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Public relations requires diverse skills and talents

Interest in public relations (PR) as a career is high among students at the state`s three largest universities.

“At Ole Miss, interest in the PR field is growing among our students,” said Robin B. Street, an instructor of journalism and public relations at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). “I’ve seen real growth in the number of students interested in public relations jobs. There`s a waiting list every semester for the advanced PR class.”

Street believes students are interested in public relations because it is a career that requires diverse skills and talents. A public relations person might write, edit and design an organization`s Web site, brochures, newsletters, annual reports, magazines, media kits and news releases.

“He or she might write a speech for a company officer, or even deliver that speech,” Street said. “He or she might take calls from a reporter, set up a press conference, or gather information and facts for a reporter. Then they might plan a special event or an awards ceremony. What many PR professionals enjoy about their day is this diversity in what they do.”

Street said people often do not realize how much of public relations involves writing. Probably 75% of a PR person`s day is spent in writing tasks. So a journalism student who enjoys writing but does not want to be a reporter can use his or her writing skills in PR.

What are the employment prospects for graduates? Street said many of their students leave Ole Miss and walk right into a PR job.

“Nationally, PR firms have cut back on hiring, but individual companies and organizations always need a PR staff,” she said.

Often students say they want to go into PR because they love people.

But Street says PR involves much more than just shaking hands.

“It requires high levels of writing and organization,” Street said. “It increasingly involves mastering new technology, too. But the basics of good public relations remain the same: good writing skills and good organizational skills.”

At Southern Miss, PR is the most popular of the communication major categories, says Dr. Charles M. “Buddy” Mayo, associate professor of journalism at Southern Miss, which has 120 PR majors at present.

“As long as I have been here, it has been the program that has the highest enrollment,” Mayo said.

PR is more than making a company look good. It is also important to understand the importance of communications to the overall success of the organization.

“It means to be in tune with what the organization is trying to achieve, and adopting ideas and objectives to allow the organization to meet its objectives,” Mayo said. “There needs to be a tie-in between what the PR person does and what the company needs. In the past it was more a skills-oriented profession: how to design brochures and write news releases. These days it goes beyond that. But skills are still very vital.”

Mayo describes the relationship between PR representatives and journalists as one with “dynamic tension.” Journalists depend on getting information from PR people for the stories they write. And PR specialists depend on journalists to get information about their company to the public.

For businesses that aren`t large enough to afford a full-time PR employee, Mayo suggest using the services of companies that provide some of the fundamental skills that might be needed.

“A business has to decide exactly what they need from a public relations person,” Mayo said. “Who do they need to communicate with? And why do they need to communicate with those people? That will give them a better idea what type of person they may need to contact in terms of getting help.”

Dr. John Forde, APR, coordinator of the PR program in the department of communication for Mississippi State University ( MSU), said special skills and training are needed to get the best results.

“Organizations should realize they need to find someone trained in public relations, or something very close,” Forde said. “The stereotype is, `she meets people well,’ or, ‘He`s a nice guy. Let`s put him in PR.’ A couple of times recently I know of people put into positions with no background in PR. If I start a newspaper, I would hire someone with a newspaper background. When I have a plumbing problem at home, I call a plumber. If I need legal work, I call a lawyer. If I’m sick, I go to a doctor. But a lot of people look at PR as a catchall. It is a very broad field. But the more people are trained and have a background in the field, the better the company will communicate.”

Forde said there is also trend for public relations not to be delegated only to the PR office, but included as part of the function of management. Instead of just calling in the PR people when something bad happens, planning should be done to enhance the company`s reputation.

“Public relations is part of the process,” Forde said. “It is part of strategic thinking. The idea is to have someone involved to prevent problems rather than to solve them after they have occurred. Things usually work better if you have someone involved from the beginning trying to determine any potential public relations problems. More organizations are realizing it is better to plan ahead and have someone involved in the beginning.”

PR is an extremely popular tract at Mississippi State with about 240-250 students pursuing a degree in the field.

“I think one of the reasons for the popularity is that many people are now realizing how important it is that organizations communicate well,” Forde said. “The organizations that communicate best are those that provide the most and best communication to journalists and other media, stockholders, customers and clients, the community and anyone else. Most corporations have realized that to hide behind a wall is not the way to go about it.”

The technology for communicating has changed, and now public relations experts must combine all of the traditional methods of communication – brochures, pamphlets, newspapers, billboards, radio and television – with newer method of communications such as the Internet. No matter which vehicle is used, it is important to make sure people are getting the message.

“You can spend thousands or millions to send out information, but if no one is getting it, you are missing the boat,” Forde said. “You have to figure out which public will use which methods. Some like Web sites, others e-mail and some direct mail.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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