Can Public Relations Be Taught?

“You were a public relations major? I didn’t know that was even a major.”

Okay, I get it. How hard can it be to pitch your story to a reporter or run a few social media campaigns, right? Is it really necessary to spend four years of your life studying public relations to be good at it?

During my very first college course in public relations at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only a couple weeks after I declared my major, my professor told us that PR can’t necessarily be taught. Baffled, I contemplated going back to my advisor and changing my major, wondering why I would possibly devote my college career to a subject that “can’t really be studied.” However, after finishing the program, I believe that although professor was brilliant in many ways, he missed the mark a bit.

My program started off with what I know to be the backbone of any communication-based degree: writing. Though I fancied myself to be a pretty good writer coming out of high school, I was soon knocked down a peg (or two) in my writing classes. Professors constantly reminded us that because PR is about shaping your message for different audiences, your writing has to not only be effective and error-free, but also persuasive. As president of W2O Group Bob Pearson pointed out, studying public relations or communications teaches students how to be a storyteller through their writing, a key trait that is vital to the success of any PR pro. I’m proud to say my professors taught me how to do this with ease, but it wasn’t an easy road.

I distinctly remember a class where each week, we would have a different in-class, timed writing assignment. During the next week, our professor would distribute our work to the class, and would point out all the things we did wrong—in front of everyone. We would also have weekly quizzes on everything there was to know about the dreaded AP Style. However, we weren’t solely grilled on grammatical errors and bad typos. We were meticulously taught how to use those good writing tactics to shape the story any story we were trying to tell. At the time, I dreaded going into that class, never knowing what misery was waiting for me in that tiny classroom, but now, I couldn’t be more thankful for that type of push.

Moving up the ladder and into higher level courses, the coursework switched from learning about tactics of PR, like writing an effective press release or creating a 30-second PSA, to learning about the strategies that drove a good campaign. I learned how to create a strategic plan from start to finish, and tested it on with a real non-profit organization with my peers. I didn’t just study the Subway PR Crisis—I was able to use it to devise my own crisis communications plan. I understood, on a deep level, the power of the media in a multitude of areas, including business, politics and healthcare, to name a few. Through various group projects and presentations, I learned how to use those tactics to execute creative and strategic PR campaigns, something that many PR professionals don’t get to do until they are deep into their careers.

Because my major also fell under the journalism school, I was able to take electives in journalism that further enhanced my PR coursework. I was able to see the connection between the two fields, and could learn what type of relationship journalists dreamed of having with public relations professionals. I was able to meet peers in those electives who went on to become journalists themselves, making connections with future reporters who I can one day work with in my own professional career.

My professors and my coursework gave me all the necessary tools to have a successful career in my field, but those tools extended far beyond what my professor wrote on a whiteboard or what I was tested on during final exams.

As a PR major, I was given access to amazing leaders in my field. Because many of my professors worked in PR for the majority of their lives—or still worked in the field—they were able to bring in guest speakers who had a fresh and genuine perspective on all things PR and journalism. My professors not only emphasized the power of a network as a PR pro, but hand-picked a network that I could lean on. Over the years, I met pros in nearly every field, at major companies and huge agencies.

I was also respected and trusted in the field of PR before I was given my first job. Because most students don’t have the opportunity to actually study public relations, I had a leg up. I already knew the difference between a press release and a media alert, and I knew how to write a pitch. I was able to land so many PR internships right out of the gate, and was able to get an amazing opportunity at W2O Group, because my coursework gave me professional experience that most can only get through the actual working world.

I went into college with a passion for media and communication, and I came out with an enhanced understanding of how it all works, but I only got of it exactly what I put in. I used the connections that my professors and peers gave me to build my network. I looked for internships to compliment the skills I was learning and practicing in the classroom. I took all of the opportunities given to me as a PR major to make me ready to be a PR professional the second I walked across that graduation stage only five months ago.

The people I know to be successful in public relations come from all sorts of backgrounds. I am confident that I would not be in the same place professionally without my degree, because it was that program that forced me to leave my comfort zone. Though I’ve only been with W2O for a few months, I already know that this the kind of agency that also pushes people to get out of their comfort zone. The times when you are pushed so far out of your comfort zones are some of the only times you are really learning and growing, and this is the kind of environment I need to be in to learn. My PR program may be over, but I’m happy to be working in a place where my knowledge of public relations can continually expand.

Jacquelyn Matter
Jacquelyn Matter
Account Associate
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