Ten Rules for Making It in Financial PR

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Financial public relations is without a doubt the growth sector of the communications business. The amount of column space and air time devoted to money matters is increasing at about the same pace as the need for professional communicators who can understand, interpret and disseminate information on Wall Street's latest turns and twists.

It's not an area for the faint hearted by Friday afternoon; the weekly tally of message slips from the business and financial press can be measured in inches.

Public relations which for purposes of this article I'm defining as pure media relations  is a vital part of the running of any financial institution. Signing on as a financial communicator ensures exposure to top management, a birds eye view of how the institution works and plenty of opportunity to deal with real, live business issues.

The following ten rules will help you establish a firm foundation in a financial public relations career.

Rule One: Get Experience

It's important to admit up front that entry level positions in financial public relations are few and far between. It's not impossible to enter the field as a newcomer, just difficult.

The reasons are obvious: It takes a certain amount of financial acumen and professionalism to talk to the Wall Street Journal about your institution's position on, say, federal legislation to imbue commercial banks with securities underwriting powers. Or to explain the intricacies of your bank's lending policies.

There are also a limited number of positions to fill many institutions may have only one or two communicators doing day to day media contact. And those slots will invariably be filled by seasoned professionals who, for the most part, moved into such responsible positions only after successfully serving as PR managers in other companies.

In 1981, the Association inaugurated education's first electronic news service, Education USA News line and Information Network using a computer network to provide up to the minute news at electronic speed.

Salaries and Other Rewards

Do not expect to get rich in a college public relations position, though salaries have improved substantially in the past decade it is now not uncommon to hear about salaries exceeding $100,000 a year for top officers in both private and public institutions. As a management function in higher education, public relations (institutional advancement) literally has moved from the boiler room to the boardroom over the past two or three decades. With increased compensation has come an increase in status on campus, in the community, and in the business world at large. The top PR officer now commands a seat in the President's Cabinet and Trustee meetings and membership on major university committees.

Today's PR administrator must deal with all echelons of government, corporations, trade unions and professional societies; with every kind of staff member; with private donors, legislators, alumni, "subway alumni," parents and vendors; with a governing board that may be publicly elected or appointed; with recruiters of students and competitors for the staff.

Potential employers of the chief PR officers at educational institutions are seeking candidates with high standards, concerns about ethical behavior, and sound business management. Demands for the new management style require credentials in issues management, marketing, teleconferencing, aggressive communications, coalition building and demographic sophistication.

The professional field of public relations for an educational institution offers an exciting and rewarding entry point for a start up career or a lifetime commitment. Because of the broad responsibilities in an educational institution, there are many opportunities for those who wish to transfer to other nonprofit organizations, government, public affairs or public relations agencies.

Now advisor to the president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, MICHAEL RADOCK has had a career combining the academic, business and professional fields of public relations, journalism and development.

For 20 years, he was vice president for university relations and professor of journalism at The University of Michigan. He also has been vice president at the University of Southern California and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and has taught public relations at five educational institutions.

A past president of the American College Public Relations Association, he recently was selected as one of the world's 40 outstanding public relations leaders. He served for nine years on the corporate public relations staff of Ford Motor Company. As manager of educational affairs, he was responsible for company wide educational PR programs.

Radock was an editor of the Handbook of Institutional Advancement, a contributing editor of Lesly's Public Relations Handbook and the Handbook of College and University Trusteeship, and the author of more than 80 publications and papers. A former chairman of the Educational and Cultural Organizations section of PRSA, he has served as a consultant to more than 100 colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations.

In 1980, Mr. Radock received the Distinguished Service Award for leadership in institutional advancement for minority colleges and universities. He is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America and a past trustee of the Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education. Radock is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in Public Relations and Who's Who in the World. He is a graduate of Westminster College and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Entry level opportunities exist in any or all of the activities labeled "advancement" and even those which do not use the term "public relations."

Strong communication skills both oral and written are essential. The publications area, which presents opportunities at all types of educational institutions, is an excellent entry possibility. Anyone with experience in writing, editing, design, photography or paste up often will qualify.

Persons with talent and experience in writing for newspapers, radio or television, or specialized publications will be welcomed in public relations offices, athletic departments, or many academic and administrative units not directly related to public relations.

With the current emphasis on marketing and student recruitment in colleges and universities, there are many opportunities for persons with skills and experience in market research, audiovisual talent, advertising, interviewing and personal contact.

Getting Started

The quickest route to an entry level position in educational public relations is experience as an intern, student assistant, or work study student in a college public relations office. Another great asset is hands on experience in public relations type work in some other education office or organization, such as the athletic department, development or admissions office, alumni association, extension or conference center.

That experience will have given you training in news writing, public contact, special events and publications, broadcasting or working with volunteers. The best reference you can carry with you is a portfolio of material you have written, prepared or published in any medium newspapers, magazines, speeches, brochures and radio or television scripts.

Potential employers prefer to hear about your work in community organizing, get out the vote campaigns, fund raising projects, special events, or with fraternity, sorority or religious organizations. College alumni offices hire persons to arrange special events, campus tours, reunions, presentations and orientation programs for students and alumni, and to assist in research and record keeping.

Fund raising or development offices (as most are called) use entry level employees for research and record keeping, "phonathon" solicitations, special events, publications work, preliminary preparation of proposals, interviews with faculty and staff members, or internal business activities.

Opportunities in School Public Relations

Excellent entry level opportunities are available in secondary school public relations departments. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), founded in 1935 and based in Arlington, Virginia, has 43 chapters and conducts in service PR workshops in 35 states and Canada and for the United States Dependents Schools in Europe.

NSPRA offers comprehensive technical assistance in school public relations, including School PR Kits, research assistance, a national information center, hot line counseling, personnel clearinghouse, textbooks, newsletters and an accreditation service.

The Association publishes a weekly newsletter, Education USA, a monthly newsletter, It Starts in the Classroom, and a by monthly newsletter, Better Teaching.
  • Profit making is not a "purpose," but business methods are necessary.
  • Institutional loyalty is traditional, but society is mobile.
  • Stability is expected, but so are social and scientific innovation.
  • A college or university can be at once a citadel of conservatism and a provenance of radicalism.
Preparing For That Career

Many veteran public relations officers will recommend a major in journalism or mass communications, since those skills are essential in almost all PR assignments.

Others will advise you to major in public relations in a college or university that has followed the guidelines established by the Commission on Public Relations Education.

It is a serious mistake, many professionals believe, to take many courses in public relations at the undergraduate level or in community colleges. It is more important that you have a solid background in the liberal arts, including courses in English, the social sciences, humanities, languages and the natural sciences. Also valuable, from a career viewpoint, are courses in marketing, business administration, economics and information systems.

Beyond the bachelor's degree, you may choose to take a master's degree in public relations, journalism, business administration or public administration.

Remember that once you have started your career, there are many opportunities in every community to take additional specialized and professional courses through continuing education classes, seminars and workshops.

If you are interested in specializing in PR for the arts, science, finance, health care or other areas, by all means take courses in those fields (and study the chapters in this volume relating to those particular fields).

A warning: Forget that theme you prepared for freshman composition class or the term paper in sociology. Also, PR officers and professors who teach public relations generally ask students, "Why do you want to go into public relations?" The wrong answer is "because I like people." You are likely to be advised to take a job as a bus driver, gas station attendant or used car salesperson!

Be prepared to offer evidence that you have the capacity to write well, meet deadlines, organize, publicize and dramatize events. The ability to motivate people; to produce press packets, slide shows, multimedia presentations; to write, design and produce publications; and to plan conferences, tours and/or promotions is highly desirable.

Large universities, like major metropolitan newspapers, seldom hire staff members without prior experience in a similar organization. It is much easier to get that entry level training at a school, small college, educational institution or nonprofit organization.

Entry Level Possibilities

 Job opportunities and promising careers in public relations for educational institutions  which once were limited to news, publicity and publication programs now cover a wide variety of responsibilities that may exist under the umbrella of public relations, development or fund raising, or institutional advancement.

People in academia are literate and humane. They are themselves and attract artists and scientists. The place is constantly changing. The flow of youth through the institution is part of it. But so is the fact that much of the activity of a university (less so a college) is devoted to what is new, whether a new interpretation of history, a new means of overcoming natural rejection of transplanted human organs, or a new finding in number theory.

In other words, you must have affection and a tolerance for academe if you want to work in educational public relations. That goes beyond the fundamental communications skills required for any area of public relations.

Tolerance Is a Must

What must you tolerate? Faculty, for one thing, essentially, the faculty considers itself in charge. Faculty governance, in form if not substance, means a kind of participatory democracy. Speed and efficiency are not its great attributes. You learn to live with the circumstances, appreciating the advantages and tolerating the disadvantages.

To work in education at any level, you must also tolerate financial constraints. This is particularly true in public institutions, at all levels, but also in private colleges and universities. They are not profit making enterprises. They generally do not employ the marketing and pricing techniques used by business. Educational institutions don't have business' financial flexibility. Furthermore, education continues to suffer from the "poor but proud" syndrome. Somehow, some professors are expected to be a little seedy, almost flaunting their genteel poverty; if they aren't, they've violated the image. Plainly put, don't expect to get rich. There are no bonuses and no stock options.

A Different PR Climate

The educational public relations officer has the major responsibility of conveying to the institution's publics the nature of a college or university so it is not undermined nor its mission misunderstood. The public relations office's goal is to help educate the institution's own family and the general public to understand, appreciate, tolerate, and defend the vital necessity of freedom for the student to learn and for the scholar to search for the truth without restriction. A sometimes skeptical public must be adequately informed so that it will learn to cherish free inquiry and cope with pressures and demands for control, especially in times of hysteria and tension. To the general public, a college may seem to be composed of students and faculty, administrators, clerks, and the usual support services, plus a football or basketball team. Actually, educational institutions are much more complicated, affecting both internal and external communications and relations. For example:
  • The modern university is composed of a greater variety of people more different types, ranging further to the extremes, than any other organization of comparable size.

  • A college or university has some attributes of, but is different from, a government agency, corporation, army or church.

  • Faculty members are not employees; bright students are not orderly soldiers; academic freedom is essential, but so are legislative appropriations and private support.

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