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My APR Journey

Michael Vannest, APR

If you want to change how you conduct public relations strategy, if you want to learn how to gain a seat at the management table and if you want to grow professionally, then make earning your APR in 2019 your next personal goal. Those three little letters not only change how you work in the PR field but will transform you personally and professionally.

My journey was spread out across 19 months culminating on January 12, 2019 with the word “pass” plastered on my computer screen in a stuffy testing center. After raising my arms in celebration of the achievement, I got into my car and before I started the engine, I reflected for a moment on this journey and smiled because I knew how much my professional life had changed.

For me, the constant thirst for learning and gaining knowledge in my career field has always been fueled by my desire to succeed. Seeing the APR as a chance to broaden my PR skills, I went to a luncheon event hosted by my local PRSA chapter in the spring of 2017. At the luncheon I heard from a local member who just obtained her APR. In her presentation she outlined the benefits of accreditation and why one should pursue. From that moment I was hooked on the challenge of gaining my APR. After the luncheon I “ripped off the band-aid” and dove into the studying process. The first thing I did was plan my approach. I set my target exam date and worked backwards from there to create my studying schedule. I downloaded and placed in a binder the APR Study Guide from the Universal Accreditation Board and bought Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics from Amazon. I thought six months would be enough. Boy, was I wrong.

Upon beginning my studies, I quickly realized I basically had no clue how to properly conduct PR from a strategic standpoint. The terms, theories and communication models as well as learning the RPIE process (research, planning, implementation and evaluation) proved to be cumbersome and overwhelmingly difficult to digest. It was at this moment I realized six months to be ready for my exam was ambitious and not realistic. I needed to regroup and take more time to study.

In January 2018, as I continued to study, I began to talk to some local APR’s about the process and they all told me the same thing – “Take the online APR class.” The online class is $195. Without hesitation I registered. Little did I know this would be the game changer on my journey.

The online class is a self-paced, 10 module APR preparation course that included a weekly meeting where we reviewed potential exam questions, listened to current APR’s give their exam advice, discussed the online course modules and gave practice presentations on case studies. We also had the opportunity to deliver our panel presentations as practice for the real thing.

The online class proved to be invaluable for me. Not only did it help work out confusion on terms and models, it also gave me confidence in my studies. In addition, I learned early on from fellow classmates about the “Bible of PR” book, Effective Public Relations by Carter and Cutlip. This book gave me the context to understand all the terms we learned in the online class. To all of those starting the APR process, I recommend purchasing this book. Though the online class is self-paced, I did the best I could to keep pace with the weekly meetings and the weekly studies suggested. Three months after using the class and Effective Public Relations I volunteered to give a practice panel presentation. In my opinion, I quickly bombed on the presentation. I used output objectives instead of outcome objectives. My strategies were tactics, and my goals seemed like a marketing plan goal instead of a strategic PR plan goal. After this I quickly, once again, adjust my target exam date.

With my confidence quickly falling, I reached out to the online class leader who gave me some sound advice on managing some of the terms. Primarily, the class leader helped me with understanding the difference between outcome and output objectives. He also pointed out that PR is all about RELATIONSHIPS and to apply everything you read and study in the APR journey to your daily work. With this knowledge in mind, things began to dramatically change.

Understanding how to use outcome objectives and focusing on research, planning, implementation and evaluation (the RPIE process) while applying it to my current job helped make things begin to click. I began to see how to formulate goals. I understood how research helped find holes in my company’s business plan and how we communicate to our clients and prospects.

With my new confidence and knowledge gained in the online studies and daily readings, I mapped out a new internal communications plan targeted at our current clients. I conducted an online survey with our clients asking them their thoughts and ratings on customer service and their overall satisfaction with our company. This research led me to develop the goals, objectives, strategies and tactics to create my plan. The research also gave me a baseline to evaluate my program against during and at the end of the campaign.

By July of 2018, grasping the concepts in the online class were coming together, but I still did not think I was quite there yet to begin the application process. So I decided to participate in one more session of weekly meetings and another review of the ten modules. Along the way I bought a house and got married!

With my marriage and house purchase I quickly found that having $400 around to submit my application didn’t exist - once again another change to the mythical test date. Only this time it would be the last.

While sitting at lunch with a coworker I was asked how the exam process was coming. I said, “Good but I keep pushing back my test date. Whether lack of confidence, timing or life events I always come up with a reason to move my goal date and push it out further.” A few hours later my coworker, who is also my direct report, came to me with an envelope and said, “Here is an early wedding present from the company.”

Inside was a check for $400 from the owner. Tears of joy began to stream down my face. Excitement ruled and I quickly filled out my application, stuffed an envelope with it and the check, and reached out to my local APR Chair. It was on! My application was approved on Sept. 21, 2018. My panel was set for Oct. 4. I was pumped but apprehensive. Was I truly ready? I didn’t know. All I knew was I needed to just do it and stop making excuses.

In the days leading up to my panel presentation, I put together a nice binder with my latest company internal communications campaign - the one I had created with my new RPIE knowledge. At the panel I was greeted by the APR Chair, who was relaxed and welcoming. I had two other panelists as well. We met at the APR Chair’s office. I was super nervous but once we started, I quickly calmed. It was a conversation plain and simple. Not a grilling. It was a conversation about how the exam is conducted and what to expect. A discussion of my presentation. What I learned. What I would change. After two hours of conversation, I said my goodbyes and was walked to the door by the APR Chair. She told me great job and that I would know within two hours of my results. Needless to say, I was on the edge of my seat! When I got home, I stared at my email and waited. It finally came. In the subject line: “APR Advancement. You passed with flying colors!” The journey continued.

One more read of Effective Public Relations cover to cover and it was time to take the exam. The exam was 177 questions. All questions were scenario-based and had no more than five answers to choose from. Some questions required two-to-three correct choices and all of them must be correct to receive credit for the question. You have three hours and 45 minutes to complete the test. Upon entering the exam room all you are allowed to be equipped with is a small whiteboard and dry erase marker.

I used all of my time given and when I got to the “submit your exam” screen, I paused, took a deep breath and clicked “Submit.” On the next screen all I saw was the word “pass.” I did it! I raised my arms in celebration and with a huge smile, left knowing I am an APR!

It’s an amazing process. If you are thinking of getting your APR in 2019, do it! I assure that you will not regret the decision. It will change you personally and professionally. If you are in the process of getting your APR, don’t give up. There will be struggles and you may get discouraged, but keep driving, keep studying, and I promise you will pass the exam.

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