if they aren't of personal interest, in order to understand the mentality of those to whom they do appeal. So, read new magazines, watch new TV programs, and learn about databases and multimedia products.
Internships, especially at small firms, provide a close-up look at the real PR world, which I believe helps students make a smooth transition from academe to the working world. Obtaining an internship may be difficult outside of major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, and academic policy differs from school to school. We've hired several interns, and I would heartily recommend it to any aspiring public relations professional. Wherever you live or study, there are public relations internship opportunities, but you may have to create one for yourself. Follow your personal interests. Do you like animals? 'Visit the zoo or ASPCA. They usually have a public relations department. Volunteer. If you can't get paid, at least you can arrange to get school credit and a letter of recommendation.