"Go for a Master's Degree in public relations."
That’s the advice anxious members of Generation Y are getting. Some are being told this even before they’ve completed their bachelor’s degrees and at least tried to get a job in PR. Unfortunately, too many are heeding it.
Frankly, it’s shocking that those intent on entering public relations have gotten trapped in the "education bubble." That bubble keeps swelling on the belief that education is sacred, more is better, and the cost is irrelevant. For several years, higher-ed watchers have been predicting that the bubble was about to burst.
That didn’t happen. It may not for years yet.
The reality is this: PR, much like sales, plumbing, and journalism, is a hands-on activity. Sure some training is necessary. Sure a seminar now and then can be a game changer. Sure mentoring by smart people can give an edge. But, public relations is something that’s done. It’s not a body of knowledge or a set of theories that requires years and years to master. It’s, well, a type of job you have to learn on the job.
Then after a time on the job, the situation becomes binary. Some will become giants in the field and some will just earn a living. But the beginning of that journey and that eventual fork in the road have nothing to do with a pile on of higher degrees.
The heavies in the field know that. Okay, a few among the heavies might be impressed with a master’s degree from an Ivy League. However, even among them, those responsible for results will factor in much more than that one credential.
Let’s look at two job applicants during these still-recessionary times.
• Candidate A spent the midterms volunteering as a media representative for a U.S. Senate GOP runner – who won. Before that, he helped raise $45,000 in two months through social media for a nonprofit which builds playgrounds for the disabled. That was as an intern at a state university when he was an undergraduate business major. At his part-time job at a deli, he created 10 contests for naming sandwiches, desserts, and hot beverages. Sales increased an average of 43 percent over a 14 month period.
• Candidate B spent the past year matriculating for a Master’s Degree in public relations at an Ivy League university. His internship was at that university, participating in a telemarketing campaign which raised about 13 percent more than the previous year and creating web content for the Admissions Office. His thesis was titled "Differences in Message Absorption between Generation Y and X in Reading the Sunday Edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES." He has no record of paid work.
Under the gun for doing more with less, those hiring will likely opt for the candidate with the most experience and most documented accomplishments. In addition, they recognize that the more kinds of people the candidate was “forced” to deal with, the higher the emotional intelligence [EI.] Isn’t PR about being aware of how others are processing the world they live in?
The sad irony is that the Master’s in Public Relations might position Candidate B as too expensive for an entry-level job in the agency or corporate communications department. Also, it could and frequently does make that person appear “stupid” or “scared” for actually investing the time and all that money in such a professionally unproductive way. Unemployed JDs get that reaction all the time. Employers in non-legal fields blurt out, “Why did you do a thing like that for?”
So, how can current college students, those wishing to break into public relations, and career changers gain that precious hands-on experience?
First, there’s a little preparation work. Observe, without judgment how leaders present themselves, their points of views, and causes in all media: Print, digital, audio, video, and in-person. Review: What seems to be more effective than other tactics? Then compare that with amateurs such as those on mass transit discussing an issue, customer service personnel in a big box dealing with customers, and call-center employees. What recommendations would you make to both groups?
Also, a prerequisite is some book time. Hole up in the public library and scan classics such as “Made to Stick” by the Heath Brothers, “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, and “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by Erving Goffman. The question is: What principles apply across all human experience? Why do human beings do what they do? And how can they be persuaded to modify that behavior or attitude?
Then it’s into the trenches. Knock on doors of small businesses, especially slow and beginning ones, to offer services free. Ask a few questions about what they need to attact more attention and be well thought of. Offer to do a mini proposal. Enough will bite. Then get some results. To do that you will have to change your planning over and over. Finally, you will get enough things right. The result is a track record in strategy, content-creation, and course correction.
In addition to calling cold, volunteer with political parties and causes. Imagine if you had been running for diet sodas for the embryonic wing of the Tea Party? By now, you would be golden. At the organization, offer to do anything. Learning comes by being there and being open.
Also, apply for part-time jobs involving any aspect of communications, ranging from telemarketing to handling irate customers.
After a few months, inventory all that reading and experience for a knowledge base, skills and accomplishments. Study the help wanted ads in public relations to pick up the language to be used in your resume, cover letters, and interviews. Smart people who parachute into new situations learn the language, fast.
Next, approach applying for jobs as a process. Sooner than you think you will get so good at it you will receive a job offer. No one on the job will suggest that you enhance your credentials with a Master’s Degree in public relations.
Jane Genova, president of Genova Writing, Coaching and More, New Haven, Conn., specializes in executive communications and social media. She is a contract blogger on careers for AOL Jobs and published the book “Over-50: How We Keep Working.” She can be reached at Mgenova981 [at] aol.com or 203-468-8579.