What My Public Relations Degree Didn’t Teach Me

public relations degree

Part one of a mini-series on education and being a millennial in the world of PR, from some of our young professionals at A.wordsmith.

In 2014, I graduated with my master’s degree in public communication and finally headed out into the “real world.” Since I basically went straight from my undergraduate studies to my graduate program, I hadn’t yet had my true introduction to the public relations field. I was armed with a lot of knowledge, research, and some experience with in-house PR departments, and eager to apply what I’d spent the past six years of my life studying.

However, in the past two years, I’ve discovered that there are some things about being a PR professional that college just didn’t teach me. I had the public relations degree, theoretical background, the critical thinking skills, and the writing ability, but I wasn’t prepared for some of the important facets of PR that school couldn’t provide a lesson plan for. Most PR professionals learn a lot as they go, and continue to learn throughout their career, so I know I’m not alone. However, I’d like to share the top three things my college education didn’t teach me to help other new PR pros get a head start:

No one knows what PR is

public relations degree

You will quickly discover that no one will understand what you do when you say “I work in public relations.” It seems super obvious to us, because we’ve spent our college life immersed in the industry and worked with professors who have years of experience. Your family won’t quite get it and occasionally even the clients you work with may even be confused by what you do. Early on, practice an elevator pitch that describes what public relations is and what you do for work. If you don’t understand what you do well enough to describe it at fifth grade level to others, you probably don’t know the PR field well enough. Creating this elevator pitch is a good exercise to highlight what you’d like to know more about yourself.

Quality wins over quantity

As a new professional fresh out of school, you probably have dreams of your clients appearing in the New York Times, Good Morning America, and Vogue –all in the same month! PR is all about the big wins and the glam, right? Well, not always. Hang on to these goals, because (for the right clients) they’re great long term ideas. However, you will quickly find these are stretch goals for even well-known companies. Most of your wins will come in the form of local news and industry outlets. Outlets you’d never heard of previously will soon become a source of excitement for you when your client is mentioned in them after a month-long conversation with an editor. These publications are often targeted more specifically to your client’s audience than large national outlets and get the content in front of the right people. It’s also often better to get one, well placed piece than a bunch of mentions in outlets that aren’t right for your client’s audience. Someday your client might be sitting down for an interview with Matt Lauer, but for now you’ll find plenty to be proud of when their article in your local newspaper goes live.

There’s not a template for this

While each class is different, much of college follows a similar format: come to class, take notes, complete your projects following the guidelines. Though there are certain ways of doing things in PR and sometimes you can follow a guide in certain documents (like press releases) ultimately, good PR doesn’t happen with a template. You won’t get very far using the same email pitch to every reporter you reach out to. Every pitch, project, and client deserves an individual strategy and considerations. Templates can be a starting point, but true PR happens when we work beyond the traditional format and take risks.

Look for part 2 of this series next week!

 Have you Heard These Clever PR Terms?


As a word junkie, I’m always excited to uncover a new language resource. I recently stumbled upon Word Spy, a site that indexes clever PR terms and novel or underappreciated words and phrases. It’s unique in that it tracks neologisms that are both useful and usable. As the site describes, “Word Spy…[looks] for fresh words and phrases that aren’t mere ‘stunt words’ or ‘sniglets’ that were coined once and then never used again.”

Poking around Word Spy is an intriguing way to waste the better part of an afternoon, but it might come in handy during a writing project when the words just don’t feel quite right…


Word Spy Words

My favorites of the site’s clever PR terms and writing words

When good writers can’t find the topic…

clever pr terms

They turn to default stories…

clever pr terms

Or social media…

clever pr terms

They go all in with the nouns…

clever pr terms

But still stick to good grammar…

clever pr terms

Even if they’re twisting the story a bit…

clever pr terms


More fun at Word Spy.

From Points to Pixels—Marketing Digital Content in Print Media

We’re in a weird spot right now—digital content is an essential part of any marketing campaign, but we’re also still producing a lot of print materials. We can build beautiful, comprehensive campaigns, but the way these two types of media interact with each other is a little awkward.

I was recently working on some print collateral for a client, and came across a challenge for which I didn’t have a great solution. Without requiring a user to type in a URL, how do we drive recipients of a printed postcard to a corresponding landing page in a slick, mobile-friendly way?

This guy's excited about QR codes.

This guy’s excited about QR codes.

QR Codes

“A QR code, obviously!” you say. The QR code was our best bet for a few years. The codes can be scanned to bring up a webpage from a printed piece. But, they’re ugly. And users have to have the appropriate scanning app. And they just never really caught on in a big way (thank goodness, says the designer).

Surely there’s an alternative by now?

I did some quick research, and the answer is yes! But each has its own twist.

image scanning

Image Scanning

There are a number of image scanning options, but they all work a little differently, and each has its positives and negatives.

Google Goggles (different than Google Glass) allows a user to take a photo of a printed image or barcode, and then it performs an image-based search to pick the best match. Cool! But it’s only available on Android…not as cool.

From what I can tell, SnapTag takes a similar approach to the QR code, in that you scan a custom-built barcode image to pull up digital content. As their site says, “SnapTag mobile barcodes are like interactive buttons for the real world.” Perfect! Prettier code, simple interactivity. But they require a hefty monthly engagement to use their tool, so it’s not something I can quickly leverage for many clients.

Clickable Paper uses hotspots rather than barcodes or marks, so the user can scan over that spot in an image to pull up content. It looks cool, but it does require an app download, and I’m not clear on how to engage the service based on the information on their site.

blippar augmented reality

Blippar offers robust “augmented reality campaigns.”

Augmented Reality

Blippar call itself a “visual discovery browser” that focuses on “augmented reality campaigns” on mobile. It’s a much more robust tool, with some really cool interactivity. In a quick test, I was able to assign links to an image, then use the Blippar app to immediately call up those links when pointing my phone at the image. However, it does require an app download, and the tutorial required for new users makes it a little tricky to implement on smaller print pieces, so it’s better for bigger outlets like magazines with lots of rich media offerings. Maybe it will catch on in a big way, making for less of a learning curve among users.

nfc_moo offers NFC business cards with their ‘Business Cards+’ product.

NFC technology

I wrote a post awhile back about NFC enabled business cards. Printed pieces with an embedded NFC chip need only be tapped by an NFC compatible device to pull up a range of digital destinations (contact information, websites, social media profiles, etc.). Printing these pieces can be a little spendy compared to standard prints, and you’d have to hope that most users are carrying around a compatible device. But this is an interesting option for the right project.

No silver bullet

All that said, there doesn’t seem to be a very simple or widely adopted solution for basic print-to-digital actions at this point. But it seems like we are very, very close.

Did I miss any? Has your brand used any print-to-digital action technologies or apps? I’d love to hear about them.

How Brands Can Use Nostalgia

nostalgia marketing

It’s become almost an annual joke that Americans love fall so much. Mid-summer, plenty of your Facebook friends were probably posting about how much they’re looking forward to pumpkin patches, apple picking, and the sacred pumpkin spice latte. The autumn-love is at a fever pitch now that October is here, but just why do we all love this time of year so much? It’s the nostalgia.

Autumn and winter are seasons steeped in tradition and memories for many Americans. We gather at homecoming football games, share gifts with our loved ones at the several holidays scattered throughout the season, and reflect on what the past year has brought us. It’s a time where we remember the simpler periods of our lives, and spend quality time with those closest to us. Nostalgia makes people happy. Millennials in particular love nostalgia as shown by the popularity of Pokemon Go and the #tbt (Throwback Thursday) hashtag.

Brands can get to know their audience better through nostalgic marketing, and in turn help their customer base better understand their company culture. Here’s three ways your brand can tap into nostalgia in your communications this fall:

#TBT – Get Personal

One of the most popular hashtags across all social media platforms, #TBT is an easy way to connect with users. Don’t limit yourself to just posting stock pictures of a six pack of Surge; use real life photos from your staff! Baby photos, embarrassing prom pictures, and 90’s Nerf battles at a family reunion are all prime for sharing in the hashtag. You can also share photos from your company’s beginnings and memories including past office photos, last year’s office bake-off, and previous logo designs.

nostalgic marketing

Good Stories Weren’t Created by Digital Platforms

Storytelling is as old as life itself. Though digital platforms allow us to tell stories in new ways, these tools certainly didn’t create storytelling. Take a step back and reflect on how you used to hear stories when you were young. What made your grandfather’s war stories so riveting? How did you feel when listening to a scary story around a campfire with your fellow troop members? The tales you remember from your childhood and the storytellers that shared them can help illuminate the key parts of a good story. Use these components in your marketing pieces. You can even do a campaign around nostalgic stories directly, as long as it makes sense for your brand.

What’s Old in PR is New Again

Public relations is a constantly changing field, and brands are likely using very different tactics than they were 20 years ago. However, some of those “old” ideas can be worth dusting off and implementing in the digital sphere. We have lots of tools to communicate with users and engage with them individually, and yet, many users still feel that brands’ digital presences is highly impersonal. Consider how you would have reached individuals in your audience pre-internet. While you probably aren’t going to have the time to start knocking on doors and meeting the people who make up your consumer base, you can still reach out through digital media with the same enthusiasm. With every communication, remember there are real people on the other side of the screen. Look for ways to reach out to your social media audience individually – utilize live streaming to allow them to ask questions that you can answer by name, go the extra mile with a customer service complaint on Twitter and give them something they wouldn’t expect, or crowd source photos from your audience to make your new social media banner.

Five Key Elements of a Successful Funding Announcement

five key elements of a successful funding announcement

Congratulations – your startup has received a mega round of funding. You have just a few weeks until the announcement date and while the planning process will be fast and furious, the strategy must be buttoned up to ensure success. Like any corporate news, a successfully executed funding announcement will take thoughtful planning, a well-designed strategy and collaboration among many stakeholders.

With funding news making headlines every day at publications such as TechCrunch and Fortune Term Sheet, you may wonder how your startup can stand out. While every campaign will look a bit different, here are five key elements of a successful funding announcement.

  • Clear and concise talking points: Early on in the planning process, work with your PR team to develop talking points. Address topics such as investor participation, the company’s plans for using the funding and specific growth figures that can (or cannot) be shared publicly. Ensuring the team is on the same page about specific facts and key FAQs ahead of media outreach will set everyone up for success.


  • Collaboration with leadership: Aside from major personnel announcements or introducing a new product to market, funding is often a startup’s most important piece of news in a year. Engaging with leadership – including the CEO and founders, board members and perhaps the investors as well – and ensuring the key players are all involved in the planning process will help the announcement go off without a hitch. It’s also an opportunity to get the C-suite excited about their PR program, which will promote success for the team beyond the funding news campaign.


  • A targeted media list: While the importance of a media list is critical to any successful PR campaign, it’s worth reiterating that the success of the funding announcement relies on it. Keep the initial list of targets short and targeted to those who have a strong reputation for honoring embargoes. Aside from national business press, remember the importance of engaging local media as well – particularly if the company is in an emerging tech market outside of the Bay Area.


  • Employee communications: It’s the hard work of your employees that has contributed to this exciting moment for the company, so use it as a reason to celebrate. Ensure that employees are looped in on the announcement once it publishes, and share any news articles throughout the company to get everyone excited about the milestone.


  • Ongoing thought leadership: After the funding news has gone live, recognize that it’s just the beginning of an ongoing thought leadership campaign. Use the opportunity to engage with local media through in-person “meet and greets” over coffee, develop a platform for contributed articles and speaking opportunities, and seek out timely topics to reengage with business press who you spoke with through the funding outreach.


five key elements of a successful funding announcement

A funding announcement is an exciting opportunity to engage with national tech and business press (often for the first time), and begin carving a stake in the ground in the industry. The secret behind rapid growth of startups like AirbnbUber and Snapchat can be attributed to a special formula that includes strategic funding, an innovative product, consumer interest and of course, a great PR strategy.

The Misconceptions of Public Relations

You may not realize it, but you are exposed to the fruits of public relations every day, in every medium. From social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook to traditional media like television, newspaper and radio, many of the pieces you enjoy are the direct result of a public relations professional doing her job. There are many misconceptions of public relations that the public takes as fact, but to be successful in PR, it’s important to separate the myths from the facts. Here are some of the top misconceptions that should be dissected.

It’s quick and easy.

Getting results overnight would not only be a great win, it would probably be incredibly cost effective. But, that reality is rarely the case. Often times organizations expect instant results – something similar to the “Oprah effect”. It’s important to set expectations with your team, and yourself, that slow and steady is the way to go to achieve quality results that will last.

PR and advertising are the same thing.

Public relations and advertising are under the same marketing umbrella, but are two very different tactics. Think of it this way – advertising is a first party approach to a conversation. The words that are shared come directly from the organization, therefore leaving customers often questioning motives. Public relations, on the other hand, comes from a third party voice. Knowing that a story was crafted from a neutral source provides it a credibility that money just can’t buy.

Any press is good press.

There’s an old saying, “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say someft18i6u09othing about me, and as long as you spell my name right.” Hollywood icon George Cohan may have been seeing stars in his eyes when he said that, but it’s very clear he didn’t live in the paparazzi-crazed era. The idea being that any ink is good ink can be a losing strategy when the negative outweighs the benefit.

PR pros are spin-doctors.

The misconception that PR professionals are spin doctors is a tale as old as time. The idea that our beloved profession is all about trickery and deception, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our profession is about building relationships and telling effective stories. Much like the media, if we lose the public’s trust in our storytelling, then we lose all footing.

It’s all luck.

Those who are not in the industry may not understand the mass amount of work and effort behind each media pitch. From researching the outlets, finding the right media contact, drafting the pitch and engaging with the reporter, the work we do is far from just luck. The reality is that we strategize each element carefully so that everything that happens is not luck of the draw. If you know what you’re doing, securing results is made easier.

It’s a 9-to-5 job.

A PR professional’s job is never complete. Even when you’re home in the evenings, your brain is never completely turned off. Scanning social media or seeing a news report – your mind is always engaged dreaming up a new strategy.

Beautiful Product Packaging on a Budget

Between Kickstarter, Etsy, Shopify, Amazon, e-commerce plugins, etc., it’s easier than ever to sell products direct to consumer. However, many solopreneurs and startups don’t have big budgets for product packaging, and yet they certainly want packaging that reflects the quality of their products. There are some creative options to consider that allow for custom branding, clean and professional presentation, and insurance that the enclosed products are handled with care. Here are some of my favorite ideas:

Branded tape

A plain white, black, or kraft paper box is the easiest thing to pretty up—it’s affordable and it looks classy and clean. Additionally, it’s easily recyclable, which is perfect for brands aiming to practice their environmentally-friendly mission. Branded tape is practical, effective, and fun.


Package design for Mita Chocolate Co.


Busy Beaver Button Co. Branded Tape


Printing can get expensive, especially on unique surfaces or custom-designed packages. Stamps are an elegant way to brand existing packaging materials bought in bulk. Varying ink colors by product line, or using white inks can add extra visual interest.


Coffee packaging for Jacu

Teal and Tea Stamp

Teal and Tea Stamp


Printing even large stickers will be less expensive than printing directly on boxes or bags, and if the product changes, replacing the packaging is that much easier. Plus they add a fun “break the seal” aspect to a package.


Packaging for Real Food Botanica


PTH MMXIV FW Collection Branding/Packaging

Creative filler

It’s depressing to think about how many Styrofoam peanuts are just sitting in landfills. (Still.) Luckily, companies are thinking outside the box on how to pad items in more budget- and environmentally-friendly ways. My mom used to send me care packages packed in real popcorn. (Sure, it was stale by the time it got to me, but compostable!) Perhaps popcorn isn’t a good solution for products, but what about wood shavings?


Creative packaging for Etsy products

Design matters

Even the simplest packaging substrates and structures look professional and top-tier if they are designed well. If you invest in quality graphic design for the elements that will be printed, purchase solid base materials, and put in the time and effort to package in-house, you will delight customers with a package that inspires excitement and anticipation for the items contained within.

Thought Leadership the Hard Way

guy who likes thought leadership

A lot of PR pros are eager to tell you how easy it is to be a thought leader: “3 Simple Ways to Become a Thought Leader in 15 Minutes or Less,” “How to Become a Thought Leader in a Month or Less,” and “You Can Be A Thought Leader: The Secret To Being Inspiring.”

They’re wrong. Becoming (and being) a thought leader is not simple, it takes more than a couple weeks, and there’s no one single secret. Thought leadership requires time, patience, and hard work. A.wordsmith specializes in thought leadership, but we don’t make thought leaders. They have to shape, develop and nurture their own abilities. We just help them figure out how they can become one. We help thinkers lead and leaders think.

Helping thinkers lead

old book

Some of the world’s greatest minds remain in the shadows. Emily Dickinson is remembered as one of the greatest American poets of all time, but she was virtually invisible during her lifetime. A noted introvert, she published only 10 poems until her sister discovered nearly 1,800 compositions in the years after her death. Dickinson was a known introvert and by all accounts preferred to dazzle us gradually, but not all great thinkers are so eager to wait for posthumous celebrity. Unfortunately however, genius doesn’t always come with a great PR plan.

So how does one go from thinker to thought leader? Leaders need to communicate and influence followers. To grow, thought leaders-to-be have to focus on their audience. Who are they trying to influence? How can those people be reached? Are they reading newspapers, attending conferences or listening to podcasts? Once an audience has been established, we prompt the client through expressing their message. Knowing a story, telling a story, and sharing a story are all different things, requiring unique strategies and skills.

Helping leaders think


On the other hand, sometimes people in leadership positions make mistakes with their message. Elizabeth Holmes founded the medical testing service Theranos in 2003. The company’s technology was said to have the “potential to change health care for millions of Americans.” She became a media darling and curated an image as a startup genius and thought leader, complete with black turtlenecks and speeches at the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2016, after a scandalous investigation into the company’s allegedly unethical methods and communications, she was banned by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from owning or operating a lab.

Holmes is clearly a brilliant woman with a knack for leadership, but she took what could have still been an influential position and made mistake after unethical mistake. With the appropriate communications support, could she have kept to the straight and narrow and still used that advantage to gain the respect of the Silicon Valley elite?

Though most aren’t under federal investigation, many of our clients come to us from prominent or leadership positions – startup founders, industry experts, CEOs. They have a soapbox, and perhaps even a mouthpiece, but they’re not sure exactly how to translate their experience and expertise into thought leadership. Our team prompts them through that process, interviewing, researching, identifying the stories that these leaders didn’t even realize they had.


Leaders who aren’t thinking and thinkers who aren’t leading are doing themselves a disservice. In this increasingly connected world, telling an impactful story and reaching an audience is both easier and harder than ever. It takes only three things: thought, leadership, and hard work.


A version of this post was published on

How to Communicate a Business Name Change

There are a number of reasons organizations change their names, from mergers or company splits (Anderson Consulting to Accenture in 2001) to wanting to better align their names with an evolving service or product line (Apples Computer to Apple in 2007) or even distance themselves from a product in the portfolio (Phillip Morris to Altria Group in 2003).

It can be an expensive and time-consuming process – Inc. Magazine estimates that the cost of a business name change, which often requires rebranding too, can range anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, depending on the size of the business. There are also a number of regulatory steps required, from notifying the IRS to updating contracts.

The key to the success of a name change, however, hinges on how well you communicate that change to employees, customers and partners.  Creating a communications plan that includes six key steps will help your organization’s name change go off without a hitch.

  1. Begin with your employees. Your teams are the face of the organization to customers and partners alike, and it is of critical importance that they understand why the name is changing and be able to explain it, succinctly. Hold staff meetings and offer Q&A sessions to help your teams understand why the change is important – and do this well in advance of launching the new company name. Provide talking points for employees at all levels, and make sure that any policies about speaking to the media are understood throughout the organization.rename
  2. Inventory your marketing materials. From your website to business contracts and company letterhead, minimize confusion or inconvenience for your customers. Don’t forget about social media profiles and email signature lines. Any collateral in use needs to be reexamined and rebranded.
  3. Announce the name change publicly, with a multichannel approach. If you are notifying customers by email, follow up with a letter mailed to their place of business. Reach out to relevant media with a press release and consider placing an ad in key publications, if the name change is a significant one. Use your website to host the press release, FAQs, a video and a letter from the CEO. Explain the rationale behind the name change, but in less detail than you did with employees.
  4. Announce it again, in another way. There’s no such thing as overcommunication when announcing a business name change.
  5. Flip the switch. Pick a day for your switchover and ensure that your customers, partners and suppliers see your new name, not the old one, on all marketing materials. Many organizations have a transition period in which materials have a message along the lines of “new name, same excellent service,” or a temporary logo that incorporates the old and the new, but all materials and communications should switch over to the new name at the same time.
  6. Go big. Don’t miss an opportunity to connect with customers and get out in front of new ones. Consider hosting an event to celebrate the launch, such as a happy hour or meet and greet. Or perhaps offer a promotion or discount aligned with the announcement. Don’t forget to reach out to industry and local media to not only announce the name change but also invite them to any events or offer any promotions.


Branding is more important today than ever before, and your company’s name is the public face of your brand. Changing it requires a thoughtful approach that ensures your investment pays dividends.

Top 4 Takeaways from Art + Science of Storytelling across Platforms


I recently had the opportunity to attend a PRSA webinar presented by Geoff Livingston and Andrew Gilman called the Art and Science of Storytelling across Platforms. Given that a huge portion of a PR professional’s job is crafting stories for their clients, this topic was relevant and applicable. Here are my top takeaways from the webinar:

Emotion and fact are the building blocks for your story

“No facts without stories and no stories without facts” – this was one of the first messages the presenter pressed. This is a useful framework through which to filter story concepts. When building a story for a client, start with a headline. Ensure the headline is factual and straightforward—but also unique and with emotional interest. Gilman used an example of UPS and their “no left turns” story.  Their headline UPS values sustainability, is factual, but generic and did not differentiate UPS from their competitors. However, adding the interest element, UPS values sustainability—never takes left turns provides a differentiating factor and unique appeal.

Gilman also recommends crafting a story that can be localized to smaller markets. For instance in the UPS example, a PR professional could pitch to their local outlet and encourage them to follow UPS drivers and see the story for themselves.

Consider a communication wheel

Once the story has been built for the client, it’s time to consider your platform options. Gilman presented the option of creating a strategic communications wheel for your client. The wheel has the client at the center with all the forms of communicating their message as the spokes. Laying out all of the possibilities in a visual can show the breadth of opportunities available.


Pick your media venue

The primary media venue will determine your primary platform. Livingston recommends that the primary outlet reach the broadest audience possible. The type of content may determine your primary venue—e.g. if there’s video content you may use YouTube or Vimeo. Once you have your primary platform selected it’s crucial to have all secondary and tertiary outlets connect to it. Secondary outlets should appeal to a more specialized audience—they may provide more details or insider information that would attract a more enthusiastic group. Which secondary outlet platforms are best depends on the story, but they tend to be social media outlets and blogs.

Repeat your message—not your story

Do not copy and paste your message onto all your platforms. No one wants to read the same word-for-word content on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—the content should be tweaked for each. Consider the key elements of your story, then consider the platform and audience. How can it be reshaped to fit a new platform? In-depth, lengthier content? Visual imagery? Interactive elements? Use these questions to make changes to the story as you spread your message across different media.