The Best of PR in Sunny San Deigo: Key Insights from PRSSA's International Conference

By Alannah McDermott

This October, our San Jose State University chapter spent four fulfilling days at the PRSSA International Conference in bright and beautiful San Diego. Among many of the incredible sessions attended, our group met with influential leaders from top global public relations agencies and attended two keynote sessions with Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox and legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.

This year, 14 students had the opportunity to represent SJSU and form new connections with professionals in the public relations and mass communications industry. With only a few short months left for our seniors, these are the key messages and fresh insights they will take with them into their careers! 

  1. Plan strategically and always look ahead – in your career, life and work projects!

In the global agency panel session with leaders from W20, Zeno Group, BCW and Hotwire, students learned to look at their goals with a birds-eye view to ensure the detailed and organized work will be well worth the time and energy invested. When working on a campaign, sticking to a timeline will help you stay on-track when facing a multitude of deadlines.  

For many of us, diving into a project for the first time can be daunting. Don’t be overwhelmed with the to-dos, but outline a rough draft plan and build your key relationships early on. This will serve as a guideline for those exciting ideas bouncing around the team.

President of Hotwire Global U.S. Heather Kernahan shared her secret to success with students and young professionals at the conference.

“Think in a 3-year horizon,” Kernahan said.

“Look at where you want to be in three years and make a rough sketch of how you plan to get there.” Then, with every step you take, make sure it brings you closer to the vision you have in your head!

Edelman’s Southern California General Manager Will Collie had a different and more long-term approach: looking at future career goals in the context of the next nine years. 

“Now take those nine years and visualize them in pockets of three,” Collie said.

Serving as a motivational model, his advice allows students to form goals and visions for each benchmark they reach. It also allows for flexibility while being conscious of the decisions that will affect them in the long-term. 

“When thinking strategically about your life and career, think about what you want to be known for,” said Josh Grau, Director of Corporate Outreach at Northwestern University.

He continued by sharing that students should carve a niche for themselves, whether that be as an amazing writer/storyteller, social media pro, graphic designer or a confident public speaker.

Be the person that people call when they need help in a specialized area. Invest in yourself. These skills are not only smart for your career but open your mind for growth, both personally and professionally. 

KCOMM CEO Sinan Kinatsiz believes the next generation of PR professionals should be working to achieve hard skills, including:

  • Organic SEO (search engine optimization) for keywords; 
  • Click analytics;
  • Presentation design skills; 
  • and Email marketing
  1. The key to leadership and success in PR is having compassion for people

“Lead with compassion.” – Mexico’s first president of the 21st century, Vicente Fox.

Everyone will lead in their own unique areas of life and work, but it is compassion and empathy that will set us apart as truly great leaders.

“You gain the power and capacity to lead when you love,” Fox said.

In public relations and communications, our biggest asset is relationships. If we are not passionate about the people we work for—and the people we work with—it will be challenging to form connections, and ultimately find success in this business. 

Rising in popularity is employee/internal communications. It has found a sweet-spot in the PR industry as leadership is realizing that employees are the heartbeat of the entire organization. 

“Employees need to be your FIRST audience,” said Barby K. Siegel, CEO of Zeno Group

Kanatsiz emphasized the growing importance of human connection in our outreach strategies, encouraging students to build genuine relationships with your external and internal stakeholders through social interaction, like 1:1 meetings or dinners. Meeting in-person can establish a relationship much stronger than relying on phone or email correspondence.

With the holidays approaching, Fox reminded conference-goers that the shortcut to happiness is doing for others, which can include acts of service through time or energy.

Take time to go beyond your job description: what is one thing, big or small, you can do for someone else? These are the moments that define us as leaders, teammates and friends.  

  1.  Show up, slow down and listen.

One of the most exciting parts of the conference for many of our members was hearing from Bob Woodward, the renowned journalist involved in breaking the Watergate story.

Woodward shared thoughtful pieces of advice and media insights, including one that resonated with our members the most – “The four most important words to practice using are ‘I need your help.’”

He was speaking specifically about building relationships with the people he was writing stories on, but these powerful words are relevant in all aspects of our lives as incoming professionals. 

I love the mentality of never being afraid to ask,” said Gabi Avella, PRSSA SJSU Treasurer. 

Woodward emphasized that one of the best things PR professionals and members of the media can do in our fractured political landscape is to become great listeners.

“We are in an age where we have a problem with listening,” Woodward said.

Thanks to the rise of social media, Woodward added that a new problem has emerged: rapid-fire posting. Because of the way we disseminate information quickly, everyone is now a “reporter” in their own right.

“We need to slow down and see how a situation unfolds,” he said. “Let the silence suck out the truth.”

This is especially relevant for crisis communicators, as sometimes the best strategy an organization can take in the face of a media crisis is to wait for the truth. With users on social media ready to spring into action, an organization must be prepared to calmly defend its values, refusing to add fuel to a growing fire.

Woodward continued the conversation with a profound eye-opener about how to get people comfortable enough to “spill their guts.”

“Show up,” he said. “Everybody does things online these days. We’ve got to convince people that we take them as seriously as they take themselves.” 

This, of course, takes patience, but as he pointed out: the best relationships in PR and communications always take time to build. Remembering that we are in the business of people – hosting them and telling their stories – will set the foundation for us to do impactful work. 

Take control of your path toward success! Think strategically, plan ahead, use timelines and be a pro in your specific area!

The PRSSA chapter at SJSU had a blast soaking up these incredible insights at this year’s International Conference. We can’t wait for #PRSSAIC2020 in Nashville, Tennessee!