An Iconic Trip to Nashville to Hear from PR Pros
Written by: Alexandra Holley, VP Publications
Every year, PRSA and PRSSA host an international conference to bring together student chapters, board members, general members and industry leaders. This year, I had the privilege of attending ICON in Nashville, Tennessee, with our vice president, Rhodes Reddick. Here’s a recap of my experience and key takeaways.
Sweet and Salty Social After arriving in Nashville, our first event was the “Sweet and Salty Social.” This was a very casual event that gave us the opportunity to network and meet other PRSSA students. We met executive board members from Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon and California. It was interesting to talk to each chapter about the similarities and differences in how PRSSA is run on different campuses. We had a bingo card with a list of challenges, including meeting someone from another state, connecting with someone on LinkedIn, complimenting someone’s outfit and taking a picture with the backdrop. This made it so much easier to approach people and make connections. There was also a scavenger hunt with PRSSA trivia. Rhodes and I both found all the answers and won PRSSA merch such as an umbrella, notepad and tote bag. Following the “sweet and salty” theme, there were two poster boards on which we could put a sticky note with our sweet and salty experiences in PR while they enjoyed chips and queso and desserts. This event was the perfect icebreaker to kick off our weekend and get us excited for what was to come.
Tennessee Toast Awards Breakfast We began Saturday with PRSSA’s awards breakfast, where we received the star chapter distinction. PRSA’s board introduced themselves, gave speeches, then presented awards and scholarships to students. We sat with the University of Southern California’s executive board, which was an awesome networking opportunity.
Saturday’s keynote address was presented by Amanda Brooks, ESPN’s director of communications. She discussed her journey from graduating with degrees in religion to working in sports communications, advising students to get experience through extracurriculars in the field they want to work in.
“Passion has always been at the forefront of my journey,” she said.
Brooks claimed that the spotlight on women in sports has never been brighter, highlighting that women in sports was named the 2023 Career of the Year by Barbie.
She offered advice for PR students looking to work in sports:
You don’t have to be an athlete to work in sports PR. Learn the basics, but don’t let your lack of knowledge or experience hold you back.
Be curious. Shadow people from multiple areas of sports PR to learn how everything works together and find the best fit for you.
Be flexible. Most things won’t go according to plan, so have backup plans C-H. Be willing to take on stretch assignments to broaden your skills and help your team.
Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. It is important to separate your work life from your personal life and not get caught up in things like gossip or drama.
The sports world is cyclical, and busy seasons are just that, seasonal. There is always light at the end of the tunnel during difficult times in your job; it’s up to you to choose whether that light is the sun or a train.
From Barbie to The Eras Tour: The Power of Viral Moments Our first PRSSA Professional Development session was hosted by Bri Reynolds, social media manager for Lyft. She explained the strategy behind brands’ most effective viral moments, such as McDonald’s’ “Grimace Shake” campaign. She outlined the elements of a viral social media campaign. Reynolds said brands must pick four out of the following six items to have a shot at achieving viral success: nostalgia, simplicity, community involvement, strong visual identity, answering a human want and having a large budget. In addition, she emphasized the importance of building off what’s happening in your community. If a trend is already circulating on social media, find a way to add your brand to the conversation. Many companies did this effectively with The Barbie Movie, including Lyft. Finally, she covered the importance of getting your brand onto “Niche Tok,” a subset of a social platform with a common interest. This may not get your campaign the most views or engagement, but the people who do see it will be highly interested and more likely to take the desired action.
Publicity Pivots: Strategies for Success in Your Dream Industry As a college student, it’s easy to feel the pressure of having it all figured out. You think you have to decide on choices such as which industry you want to work in, if you want to go into in-house or agency PR, and which city you want to work in. Alex Ebanks, vice president of communications at Essence, assured students that having it figured all out is never going to happen and shared her journey working across multiple industries in PR. She advised students to master 12 transferrable skills to be successful in any industry:
Writing is key, even in an email. Master clear, concise and correct writing now because it will never go away in the world of PR.
Do your research. If you’re meeting with a mentor, do your research beforehand so you can ask them specific questions. Research before you go into any meeting or planning process to prepare for success.
Lead with storytelling. Appeal to human interest and make people care.
Let your creativity shine.
Identify the right medium for your story.
For press releases, write out your ideal headline, then work through the message and media materials you need to provide the media outlet to get that headline.
Always think 360º and connect the dots.
Plan for all scenarios.
Make friends at all levels.
Do the job that no one else wants to do.
Bonus: Don’t tell people your dreams; show them.
From Campus to Career: Journeys in PR Our final professional development panel on Saturday was a panel featuring four industry professionals: Facundo Luque, Ashleigh Kathryn White, Shannon Briggs and Alyson Brandon. They discussed turning points and defining moments in their journeys, challenges they faced at the start of their careers, and emphasized the importance of having a strong professional network.
Each panelist provided their top advice for students about to enter the workforce:
Set goals but be OK with change. Stop thinking in 10-to-20-year plans and start thinking in two-year to three-year plans. Having long-term goals and being future-oriented is important, but you can’t plan everything out that far. Things will inevitably change, and your perspectives will also change.
Say “yes,” but remember to set boundaries. Saying “yes,” can open so many doors and present many opportunities, but it’s important not to overcommit yourself so that you can give your all to what you choose to commit to.
Master the foundations in your junior-level positions. Your first job is a great place to learn and prepare yourself for higher-level positions.
Intern and work at an agency post-graduation. You will get the opportunity to work on so many brands and get opportunities you wouldn’t get working in-house straight out of college. It’s also a great way to tailor your interests. Working in an agency for three-five years is a great way to master your skills before working in-house.
Learn to advocate for yourself and create a work/life balance. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning in work when you start, so it is crucial to learn when to say “no” and set boundaries.
Sunday Keynote: Winning Hearts and Minds
We began Sunday with a keynote address from Gina Laughlin, Delta’s vice president of global employee communications. She discussed how the PR profession has evolved; with the rise in social media, there is a lot more noise for communicators to cut through. There is so much misinformation in the media, and consumers expect companies to be a voice on issues that they may not always want to address. Despite all of the evolutions in PR, she asserted that the basics remain the same and shared Delta’s strategies for excellence in communications:
First and foremost, PR professionals are strategic counselors. Public relations is a strategic management function that guides business outcomes.
Writing still matters. PR practitioners need to tell the story of a brand.
Employee communications is part of who Delta is as a brand. Over time, highly engaged employees will help reduce turnover, have greater productivity levels, be more innovative and creative, and give back to the business.
Constantly ask for feedback.
Make sure you know your audience better than anyone else; get to know them and how to research them.
The future is bright — grab it and run! “There will always be a need for PR professionals.”
Sunday Session: Lessons Learned from Playing in the Sandbox
We ended our weekend with a session presented by Scott Panksy, co-founder and social impact lead of Allison & Partners. This session was inspired by the children’s book Pansky authored, “Playing in the Sandbox, which stresses the importance of playing nice, being creative and following your dreams. The major takeaway from this session was that professionals want to help you. He taught students best practices for creating relationships with professionals:
Follow-up with someone immediately. Most students take two weeks to send an email or LinkedIn request to a professional after meeting them at an event, but the sooner you reach out and make that connection, the better. Within 24 hours is recommended.
Keep up with your network, not just when you need something. Send them things you think they will find interesting, and ask them how they’re doing.
Set up informational interviews. Grab coffee with your mentors and learn as much as you can from them.
Do your research, and do not ask questions that can easily be answered with a Google search. Pansky’s least favorite question is, “How did you get your job?”
My weekend at PRSSA’s ICON was incredibly informative and inspiring. I left feeling so grateful to be part of PRSSA and excited to return to campus and get back to work. Two of the biggest takeaways professionals want students to know are the importance of networking and the value of developing strong writing. If you’re looking to practice your writing skills, sign up to write a blog for PRSSA’s website by emailing our VP of publications.