5 Things College Doesn’t Teach About PR and Why Students Need to Step Up Their Game
Peter Panda

Accounting majors don’t learn to do tax returns with a handheld calculator and English majors don’t learn to write essays with a typewriter. But students studying public relations are often left to suffer in the Stone Age when it comes to preparing for the workforce.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my university and my professors. But 12 weeks at an agency with high-profile clients has shown me that the gap between the reality of PR and what’s taught in the classroom has grown wider than ever. Over this time, I’ve noticed five red flags that need to be addressed ASAP:

Press releases are dead

I was told the press release was a staple of PR, which is like saying the VCR is a staple of your home entertainment system. Luckily I learned to shun the press release long before I started at Elasticity where the team even made a video illustrating the symbolic death of the press release back in 2010.

Unless you enjoy knowing your work goes straight into a journalist’s trash folder, learn to write a personalized email pitch. I guess if you throw a shit ton of darts at a board, one of them might hit the bull’s eye, but such aimlessness simply won’t cut it once you leave the classroom.

You don’t need big media to get big attention

Why waste energy chasing mainstream media coverage when there are countless niche blogs that could move the needle more effectively for a client? Forget the prestige of being in a magazine or on the morning news. If a story is good enough, it will be “traded up the chain,” meaning bigger and bigger news outlets will pick it up if it’s generating significant traffic on a smaller site. Find where your audience lives. You don’t need to hit the front page of the New York Times at first, just hit the New York Times of your scene. This process can be streamlined through tools like Cision, but unfortunately college deems mock press conferences to be more beneficial.

Never act in self-interest

Think of newspapers’ old business model: if they wrote about you, they did you a favor because press was tough to get. Now, online blogs can publish an infinite amount of content, and every pageview makes money for them. In other words, blogs shifted the media landscape from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market: If you give them something that delivers traffic, you’re doing them a favor. So instead of thinking, “How can I find someone to write about X topic?” Think: “How can I emphasize the most sensational/controversial/provocative aspect of X topic so someone has to write about it?” Most PR classes teach based on the old business model, not the new one.

PR is human, not transactional

Would you rather receive bulk mail or a personal note? Public relations is literally relating to the public – we’re relationship builders, not telemarketers. When learning to work with journalists in school, PR students are taught concepts like the inverted pyramid, but not the art of conversation. Not once has a class explained that when conversing with a journalist, one should reference their previous work or clarify how an idea would resonate with readers. Once PR is seen in the light of human interaction instead of an “I owe you, you owe me” mindset, the clouds begin to clear.

Your technical skills are useless if you don’t understand the client and its audience

In our I-want-it-now culture, it’s tempting to grasp for a cookie cutter approach for projects riddled with variables. I’m all for structure and professionalism, but all the templates in the world can’t save you if you don’t possess an extensive understanding of the client and the public they want to connect with. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle the PR professors faces, mainly because it’s a skill that can’t be taught. Students may be disappointed to learn that the bulk of PR is research, but to pretend that’s not the truth is to do them a disservice.

I’m not naïve – everyone should expect a learning curve in the early part of his or her career. But it seems as though this ever-changing digital landscape of communication arts has presented more of a learning mountain than a learning curve for young professionals.

If PR courses within schools remain as they are, the future of the industry will be comprised of two groups: those who did the bare minimum and will therefore need a manager to hold their hand. And those who took the initiative to learn, read, and experiment outside the classroom.

I think we know who’s getting hired.

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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