By Steven Krolak
Public relations is everywhere. Its influence is pervasive. Its acronym, “PR,” is a household name. And it’s one of the hottest job markets out there.
Yet for all that relevance, there has been no way for students in the region to gain a degree in this field — until now.
IU Southeast’s new public relations track in the journalism department is the first and only comprehensive four-year PR degree program in the region, giving students real-world experience in skills that are central to becoming successful PR practitioners.
Career of the future
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job public relations specialist is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2012 and 2022. Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism, said that with the likely growth in the Kentyuckiana region in sectors like travel and tourism, the need for public relations practitioners is high.
More than enough reason to design and offer a program. But just what is PR?
“That’s a billion-dollar question,” said Jane Dailey, visiting assistant professor of public relations. When they hear the acronym “PR” most people immediately think of advertising campaigns that promote or sell products and services, she said.
“But PR is much broader than that,” she said. “The textbook definition is: building and maintaining relationships with stakeholders that can have an influence on your organization.”
Maksl also differentiates PR from marketing. “It is more focused on communicating information to appropriate audiences,” he said.
For that reason, the job opportunities are broader, involving media relations as well as internal communications such as writing reports, white papers and newsletters as well as ghostwriting speeches, editorials and letters or Congressional testimony. It might also encompass community relations, dealing not only with projecting an organization’s message and desires but also serving as a conduit for the views of the community, informing leadership of the context into which its policy is being projected.
Dailey, who worked in the field for 15 years, agreed.
“The bulk of my work was really communication,” she said. “It was working with citizens and educating them about different aspects and situations in their community, and building trust and credibility for the firm I represented.”
It was also “being in meetings and helping to guide the organization from a public relations perspective, so that when they’re talking about the impact of a course of action, you can be an advocate for the elderly couple at the end of the road who will have to put up with that impact.”
PR occupies the interface between an organization and the society of which it is a part, with a tremendous capacity to shape the quality and impact of that space.
“Public relations inform the community,” said Ron Allman, professor of journalism. “In an age full of noise and garbled information, PR practitioners can clear up the message and get important voices heard.”
The vision thing
“For being a communications field, it’s probably the most miscommunicated field,” Dailey said of PR. As a result, she, Allman and Maksl focus their effort less on defining PR and more on building the skills that students need to master in order to succeed at it.
“For students looking at majors, it’s important that they be thinking not only about what they want to do to follow their passions, but what is going to allow them to adapt and adjust,” Dailey said.
The key to adaptability, it turns out, is a solid grounding in fundamentals.
“PR education, like journalism more generally, teaches five skills – communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and curiosity – that are valuable in a variety of fields,” Maksl said.
Of all of these, communication looms large. Communicators who work in public relations either by design or opportunity are frequently tasked with articulating the mission and vision of their organization. It is their cumulative messaging – formal statements and programmatic presentations as well as the overall tone of informal communications such as social media and media relations – that often comes to define who the organization is, not only to the public but also to itself and its members.
Kristin Kennedy is a journalism major at IU Southeast who is contemplating PR as a career option. She currently is social media coordinator for The Horizon and an intern in the Office of Marketing and Communications.
“For both journalism and PR, it comes down to communication,” she said. “PR professionals must be able to convey messages clearly and concisely, and they must know how to effectively interact with their audiences and the media.”
A full tool box
While IU Southeast’s PR track is new, graduates from the journalism program are already working in PR, and have experienced the value of their academic preparation first-hand.
Jims Porter ’14 is communications coordinator for the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence, a grant-making organization that invests primarily in medical research and public health.
“One of the first tasks I was given after graduating was developing a new website,” he said. “I was able to do this largely because of my experience in the journalism department with web development, design and maintenance.”
Haley Warwick ’15 is fundraising manager for Carry The Fallen, a program by Active Heroes, a charity that helps veterans, active duty military and their families cope with issues such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Besides coordinating fundraising events, she handles social media and media relations, and writes blogs for the Active Heroes website as well as weekly tributes to inspiring veterans.
“In studying journalism, the student has the opportunity to learn the craft of understanding how to approach and appeal to a mass audience, and the ability to tailor that,” she said.
Porter and Warwick have both discovered that skills once considered above and beyond the call of duty are today’s basic requirement for entry into the industry.
“Creative thinking, storytelling, attention to detail in writing and editing, multimedia storytelling, an eye for good design, social media management and monitoring and measuring content are just a few that are integral to what I do and what employers expect of a PR or media relations specialist,” Porter said.
With the market in mind, IU Southeast’s program breaks down silos between academic disciplines to mirror the more all-encompassing realities graduates will face.
“PR practitioners need a full tool box in order to do their jobs right. Being able to write a good press release is not enough,” said Allman. “When our PR students leave IU Southeast, they will have a full tool box.”