As the university year gets underway, many second year PR students up and down the country will be telling themselves that Freshers is a distant memory, this is the time ‘ to get serious’ and that ‘the real work starts here’.
Within their first week of being back, they will have been told numerous times about the option of taking an industrial placement year – a year that will improve their employability, will give them an inside view of the working world of PR, help them gain more contacts and provide a platform to aid with the dreaded D-word (dissertation, that is). It’s a tough decision to make and understandably, all sorts of questions will go through their minds: could I cope with the transition? Would I get real PR experience or simply be chief tea maker; and most importantly – would it all be worth it?
I was in this position less than two years ago. Just going into the second year of the Public Relations course at Leeds Met and not quite sure of all the options available to me, I was hit by the overwhelming pressure to do a placement year, where the competition was tough and the work is even tougher.
Listen to advice
After numerous lectures from PR graduates, tutors and placement advisers, I decided that, given the competitive nature of the PR industry, a year-long placement would undoubtedly be the right option for me. Then came the second wave of questions – in-house or consultancy? Do I pack up and leave Leeds and travel to the capital? What about Bubbles and Ricky (they’re my pet goldfish)?
After applying for a few placements, I came across Leeds-based charity Heart Research UK, which recruits a PR student each year for the role of ‘PR officer’. After researching the organisation (something all PR students should naturally do to help get your foot in the door) I realised that, for quite a small charity, they have an impressive history and have shaped how we treat heart disease today. It certainly would be a change from working for PR consultancies, promoting a range of consumer products.
After accepting the position, I was determined to make the most of this great opportunity which would add more strings to my bow and allow me to gain a wealth of knowledge.
Range of tasks and experiences
From the very first day when I sat at my desk, until the very last of packing up my documents, I continuously gained valuable experiences within several areas of PR: writing press releases and feature articles, arranging photo-calls and introducing the hot-topic of social media to promote the organisation. I even dipped my feet into a bit of marketing and fundraising tasks by attending events, updating the website and also writing and proofing the charity’s in-house magazine, which has a circulation of 12,000 people – one of my proudest achievements.
Like most not-for-profit organisations we had a small budget to work with, so emphasis was placed on spreading the word of the charity through PR activities.
This meant that writing press releases and issuing photo calls took up a lot of my working day. As the only PR officer, I had the responsibility of creating and managing my own workload and had the freedom to discover potential stories and write them, taking a specific angle. For each printed piece, I would get a buzz knowing my work was being read by people across the country.
Sure, my efforts had been printed during previous short-term placements, but it didn’t compare to writing, proofing and sending out my very own press release with the fancy title of ‘PR officer’ in the ‘Sender’ box. It also meant I was able to build up relationships with regional and national journalists and see what effects this had on the quality of coverage. Usually, because I was working for a good cause, the journalists were also extremely nice – a rare experience for some PR practitioners!
Other key areas that took up a lot of the working day included promoting the newest medical grants, issuing a ‘Health Tip of the Week’ to specialist media, attending internal and external meetings to give PR input and assisting with publicity materials for up and coming events. All this work meant so much variety and although it’s a cliché to say it, no two days were the same. I was constantly given new work by different departments to complete, so I was extremely lucky that I was never left twiddling my thumbs, nor did I get asked to make a tea round or shred a huge pile of papers.
A matter of life and death
Many may be thinking the serious subject of coronary heart disease and the glamorous world of PR don’t exactly go hand in hand, and on some levels they’re quite right. I put in lots of hard work learning the facts about heart disease, doing the monotonous daily jobs such as the logging and filing and generally going that extra mile, but this certainly paid off as I was invited to be an ambassador for the charity at several fundraising initiatives. Within my first few months, I attended the Transplant Games and presented medals to the youngest category alongside the Mayor and Mayoress of Sheffield, attended a glitzy pamper evening organised by the charity called ‘Love your Heart’ and went to the Wakefield Christmas Lights switch on, where a choir was singing to raise funds for the charity.
Perhaps I missed out on receiving bundles of freebies and mingling with big names, but my placement was worthwhile and rewarding in different ways.
During these fundraising events, I met inspirational people who were more than happy to tell fascinating stories of their experience with heart disease, in turn raising awareness of Britain’s biggest killer. The placement certainly did open my eyes, not only from a PR perspective, but showed that PR is vital within charities to educate and alert people to the effects of illness.
Overall, my experience of doing a public relations placement has been nothing but positive. Not only have I left Heart Research UK with an impressive placement to put on my CV and a range of portfolio pieces, but it has also helped my confidence, time management and general office skills, to name a few. As for my dissertation, I have already formed a good, solid topic on the charity sector, due to connections I have made within the industry – another thing to cross off the checklist and make the final year as stress free as possible.
So to any of those who are unsure about whether or not to do a placement year – I say go for it. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Talk to others in their fourth year, I’m sure they’d say the same. PR is all about passion and proactivity and if you, as a student, demonstrate this through a year-long placement, you will reap the benefits, turning in the process from being a PR student into a PR practitioner.