3 Things About a Public Relations Career You Won’t Learn in College

written by

Sophia Hartsock


April 29, 2020

Early in college, as a student majoring in public relations (PR), I knew I wanted to work for an agency. There was something about working with multiple clients as well as the variety of challenges I would help them navigate that fascinated me.

When I was hired by Red Sky upon graduating in May 2019, I had no clue that our clients (and our agency) would soon be facing the biggest challenge ever to hit the business world: COVID-19. Experiencing a crisis of this magnitude so early in my career has highlighted a couple of key learning moments. Here are three things about a PR career you won’t learn in a classroom:

1. It’s critical to know your client’s business — from its roots to its branches — to be successful.

Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash

While it may sound obvious, I’ve learned that you cannot help your clients effectively engage and inspire action within their audiences if you don’t know and understand the essence of their organization:

  • What is their mission — their fundamental purpose?
  • What is their vision — what do they seek to be known for?
  • What are their core values — the foundation of their brand and the pillars of their key messaging?
  • What is their brand personality — the overall tone, style and attitude they use to communicate with their audiences?
  • Who are their target audiences (and not just the one(s) you are being brought in to engage)?
  • What are their key strategic goals for their future? What does success look like?

Our knowledge of this crucial information is the reason our clients turn to us when faced with the delicate nature of communication during crisis management situations like COVID-19 — because the importance of clear, concise communication did not shut down with the closure of non-essential businesses.

With the arrival of COVID-19, our clients’ internal (employees) and external (customers) audiences were looking for information and guidance regarding the outbreak’s effect and needed to understand how our clients were responding. Without a deep understanding of their business, we wouldn’t be in a position to provide strategic counsel through these uncharted waters.

2. It’s not just what and where you say it; it’s also how you say it.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

In school, we are taught that people relay and receive information in different ways. For example, Gen Z prefers digital communication — text messaging, social media and videos — while Boomers tend to favor face-to-face interactions or phone calls. While understanding the nuances of the various channels you use to reach and engage your intended target audience is key, it is just as important to tailor communication to the needs and pain points of your readers — especially in these delicate times. A blanket statement released to all audiences across all channels is not sufficient. Instead, consider crafting content customized to specific audiences or channels to demonstrate you understand and respect each audience’s unique position or view.

3. Some crises are more difficult than others to plan for.

As a PR professional, it’s expected that you will encounter a crisis situation at some point in your career; however, hopefully, it’s only one client at a time that is experiencing a crisis. The arrival of COVID-19 sent the whole world into crisis mode, and we were thrust into supporting multiple clients at once.

The sad reality is that many companies aren’t prepared for a crisis and do not have a crisis management plan in place. Since every business is unique, there is no cookie-cutter approach to planning for or managing a crisis —especially the one we are facing now.

While I’m so thankful for the excellent foundation I received in college, there is no substitute for on-the-job learning. To all the recent or soon-to-be college grads: Honor your education and embrace the newly discovered lessons as they come — because they will.

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