Recently, Scott went to visit Northern Arizona University (his alma mater!) to talk with the PRSSA students there, give them advice and share what the PR world is really like. Afterwards, one student came up to him and asked if she might be able to submit a post for our agency blog. Of course he said yes.
So today, Sarina Urquhart, a senior at Northern Arizona University graduating this fall with a degree in strategic communications and an emphasis in public relations, has put together a list of five skills essential to the professional PR world that your college education may not teach you.
Sarina, it’s all you.
If you Google “PR skills I need” there are 46,800,000 results ranging from PRSA articles to blog posts to courses required for a public relations or communications degree. Most lists repeat certain skills— communications, writing, research, and social media— but then there are other lists with more unique skills and traits required for PR— self-direction, being detail-oriented, and an international mindset.
Instead of rehashing lists or talking about all the skills schools teach, I focused on some skills school skipped and I had to teach myself. Specifically, depth of focus, phone communication, time management, situation ownership, and writing.
Depth of Focus
People either look at the big picture or at the tiny details; few can see both successfully because our views are rooted in our personality traits.
I used to only see big picture but by high school I became incredibly detail-oriented thanks to several years of art. In high school and college I had to relearn the ability to see the big picture but I still struggle, bogging it down with details. I actually try so hard to look at the big picture I start to miss details like adding friends’ upcoming birthdays to my calendar. Balancing the two is something I work on daily, hoping to find a place where neither trait is compromised.
Talking on phones isn’t a skill people have to practice much with the evolution of smart phones and computers; however, this skill is still important because it is often the fastest and most efficient way to contact someone.
I was fortunate enough to get a job at an IT call center making and receiving phone calls constantly. While it has been good practice, I still find it difficult sometimes to pick up the phone to make calls. Most people who call into call centers have some issue and are frustrated, and that quickly builds up until they take their frustration out on the person trying to help them— and in my workplace people become so anxious they quit after these negative interactions.
Students think they’re great at time management— taking five classes and participating in clubs all while working. We’re not as good at it as we think though, since we’re used to having assignments laid out months in advance and deadlines pushed back, generally never forward. In the PR world, however, deadlines come daily and often we PR pros may find we only have a couple of hours to complete something.
We’re expected to learn to manage short-term tasks when we get a PR job or internship— something not everyone gets the chance to do before completing a degree, like me. I’ve tried to learn it by breaking my work into 20 or 30 minute chunks and switching between assignments, but I’m still inefficient working on multiple assignments in this way.
When someone solves a problem or if they mess something up, they need to know and learn to take ownership of it. Ownership has to begin at the start of an issue, and followed through no matter the outcome. Sometimes it is the hardest to follow through during the bad situations, but if done successfully can boost a person's or company’s image (like how Tylenol dealt with customers’ deaths in the ‘80s).
My IT job encouraged me to learn this skill, so I can quickly realize all contributing factors or causes of issues and I know all the possible solutions which I can help them achieve and further steps if I can’t resolve the issues. My knowledge is limited to certain recurring situations, but I know how to duplicate my situation ownership and have used it on group projects.
I’ve even had the fortune to see through some tasks unsuccessfully. There was a group assignment due for me last year, and I did a lot of work towards it, but I was hospitalized and my partner had to present alone and unprepared. I contacted the teacher immediately and told him about my situation and that I neglected to give my partner all the information I had agreed to prepare. All I hoped for was that my partner’s grade would not be affected. We both got the opportunity to redo the project properly.
Finally, I want to mention writing, a skill most (if not all) PR skill lists mention because writing is at the heart of what any PR professional does. Whether it’s a news release, a byline, an article, a PR plan, a contract—writing, and knowing how to write in different tones for different situations is incredibly important and something I don’t think I will fully learn until I am at work at a PR agency.
For example, when I first wrote this blog post, I listed off five skills people don’t usually have and listed how to improve the skills It was sterile, bland, and written like a hard news article— the only form I was taught in school. I was so focused on details that I made an article completely different from the friendly and informative blog posts HMA features.
I think my main takeaway from writing this post is that school can’t and won’t teach everything. I, like every other student and PR practitioner, have to be able to adapt. We will always be learning new skills and revising our old ones.
Sarina Urquhart is a senior at Northern Arizona University, graduating fall 2017 with a degree in strategic communications and an emphasis in public relations. She chose PR after accepting she could not make money as a cat lady but more so because she was told she was good at writing and talking to people.
Now an active member of PRSSA for 3 years, this aspiring PR practitioner is in her capstone and preparing herself for a career. She hopes to enter business to business public relations in New York City within the next year— moving there in June.
You can follow her on Twitter at @sarinaurquhart.