Saturday, October 30, 2010

Your Career and You: "Get a Focus"

I've had a number of conversations this week with students, advisees as well as others, about the future...the "future" in this case being the coming semester (Spring) and, for some, impending graduation.

Just about every one of these chats began with "What courses should I take?" And that's a very logical thing to ask since neither time nor the registrar are going to sit around and wait for them to make a decision.

My question in return was "Well, what is it that you're interested in?" To which I usually got a panicky look that told me the individual being interrogated didn't have a clue and hadn't really given the matter any thought.

Not a good way to start a discussion about your life and your future.

One thing I'm crystal clear about in my work with students at Curry College, where I head up the Public Relations concentration and teach most of the PR courses, as well as serve as Faculty Adviser for the Curry College Public Relations Student Association...get a focus.

This holds as true for college students as it does for young men and women just getting started out in the professional world. Figure out what it is that gets you excited and start shaping your academic or career path in such a way that you will be prepared to move into that area when the time is right.

When I was starting out in college, I was convinced I wanted to be a civil engineer building highways and bridges in my home state of Georgia. Went off to Auburn University with all intentions of becoming an overnight success.

Long story made very short...damn near flunked out of college! Among other things, couldn't draw a straight line with a straight edge if my life depended on it!

Not a good sign.

I switched to an English major and transferred to the University of Georgia where I discovered my passion (at the time) was 18th century British literature. Took every possible course related to that area and had the time of my life. I also had a dream of going on to get an advanced degree in English and becoming a tweedy prof wafting through the halls of the English department and exuding some semblance of brilliance.

Then, after graduation, I joined the Air Force and wound up in Saigon, Vietnam, teaching English as a second language...and developing a knack for public relations.

(Note: Don't try to make a connection...there was none. It's just that the opportunity came up during my second year there to manage a mini-nightclub for our instructors, and I took to it like the proverbial duck to water. Promoted the dickens out of the operation, built the business exponentially, and left the country with a very good notion of how community relations can benefit an organization.)

I served a total of eight years in the Air Force, with assignments at various bases in the States as well as a stint in the all cases and places further refining my PR skills and getting a sense of what I really wanted to do in life.

When I left the Air Force, I had the good fortune to qualify for a civilian Public Affairs internship with the US Army and subsequently spent a little over seven years fine-tuning my PR skills and figuring out exactly which areas of the profession I was best equipped for.

The point to this recitation is just the beginning, I didn't really have a focus. I just was enjoying something that interested me. But it really wasn't preparing me for a viable future.

With the Air Force/Army experience, I got a focus. I figured out what it was (a) that I was very good at, (b) that I could get excited about, and (c) that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

And I've never regretted that choice. For nearly 40 years, I have worked in/ succeeded in/revelled in a career field that was simultaneously maddening and exhilarating. Today that includes being allowed to share the knowledge and experience of those amazing years with young future public relations professionals.

Has it been all roses? Absolutely not.

There have been days when I wished I was back in Saigon checking classrooms for bombs before the start of the day. But there also have been days when I just sat and marvelled at the amazing opportunities and experiences I have been blessed with.

That's the goal in all find that one thing that is you and focus on it. Give it your all. Throw yourself body and soul into the deep end and start working to make your mark.

It doesn't come easily, and there may be some missteps along the way. That's called "life," and you can learn from everything you encounter.

But it will come together, and you will find yourself, as I have, revelling in the sheer joy of doing what you love to do and...most important...want to do.

It all starts, though, with the most difficult have to get a focus.

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings!'"
Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Your Career and You: "Never Stop Learning"

I attended the Public Relations Society of America's 2010 International Conference in Washington, DC, last week and came away, as usual, even more excited about my chosen career field.

PR people...successful PR people...are learners. They grow up absorbing all that life has to offer; they go to college to add to that knowledge. Then, when opportunities like this annual conference come along, they turn out in droves to learn even more.

Not only were there a couple thousand PR professionals and educators in the mix; the Public Relations Student Society of America held its annual conference a few days before...also in DC...and more than 1,000 students...future PR professionals...were in attendance as well!

How cool is that?!?

All these people, young and old, men and women...more than 3,000 in all...gathered together to take advantage of additional educational opportunities outside the workplace and outside the classroom.

I realized, as I was sitting in keynote speaker sessions with more than 1,000 other attendees and in breakout sessions that had, on average, 50 people eagerly listening and taking notes, that the "secret" to success, if there is a secret, is keeping your mind refreshed with new information.

I got back to Curry College on Wednesday and spent the remainder of the week sharing my experiences with my public relations students. Then, today, I taught my graduate communications class at Regis College and did the same.

Why? Because I want to emphasize the importance of learning...the value of seeking new information.

The world is changing, and what was "new" yesterday is now a standard part of everyday business. Something new has taken its place, and you, as a public relations professional, have to be aware of that change and be able to incorporate it into your daily routine as a counselor and advisor.

The way I see it, which would you rather have happen? You suggesting a communication strategy involving, for example, social media as a means of reaching target audiences? Or your boss asking you why you're not using a communication strategy involving social media?

I, for one, would prefer to suggest the concept and have my client say, "What a great suggestion. I'm lucky to have you as my PR counsel."

For those of you who moan piteously, "I'm so busy. I just don't have time for all that extra stuff," I say, "Your choice, my friend." Then I say to myself, "And don't come whining to me when your boss or client decides that the grass is greener elsewhere and invites you to move on."

There are any number of ways through which to take advantage of educational opportunities. In today's world, this includes online activities including webinars and chat sessions as well as traditional in-person events.

I was talking with one of my PR concentration students (a future superstar, by the way, of whom I expect great things!) at Curry yesterday about the various communication-focused organizations in the Boston area and came up with a list of six whose programs I attend whenever I can...there are probably more...these are the ones I know about and go to.

If you look in your area, you'll find at least one or two, probably more. Seek them out. Go to their programs when the topic sounds interesting.

And, while you're at You're in the midst of like-minded people, so take advantage of their knowledge as well!

In the end, when it comes to either looking for your first job or looking for a move in a new or more challenging direction, these efforts will pay off. You will be able to show your determination to succeed. You've never stopped learning!

"Properly speaking, for the public relations man, as for every other person whose life is more than unthinking routine, the processes of education should never cease."
Edward L. Bernays, "A definitive study of Your Future in Public Relations" [1961]

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Your Career and You: "Find Your Inspiration"

I read a truly inspiring feature this morning in the Boston Sunday Globe about a young man...Lane Sutton...from Framingham, MA, who at age 13 has established himself as a social media maven.

I also read some genuinely idiotic comments from some Globe readers who apparently are appalled that this young man has emerged as a budding leader in the social media world. Seems like some folks are not prepared for the fact that some young men and women actually do care and actually do such shockingly adult things as read, use grown-up language, and have a vision.

This might explain why some of the young adults with whom I come in contact both at Curry College, where I teach undergrad Communication courses and oversee the Public Relations Concentration, and Regis College, where I teach graduate communication courses, are clueless about where they would like to go in life. They have gotten zip as guidance from their parents!

This is obviously a problem as we are talking about young men and women who are within shouting distance of their entry into the professional working world and are investing a not-inconsiderable chunk of cash into their educational preparation. They don't know why they're doing it!!

It's not entirely hopeless, though, and this is why I (and many other of my colleagues) take the time to meet with students to guide...nudge... shove(?) them along a particular path. We see the glimmer of a possibility, and we make it our crusade to help those who will accept our help find their way.

So what does all this mean for you?

It means you look to others...teachers, peers, parents, whoever you respect...for guidance and advice.

And you start paying attention to the success stories of those who have found their way and see how what they have done might apply to you.

What fascinated me about Lane Sutton's story is the fact that, in spite of his being, to use the trite phrase, "ahead of his time," he is a normal, decent kid who does his homework, has friends in school, and rides his bike.

Where he diverges from the norm is the fact that he reads newspapers and magazines. He associates with and talks to adults. He has figured out where his interests lie, and he's doing something about it. OMG...he reads?!?

Maybe this isn't you. Maybe this isn't where your interest lies. And that's ok. You don't have to be like someone just because he or she is successful.

What you do have to do is ask yourself, "What is it about this person that made him what he is today?"

When you answer that question, you're ready to find your own role model...someone who you would like to be like...someone whose interests are similar to yours.

Pay attention to what he or she does...reads...says...thinks. Ask yourself, "Am I like that? Do I want to be like that?"

I'm not saying become a mindless clone. What I am saying is you don't have to create everything yourself. Someone, somewhere, has done or is doing what you would like to be and do.

I would venture to say that, when you do find this person and pay attention to all these things, you will start getting a sense of how you would like to conduct yourself. You will start doing things that bring you a sense of satisfaction, that make you proud of your abilities. You will find that others are starting to listen to you and, sometimes, asking you for advice.

It may feel a little unnatural in the beginning, but as you grow into your new "you," you will become more comfortable and sure of yourself.

It all starts, though, with the initial challenge...find your inspiration!

"Yet this we ask ere you leave us, that you speak to us and give us of your truth.
And we will give it unto our children, and they unto their children, and it shall not perish."
Kahlil Gibran, "The Prophet" [1923]

Monday, October 4, 2010

Your Career and You: "It's Okay to Change Things"

We had a meeting of the Curry College Public Relations Student Association last week with guest speaker Whytnee Bush, Events & Media Coordinator for Boston Harborfest.

Whytnee is an up-and-coming PR superstar who came into the field somewhat by accident and discovered to her delight...and to mine as a Director of the world-renowned organization...that she loves the challenges of nonprofit public relations.

She shared her experiences getting started in an organization that, for going on 30 years, has been attracting nearly two million visitors annually to Boston from around the globe for a week's worth of family-oriented, affordable entertainment and education.

Advice flowed fast, furious and factually, with attendees chiming in with questions to learn more about actually getting a start in public relations. One recommendation, in particular, resonated with me and gave me the idea for this posting.

Among her "lessons learned," Whytnee advised listeners to "be willing to change things if you think you have a better idea." She followed up with examples of how she had revamped the news releases that were sent out regularly and often by Harborfest to the media.

"They obviously had not been updated in years," she said. "Interns working at Harborfest just plugged in new dates or other information but didn't do anything to the basic copy. I rewrote just about every one to make them sound more 'fresh.'"

The end result? An increase in media interest and use of the materials in publicity about Boston Harborfest.

While this advice from a "junior" practitioner might cause some of my more "traditional" colleagues to swoon, I am totally behind the concept. Something might not be "broken," but it very likely could be improved with a little tinkering.

I did this as an intern myself. Back in the dark ages, I was assigned to the US Army Training and Doctrine Command's Editorial Branch to get some experience editing training materials.

One step of the editing process required that we calculate reading levels for individual manuals, and I noticed right off the bat that my more experienced colleagues were painstakingly creating columns of numbers and then transcribing calculations onto a second piece of paper...a long, drawn-out process.

Being somewhat "labor-averse," I decided that there had to be an easier way, and I experimented with a couple of templates into which I simply plugged numbers and performed calculations. It was the same amount of adding and multiplying, but the process was more orderly and less likely to produce errors.

End result? When I completed my assignment with the Editorial Branch, the commander presented me with a letter of commendation citing my proactive approach to simplifying reading level calculations...that was now an official part of the editing process.

I didn't ask for permission. I simply looked at what was there and identified a simpler, more effective way of accomplishing the task.

This is one thing I try to instill in the minds of my Communication students at Curry College...that it really is okay to be proactive and change things.

I'm not advocating going in willy-nilly and trashing everything that's ever been done. But I am championing the idea of questioning the status quo. Just because they've "done it that way forever" doesn't mean it's the most effective or efficient way.

Experiment on your own time with your own concept of how something could be done more quickly or easily. Once you've proven to yourself that it can be done your new-and-improved way, propose it to your supervisor...or try it out on a colleague to get his or her feedback.

Bottom line...change truly is good, as long as it's done with thought and consideration for the results. "It's okay to change things!"

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
Reinhold Neibuhr, "The Serenity Prayer" [1934]