A Working Definition

gradIn one week and one day, at roughly 1 p.m., I will be wearing a black bag-like outfit with a black hat unlike any other. This hat signifies something important. Can you guess? To entertain themselves, I’ve been told the journalism professors rate the outlandish nature of people’s shoes. I’ve also been told we’re not allowed to wear heels, but I will most likely break that rule. In one week and one day, at roughly 1 p.m., I am graduating from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

When I first started thinking about college as a high school student, I had no earthly or heavenly idea what I wanted to do with my life. I sat down with my mother and we discussed the things I loved doing. I love to communicate, regardless of the message being verbal or written. I love speaking and writing. We visited UNT during my senior year. I heard about their communications department, but I also heard about something called public relations. I was curious, so I went to talk with a journalism adviser, Nelia Smith, who has since passed away. She piqued my interest when she handed me a paper listing some of the jobs out there for PR.

I decided to major in PR, but started out at Collin College to save money. When I got to UNT, I’d been telling people about my major for two years. When they asked me to explain it, I had no idea what to tell them. I’d picked something I barely understood. After a few road bumps, I’m graduating with that major. Honestly, I still have difficulty explaining the job when people ask. So, I want to share three things I’ve learned about public relations during my time at UNT.

  1. Definitions are tricky.

Public relations is that it can be a part of any industry, in any company and in any country. I find this a highly attractive quality. Lorra Brown posted a blog on PR Daily called, “10 Things to Love About Public Relations.” She and I love PR for many of the same reasons. Specifically, she pointed out that skills you learn in public relations are applicable to any industry. The same aspect that makes public relations attractive also makes it confusing. You see, the roles and tasks performed by public relations professionals vary depending on what country, industry and company for which you’re working. That’s why definitions are tricky. When people ask me about what I’ll be doing once I graduate, I can give them a general idea, but not a definite list of my roles or responsibilities.

  1. It is stressful.

When it makes 6th on the list of most stressful jobs in America, you know it’s real. Forbes author Susan Adams wrote, “Though many people may picture PR execs wining and dining and taking lunch with friends and connections around town, in fact they face almost constant rejection from people like me.” However, I think she missed the largest reason why this job is stressful. Yes, I’ll face rejection, and if you decide to be in PR, so will you. No, the real stress stems from the fact that your actions, from sending a press release to tweeting 140 characters, have the potential to make or break an entire company’s reputation. Not only are you accountable for your actions, but if someone else makes a mess, literally or figuratively, it is your job to fix it. This stress grows exponentially the larger the organization. The burden of such an important reputation on your shoulders is quite large. The pressure to remain in the clear and make no mistakes is constant, and I love it. Every day brings forth a challenge.

  1. Grammar is vital, but not impossible.

This probably didn’t make your jaw drop. It isn’t revelation material, I know. Let me tell you something I don’t tell many people: I was a terrible grammarian in high school. I didn’t care to know the rules. I didn’t care to follow them. My friends didn’t just look at me crazy when I couldn’t explain my future major. They thought I was insane because I didn’t have a good grasp on grammar, punctuation, or spelling for that matter. Just ask people I used to AIM with. I used to say I had my own dictionary and spelling lists when they pointed out my countless errors. It wasn’t until I started college that I really applied myself. I learned that “it’s” is different that “its.” Even though it sounds odd because people don’t usually say it out loud, whom is still a part of our language. I started reading Grammar Girl’s blog religiously. My favorite article is about keeping affect and effect straight. When I say “my favorite,” what I really mean is, I keep going back to it because I constantly get them confused.

Honestly, I used to think grammar wasn’t a big deal. Boy, was I wrong. I also used to think grasping it was impossible, but it isn’t. If you don’t have an iron grasp on it, and punctuation, and spelling, you look stupid. If you look stupid, and your writing looks stupid, it will make the organization you’re representing look even worse. Let me tell you, editing is your friend!

I am thrilled to be graduating. It still scares me to think that I’m almost done and will have to face the world as a “real adult.” In reality, though, I can’t wait to get a full-time job, representing a company or clients with passion and drive. I want to put my knowledge and experience to work, tell someone’s story, and tell it well. I am so thankful to everyone at the Mayborn School of Journalism for encouraging me and helping me work at a level to remember with pride. I’ll always look back on it with fondness. Now, on to find something fancy to wear underneath that black bag-like outfit.

Take Away

I started my last semester dreading my ethics, law and diversity class. The class was Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetrequired, and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t think I’d really learn anything new or get excited. A little Steven Colbert and a few heated discussions changed all of that. I walked in class the first day expecting the same lectures about privacy and the PRSA Member Code of Ethics. I saw it as a class designed so we’d graduate with all that information fresh in our minds. The class surprised me, not only by being ironically applicable to my life, but by being lively and tangibly helpful. It’s a class I know I’ll be thankful for in my career.

One aspect I appreciated was that it combined advertising and public relations studends. We got to have a variety of perspectives on ethical issues. If I had more digital and artistically creative skills, I could see myself as an advertising student. I hate to reveal this, but I didn’t even know advertising had codes of ethics. I assumed they had some sort of ethical code to follow, but didn’t know people had collaborated and published any uniform documents outlining standards. I didn’t know about much aside from the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and Society of Professional Journalists. It turns out advertising has several codes such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, or the Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics. When I got to reading the actual codes for advertising, I realized a lot of it centered around a key principle for public relations: that we must be honorable and ethical in our communication as both representatives of an organization and protectors of consumers, or those outside the organization. In fact, principle one of the Advertising Ethics code states, “Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public.”

When anyone talks about ethics, I love getting involved in the conversation. It’s something I can get passionate about. Honestly, I love having deep philosophical debates over intellectually challenging issues. This class not only gave everyone a chance to get involved in the conversation, it revealed a very important truth about my chosen career.

I love to think in terms of absolutes. To use a fancy word from class, I’d say I prefer a deontological approach to ethics. If I take anything with me to the workplace, it’s that you have to examine each case individually. I’m of the belief that there are some ethical guidelines that will never change. Aside from those few, this class convinced me that consequentialism is an excellent method for evaluating possible choices. The best way I’ve seen it described is the more positive consequences an action brings, the better the action. After all the case studies, absolute rules can’t perfectly apply to all situations. The realization brought me out of my comfort zone, but I know it will help me in the long run.

In addition, my professor didn’t simply teach me about ethical models and various media laws. She helped me learn lessons that apply to all of life. She helped me tangibly understand that I need to live by the ethical standards I hold and not worry about what other people think. It’s been an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but I know that doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

Evidenced by the amount of moments when the entire class sat stunned by bad choices, I’d also say I’ve learned that people can make really dumb mistakes. We’ve talked about everything from the “accidental” US Airways tweet to the various racially stereotypical Summer’s Eve ads. My favorite memories involved the class staring with their mouths open or awkwardly laughing in unison.

It’s regrettable that many of the laughs resulted from the unwise decision of others, but they did give people something to discuss. As I enter the workplace, I don’t want to bend my ethical standards. I want people to write more blogs and news stories like the one from Bulldog Reporter. It explains how PR professionals are stepping up and acting ethically, even when pressured to do the opposite. That is the kind of reputation I want to perpetuate with my actions. I don’t want my decisions to become a topic of discussion in this class. As my final semester comes to a close, the memories from this class will always be some of my favorite. Now, on to apply what I’ve learned to the real world.