Public Relations students regularly ask me what my most important piece of advice is as they begin to look ahead to finding jobs after college. I typically provide two suggestions
- do as many (paid) internships as possible and
- write as much as possible.
I expand on the latter by advising students to take every opportunity to write and rewrite because, in the long run, possessing advanced writing skills will make them better professionals.
With this bit of advice in mind, let’s flash back to an article that appeared in PR Week on Jan. 15. In the article Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, advised students, and all PR professionals, that advanced writing courses are unnecessary and that focus should be placed on management and strategic thinking instead. This advice is based on her conversations with hiring managers and a CCO who stated a need for “[e]mployees who can think and avoid creating problems with bad judgment. I can teach them to write a news release in 10 minutes, but I can’t teach them to not make bad decisions.”
News flash: my parents couldn’t teach me not to make bad decisions, and they had more than 18 years to try, so the expectation that a textbook and a semester-long management course will do it is something fairy tales are made of.
Let me start by addressing the gross misnomer in the CCO’s statement: if press releases were all a public relations professional needed to write then a two-day seminar on AP style would be more than enough. The quote included in the PR Week article makes it sound like a monkey with an iPad could do PR. The anonymous CCO appears to be looking for a management consultant to discuss business strategy, not a public relations professional to protect his reputation and keep him on solid footing during a crisis.
I have almost 20 years of experience under my belt and I still make bad decisions from time-to-time. None of the organizations I have worked for have been the same operationally. This means that I have need to learn the best way to make strategic decisions as they relate to a specific organization, not necessarily just rehashing a decision I made previously. Writing on the other hand is relatively black and white and an easily transferable skill between jobs. Styles and voices may change, but a solid foundation of strong writing skills is a necessity that can take you a long way.
As a hiring manager, I look for people with good writing skills; the magnitude of “good” is dependent upon the level for which I am hiring, but I can always tell it when I see it. It is not uncommon for me to ask for a writing sample, give a writing test, or Google the past work of an applicant. I can assess from any of these sources how much time and effort I will need to spend on editing or teaching a candidate to write. I do not expect a Hemingway but I also do not have time, or the budget, for Spongebob.
The recent college graduates I hire initially find themselves writing social media or editing bios, but once their feet are firmly on the ground they are assigned a weekly blog post – a far cry from a periodic press release. In fact, I typically leave the press release to more experienced team members because they tend to better understand the nuances required for captivating the audience we hope to engage. I would even argue that anyone who can teach a new professional to write a press release in 10 minutes likely doesn’t get much traction or readership of the releases they push out.
Recognizing that the thinking of a hiring manager and that of a college professor often differ, I reached out to Deb Silverman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, 2015 PRSA Board of Director and associate professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo State, to get her thoughts on Dr. Bowen’s suggestion. She responded, “I, too, think that management, labor relations, research methods, public affairs, ethical decision-making, conflict resolution, and crisis management are important topics for PR majors to study. Management courses are important but if the PR professional isn’t a good writer and cannot articulate his or her thoughts, what’s the point?”
Exactly! What is the point?
Public relations professionals make a living through storytelling and the use of words. If you do not have the ability to coherently string those words together then you really have no place in the profession. And if the profession has no place for a coherent string of words that tell a story then we have come to the end of a road with a cliff waiting to take us to a fiery death.
Without “good” words (i.e. good writing) there is no need for change management or issue management, there will be no investor relations or integrated marketing. Without effective writing there is no way to tell the complex story of a company and induce sales or retain customers, investors or staff. While those business classes are a critical element to helping someone understand the functionality of business, they do not provoke the imagination or tell a tale the consumer wants to hear.
So once again, I recommend those (paid) internships and writing as much as possible on top of that. Take multiple (advanced) writing courses with different professors and find ways to refine your writing on your own.
You might be able to learn about business in 10 minutes, but you can’t become a good writer in 10 minutes.
Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of public relations, Public Relations Society of America