Back in October, I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the augustly-named Northern Interscholastic Press Association, which is popularly known by its less-than-august acronym, NIPA.
The 92 year-old association is comprised of high school teachers, guidance counselors and students from across North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba. It was originally founded to improve the quality of the region’s school newspapers and yearbooks in a time when students got their hands dirty with ink, set the type for their publications and worked well past school hours to produce a newspaper that was actually read. Times have changed. Luckily for the students, NIPA has changed with those times. Today, the organization sponsors career workshops and conferences that give students the opportunity to explore the many careers available in communications.
I was invited to give a talk on public relations, a presentation I’ve given many times before but never before high school students, an audience notoriously fickle and with a reputation for being harsh. Much to my surprise and delight, I spoke to a packed room filled with engaged and inquisitive students. The event organizer later told me that the session was one of the most popular of the entire conference. Less I think that I was the draw, the reason these above-average students came out was to learn all they could about a field that is entering into a new golden age.
It is a marked change from years past when public relations was the Rodney Dangerfield specialty in the communications industry. The field got little, if any, respect. This was due in no small measure because it was often misunderstood, seen more as a luxury service employed by blue chip companies and government agencies.
All that has now changed.
Today companies, large and small, and organizations of every stripe are utilizing public relations to get their message out. And you cannot communicate that message without a strategy and a story to tell. This, more than anything, is why I enjoy public relations and why I encouraged the students to consider public relations as a career.
You wear many hats when you work in public relations. Many days you wear them all at once. But the public relations strategist always keeps two hats on: strategist and architect. At any given time, the public relations specialist is tasked with crafting a strategy that can blaze a trail for a new product, or polish a brand for an established business, or navigate a minefield for an embattled entity or scandal-plagued public figure. The only thing typical about public relations is how untypical each client is from the other. Sameness is seldom found. In fact, the only constant is the need to master the art of storytelling.
When it comes to storytelling, public relations specialists are more like architects and less like authors. It is not our job to tell our client’s story. It is our job to tell the client how to say it and, if needed, empower them to say it. Narrative blueprints are a public relations strategist’s specialty. The task is to design a narrative that is simple and memorable, one that favorably frames the matter in question, and – whenever possible – makes your client the hero, and one that always establishes a solution.
The popular misnomer is that all public relations professionals are “spin doctors”: gifted in the arts of obfuscation and confusion. But this is like believing that all lawyers are ambulance chasers or all professional athletes are dumb jocks. Contrary to these misconceptions, many public relations professionals find great personal satisfaction in working with a client that is making a positive impact on the world. Helping groups raise awareness about a disease, educating the public on an issue, raising money for a worthy charity, or assisting a business in being a good corporate citizen are some of the sweetest satisfactions of our profession.
The fact that public relations is such a versatile field is what makes it so exciting. And the fact that as a public relations professional you are called upon to offer counsel and provide a solution is what makes the profession so rewarding.
Charles Darwin observed, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” As I told the students, a public relations professional helps the client adapt to change, and not only survive, but thrive. And that is why I love what I do.
Jason Matthews is the Public Relations Director for KK BOLD. His Cupid costume is really weirding all of us out today.