Lessons from the J School: Foundations for Success in the ‘Real World’

As a student, I often wondered exactly how relevant my studies would be to my job one day. Like many of my peers, I worked from dawn until, well, the next dawn, on papers and projects that, at the time, just mattered for a grade. A few months out of school and into my career, it turns out my education from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has served me very well. I’ve discovered what I learned in class is extremely relevant to a career in the new age of public relations and corporate communications. Below are valuable lessons I learned in college and leverage today at my first post-grad position at Wye Communications.

Fundamentals are fundamental

The first class that students take after acceptance to UW’s Journalism School is an intensive introduction course known as “journalism bootcamp.” The class teaches the foundations of mass communication practices, from how to research for and write a news story, to understanding AP style – R.I.P. Oxford commas – and getting used to the pressure of strict deadlines.

As much of PR aligns with the media, knowing how to function like a journalist is critical to success, and everything I learned in that class I’m using today. I write press releases and bylines in a similar format of news stories, conduct research to inform strategies and approaches to content, compile and analyze media coverage, and take plenty of notes – just like in class – all within the confines of various deadlines set by managers and clients. Not only are these communication, organization and time management skills important to PR, they are fundamental to being a good employee in any industry.

Understanding your audience is important

In public relations, audience is king, and for the PR professional, many times that audience is journalists. Lessons from my reporting classes have been so beneficial in understanding what the PR audience, journalists and editors need to serve the news cycle and meet their editorial threshold.

At Wyecomm, I have learned how to capture journalists’ attention based on foundations from school. I’m learning everything you do when pitching a story idea must capture the attention of a reporter or you won’t get coverage, let alone a response to your email. First, you need to find the right reporter to pitch based on their beat and previous coverage. You must write a press release that is factual and not too promotional. The pitch note has to be exciting and concise, as journalists get hundreds of emails a day. You even need to contact them at the right time for the highest chances of response.

In general, knowing who you are communicating to – be it reporters, clients or consumers – and their tendencies is essential for crafting messages that will resonate with them and inspire action.

Be careful of mistakes

Another major lesson from journalism school is to always check your work for mistakes. If you turned in an assignment with an incorrect detail or misspelling, it counted as a fact error, resulting in the deduction of 10 points from your grade. While the real world doesn’t deduct points when you publish something incorrect, it does deduct credibility and reputation. Presenting imperfect or inaccurate work to clients risks your own image as well as your organization’s. And when bad work is presented to the public on behalf of your clients, most seriously, their reputation is at risk.

The stakes are higher

That being said, the stakes are much higher at a PR agency and in the overall professional world than in school. As a student, the only person who hurts is yourself when you don’t work your hardest. Repercussions have a much broader reach in the professional world. In an agency, if you don’t perform well, you, your company and your client can suffer. Self-awareness and responsibility are key for being successful as a dependable, trustworthy employee.

It’s still all about balance

While the weight of the work is different, working full-time is not dissimilar from school as a whole. Classes, group projects, involvement in student orgs, volunteering and, oh, maybe sleep cause you to balance a lot of different work throughout each semester. The same is true in the agency world. With multiple clients, you must manage your time effectively to prioritize tasks and meet their deadlines, while hopping between clients and projects is comparable to switching gears to work on different class assignments. Knowing how to balance and prioritize your work in an agency setting is paramount or you won’t succeed.

My education gave me a fantastic foundation to my career in the communications industry, while my summer internship and now, employment with Wyecomm is nurturing my skills and sharpening the tools I need to succeed as a communications professional. Though changing realities have brought challenges to the news industry – with less reporters, tighter deadlines in a 24-hour news cycle and pressure for advertising dollars – it’s encouraging to see that foundations of journalism prepare young adults like myself with the skillsets to succeed within the confines of today’s corporate environment.