I’ve carried with me a “pay it forward” mentality for the better part of two decades. It all started my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, when a senior in my fraternity helped me out, and knowing I had no equivalent way of paying him back, he simply told me to assist an underclassman some day when I was older (which I did).
After I changed my major to strategic communications (a combination of PR and advertising) and became an active member of PRSSA, I was fortunate to have many mentors offer guidance, connections and encouragement. But soon, it came time for me to give back. Upon graduation, I joined my local chapter of PRSA to network and for professional development, not yet thinking about ways I could give back. However, once I learned about all the volunteer opportunities, I was soon all-in.
One of my first roles was becoming the professional liaison to two PRSSA chapters. I remember meeting many students who shared the same concerns I—and pretty much every PR student—had as an undergrad: Do my grades matter? How do I land an internship? How can I get more practical experience? How can I make cover letter stick out? Except in this situation, I had the answers (not as much as experience; network; volunteer; write a compelling lead) from being in the “real world.”
In addition to attending the chapter and board meetings, I provided counsel to the student-run PR firm committee, and I used my connections to help book the occasional speaker, including ones from the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks for a sports and entertainment mini-conference. A memorable chapter meeting for me was a how-to session on networking. We brought in several PR professionals, went over the guidelines with the students and then let them practice what they learned.
To this day, I still meet with current students and recent graduates, along with people (ahem, reporters) looking to switch to PR or folks who have moved to Madison, Wis., to help them position themselves for success and give them the lay of the land. In addition, I take part in many informational interviews, speak at colleges and universities and connect people whenever I can. I recently answered questions for a student’s class project on real-life use of media law; sadly, she confided that I was the only professional that responded to her.
At the end of the day, I want to make sure the next generation of PR practitioner is armed with the expertise and experience required in this ever-evolving profession. That’s the main reason why I sought a position with the PRSA National Board and the PRSA Foundation. I deeply care about “advancing the profession and the professional” and figuring out ways to “to attract and support a diverse range of outstanding student talent in the public relations profession.”
I realize not every working professional has the time to attend weekly student chapter meetings or travel to student conferences and workshops. But surely you can spare an hour a month to provide advice to a budding PR student? Take 15 minutes every week to answer a few emails? Have your company host a student group once a year? When you break it down to manageable pieces, volunteering seems easy.
Across from my desk is an ever-increasing collection of thank-you notes I received from people I’ve helped. I get a lot of satisfaction giving back to PRSA (and PRSSA) in this manner. I think that’s the beauty of paying it forward, and I hope that the students with whom I’ve spent time will someday lend their insights to yet another generation of PR professionals.
Brian Lee, APR, is the president of Revelation PR, Advertising & Social Media in Madison, Wis. He currently serves on the national boards for both PRSA and the PRSA Foundation. Connect with him at @CaptBNL.