How to Share Your Career Wisdom With Students

October 2020
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You walk or log into a college classroom to see students who are looking forward to hearing stories from the real world of public relations. In your head, you’ve got a filing cabinet’s worth of professional examples, but which ones should you share? And how do you avoid sounding like a know-it-all? 

To make the most of your next teaching assignment or guest-speaking opportunity at a college or university, consider these tips. 

Share human elements.

When speaking to students, your job is to present accurate perspectives on what it’s like to work in the PR profession. It requires that you strike a balance between painting an unrealistically rosy picture, on the one hand; and scaring the students on the other. To achieve that balance, it helps to share the human element of working in the profession.

Textbooks that students use in programs “often leave out the human interactions that are always a part of working in the industry,” says Greg DeBlasio, Ph.D., director of the public relations program at Northern Kentucky University. 

Guest speakers or communicators who teach part-time can offer students their perspectives on human interactions and dynamics in the profession such as office politics and ethical questions, he says.

Provide real-world exercises.

Suzanne Boys, Ph.D., PR program director at the University of Cincinnati, encourages instructors to “coach students through experiences such as looking at analytics, scheduling social media posts and holding mock press conferences.” “These things take time, but are where professionals who adjunct can shine.” 

Students need to understand how the profession operates in real time, DeBlasio says. For example, a guest speaker might explain that even brilliant communications campaigns must sometimes be scrapped because of unexpected external complications that arise. 

Boys agrees, adding that communicators can teach students that the real-world practice of public relations can be messier and less linear than the PR theory offered in classrooms and textbooks.

It also helps to understand the level of students you’re addressing.

“Find out where they see themselves after graduation,” DeBlasio says, and then “connect the dots to what they need to do while still in class.” 

Tie examples to what they’re studying.

Where I teach public relations at Northern Kentucky University and remotely at Cape Cod Community College, my guest speakers are usually connected to a subject we’re covering, and I generally give them a copy of the relevant chapter before they visit. The best speakers will offer real-world examples of concepts covered in the reading.

“Students have read the book and been introduced to the theories,” Boys says. “What they really want are stories of what professionals did,” with “examples, examples, examples.” Visuals help too, she says. 

Broaden their horizons.

Some students think of public relations as one activity or only happening in the for-profit world. Boys recommends bringing in examples that illustrate the wide breadth of the profession. Doing so “helps them get an overview of the field,” she says, and can “really open students’ awareness” of the many facets of public relations.

DeBlasio advocates teaching students that public relations is practiced differently in other countries, and says that imparting an international perspective can give students an advantage after they graduate. 

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