Public relations is not something you can learn how to do by reading a textbook. You can’t begin a career by taking a licensing exam online. It’s something you have to learn by doing, while ideally getting feedback and support as you encounter new experiences. That’s why teaching the “hows” of this profession in a traditional classroom setting must be difficult for those who choose to do that.
Now, I know of a model that makes so much sense, it’s hard to believe it only exists on approximately 20 college campuses in the country.
Late last week, I was introduced to Hill Communications, a student-run firm on the campus of my alma mater, Syracuse University, founded in 2001. The students who lead and work at the firm are members of the PRSSA chapter at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications. The model reminds me in some ways of the student-run radio station on campus, WJPZ-FM, where I worked during my time on “The Hill” (as the campus section of Syracuse, New York is known).
The business model is simple. Start-up companies, small businesses and small nonprofits receive PR services for relatively low fees. Hill Communications collects those fees for its members’ work and spends its budget primarily to send members to PRSSA and PRSA conferences to further their learning. More experienced students direct the firm and lead accounts. Less experienced students play smaller roles on accounts.
I had the privilege of speaking to several of the Students from Hill Communications and the PRSSA chapter while I was on campus last week. After 15 years of speaking to students groups at a half-dozen universities, these were, as a group, by far the most sophisticated communications students I have encountered. Their questions dug deep and their savvy impressed. I spent my time with them going far beyond the typical “how do you get a job” and focusing, instead, on account leadership, client service, culture building, media targeting and even billing and financials. It was like “talking shop” with young professionals a few years into careers rather than students who had yet to work full-time in professional environments.
The students of Hill Communications complement their classroom work and significant internship experiences by working together to experience the day-to-day thrills and challenges of working in an agency environment. It seems they have found the “secret sauce” of how to prepare for a successful career in this business. May they all graduate to find workplaces that will provide them with growth opportunities to continue what they have started in college.