Going Back to College: An Inspiring Lesson on the Future of PR

UM students working on their group presentation

Millennials are often painted as lazy, entitled, impatient and unfocused but a group of college students with whom Jessica recently spent a weekend dispelled all of those stereotypes and gave us hope for the future.

At the first-ever PR Workshop for the University of Michigan’s Communication Studies program, 30 undergraduate students dedicated their entire weekend — giving up their Friday night and showing up at the ungodly hour of 8:30am on Saturday and Sunday (including having lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time) — to get a crash course in the public relations field.  UM does not offer vocational classes — nor did it when Jessica was enrolled there many moons ago — but because so many students have expressed an interest in the PR industry, the brilliant and energetic Susan Douglas, who heads up the department, decided it was worth doing a pilot program that involved alumni in the business sharing their lessons and knowledge with the undergrads.

Over the course of the past eight months, Jessica recruited several other participants, most of them fellow Wolverines, to give up their own weekends to fly to Ann Arbor for this workshop. The impressive lineup included Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief, Car and Driver; Rick Bastien, writer/producer, HLN; Katie Verann Cwayna, senior account executive at Kaplow Communications; Tom Keaney, COO of Rubenstein Communications; Bob Meadows, deputy editor, Essence; Sabina Ptacin, founder of Preneur.net and Red Branch PR; and Marni Raitt, founder, First Raitt Communications.

The PR pros walked the students through the basics of public relations from building a press strategy to developing relationships with media, leveraging social media for publicity and dealing with crises. Then came the assignment: Create a comprehensive PR campaign for an amazing non-profit organization called She’s the First (STF), which sponsors girls’ education in the developing world, helping them be the first in their families to graduate. Started by Tammy Tibbetts, a passionate twenty-something colleague of Jessica’s who went from being a web and social media editor at Hearst to running a growing and influential 501(c)(3) that has so far helped girls in eight Third World countries, including India, Ethiopia, Guatemala and South Sudan. But as STF gives 100 percent of the funds to the cause, the organization still doesn’t have enough money to hire a staff or a PR firm to help promote what it’s doing. When Jessica was trying to come up with a project that would allow the UM students to be creative, strategic and impactful, STF seemed like the perfect fit. And it was.

From the participating alumni, the students learned that they must do their research and be prepared,  how to be persistent without being a pest, how to stay calm and honest when handling a crisis and the importance of going beyond their job description.  But the professionals took valuable lessons from the students as well, including:


The Future is Bright: And we mean that in two ways — these Millennials were ambitious and curious, as well as being intelligent. They asked smart questions, learned quickly and impressed us with their attention to detail. The audience was engaged, paid attention and genuinely seemed interested in the field of public relations.


Gen Y Likes to Play Dress-Up: On an early Sunday morning in a college town, you would expect students to be sporting jeans and hoodies (if they had to roll out of bed at all), but these pupils showed up to our final session dressed to the nines — in blazers, dresses and heels, not a shred of denim or fleece in sight. We didn’t ask them to dress up but they did on their own and it made their PR presentations look polished and professional. They heeded the advice, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” (or don’t have yet!).


College is Full of Creative Minds:  A recent article on Psychology Today‘s blog says that “Gen Y has a continuing thirst for learning and personal growth; and they want to have new experiences, try new things, and be creative.”  We witnessed that firsthand when the workshop participants, who were split into random groups to tackle different areas of the PR campaign for She’s the First, presented their ideas. They were fresh, innovative and as creative — if not more so — than those of far more experienced PR pros.


Students Are Eager to Join the Workforce: The students who signed up for this course came well-prepared, asking if we knew of internship or entry-level positions at our companies, if they could email their resumes (which many of them did that weekend) and for advice on how to break into the PR field, particularly if they lack experience. And, within a few days, many of them were following us on Twitter and had sent us requests to connect on LinkedIn. When we were in college, finding a job was the last thing on our minds — we were lucky if we made it to class! — but these Millennials are growing up in a recession, forcing them to think about their post-graduate futures and be assertive about making whatever connections they can.

We were inspired by the go-getter attitude and poise of these students and feel encouraged  by the thought that they will be entering the job market in the next few years. If this is the next generation of our workforce, we’ll be in good shape.

What has your experience with Gen Y been?  Share your thoughts here, on Twitter (@bestpublicist) or Facebook.

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