Thursday, September 16

Preparing For PR: Advice For High School Students

Every now and again, I receive emails from students, asking advice about communication-related fields. I'm honored by the requests. What I don't do very often is make the inquiry public, but I might reconsider if the question is specific enough.

A few days ago, I received the following letter from a high school student (her name is omitted for obvious reasons). And I thought my response might benefit someone else (at least two percent of it, anyway). Enjoy.

Hi Rich,

I saw your twitter on a list of people involved in the PR industry that should be followed. I am a High School student interested in becoming involved in the industry. I would like to be involved specifically in the sports side of the industry, but I know that I might have to start somewhere else before I can get to where I want to be. I currently am the Sports Information Director of my High School football team where I create press releases and encourage people to attend our games. I hope that this will help me when I try to pursue opportunities outside of school. Any advice that you may have about the industry is greatly appreciated.

Than you for your time,

Five Lessons For Public Relations Students.

Dear KB,

Let me begin by saying that I hope you don't mind taking your inquiry public. Doing so could help other high school students and possibly give you something to refer back to from time to time. It makes it a worthwhile exercise for me too, rather than answering privately like I usually do.

Serving as the sports information director of your high school football team is certainly an early step in the right direction. The experience you gain there could be invaluable when you apply for college. Most students, even college students, don't have enough experience by the time they graduate.

I always encourage them to seek out nonprofit organizations, which provides them an opportunity to help their communities while they help themselves. Surprisingly few do it. The ones that do, however, are almost always hired first and at better companies.

1. Start Where You Are.

Most professionals I know are overly focused on where they want to be two years from now as opposed to the present. It's a mistake. Stronger candidates work on where they are, pouring their passion into whatever they are doing right now.

So let's start there. How can you be the best sports information director possible? Here are three ideas. Purchase an Associated Press Stylebook, which will help you know when to capitalize titles, among many other things. Open dialogues with journalists covering the games (asking how you can help them more effectively) and the people who turn out for the games (specifically the various clubs and associations at your school). Measure everything, especially whether or not your efforts did increase attendance at the games and, perhaps, deeper coverage of the players who will one day be vying for college spots.

2. Pursue A Dual Education.

While you might have a change of heart along the way, investing equal amounts of time studying public relations (communication) and your preferred field will give you a leg up in your profession. If you love sports, a degree in communication, journalism, public relations, or related field along with a degree in health education or sports management will make you much more attractive to an employer in that niche.

Public relations professionals are notorious for whining that they don't have a seat at the executive table. However, more often than not, they haven't earned a place at the table because they invest so much time into public relations and not enough time in the industry in which their company operates. While public relations professionals at firms (as opposed to inside companies) tend to be generalists, a dual education could help there too.

3. Nurture A Network Now.

It's never too early to start nurturing a network. As a high school student actively involved in the field, you have an advantage in nurturing your network. If possible, develop relationships with the coach, journalists, and local public relations professionals.

You might also notice that I intentionally chose the word "nurture" over develop or create. Most public relations professionals develop networks for self-serving agendas (e.g., they befriend "journalists" or "influencers" to get more coverage). You'll be much more effective if the relationships you create are mutually beneficial. The results will be much more powerful than trading favors. The people you seek to help will help you because they want to, not because they owe you. That's priceless.

4. Ask Yourself Who You Want To Be.

Personal branding quacks often advise people to focus on what they want to be. The better question to ask yourself is who you want to be. The difference between those two words are powerful, but most people don't find this out until it is much too late.

It's not all that different from understanding the difference between a strategy or a tactic. Some people insist that objectives and strategies are interchangeable, e.g., that you develop a strategy to get more people to the game. This isn't true. Instead, a strategy might be to make the team more accessible and therefore the players more endearing, which will get more people to the game.

The strategic thinker invests in values that produce long-term outcomes. The tactical thinker invests in tasks that may deliver a short-term benefit but aren't sustainable. By shaping who you want to be (e.g., honest, credible, helpful) will have a lasting impact for life. Developing lists of people, sending out more press releases, offering bribes (free hotdogs), and asking for favors to get ahead will not.

5. Never Accept Advice On Its Face, Including Mine.

Thanks to the Internet, we live in a world where advice has been cheapened to the lowest value in history by allowing everyone to have their turn at the podium. There is nothing wrong with that. I have yet to read an opinion that doesn't lend some value to a conversation, even if the value might be in that you learn the advice stinks.

However, it also creates a world where we must be more vigilant in testing ideas, vetting information, and seeking multiple sources as opposed to assuming that the experts are who they say they are (or their friends for that matter). And even when some of these well-meaning folks are right for themselves, never assume that what was right for them will be right for you. So while there is no harm in trying out advice like you might try on a dress, expect that less than two percent will fit.

That's all I have without giving up the entire book I'm writing in between assignments. I hope some of it fits for you. If it does, I would welcome the occasional update to see how you are doing. You have my direct email.

All my best,
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