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Insights from PRSSA International Conference

By Zach Ferenchak, Capital University, Class of 2021, PRSSA Chapter President

Not too long ago I was in beautiful and sunny San Diego, CA for the PRSSA International Conference. This was my second year in a row attending what is considered the largest gathering of PR students in the United States and it was just as special as the first year.

I come back to Central Ohio with new insights, new connections, and a new sense of inspiration and energy to bring back to my local PRSA/PRSSA community. Below I will recap some of my favorite moments and insights from this weekend of professional development.

Will Collie: Building the PR engine and planning for your career

Will Collie, General Manager of Southern California for Edelman, delivered the first keynote address of the conference. He spoke on what some of his best practices were for PR, as well as the status of the industry today.

One insight that stood out to me is that as individual practitioners, we are parts of an engine. In the past, a company may have had one spokesperson that would handle everything from media pitching to event planning, making him or her the entire engine. In today’s age of integrated marketing communications and digital media, though, a company’s PR function is a lot bigger. Each person chooses a specialization, a different part of the engine if you will. The collective efforts of people working together in unison, then, create the engine of your company that is its PR department.

Another aspect of Collie’s talk that stood out to me was that companies must constantly work on building trust with their publics. In the age of people not trusting PR and the media in general, this is huge. Collie finished his talk by stating that as individuals, we need to plan for our careers, be awesome at the jobs we have now, and be willing to try, because the occasional mishap is inevitable and will allow us to learn.

Transformational Leadership with Cheryl Procter-Rogers, APR, PCC, Fellow, MBA, MA

I feel like we could always learn and grow as leaders, so this session was something I was looking forward to. Cheryl Procter-Rogers is a PR strategist and coaches executives on leadership strategies. Her session was on how to become not just a great leader but a transformational leader.

One of the main takeaways I gained from her session was that as a leader, you need to embrace change as growth instead of shying away from it. Another point that resonated with me was that as a leader you must guide, motivate, and inspire. You are a role model for those who look up to you and as Procter-Rogers said, as a leader, people are always watching you. Doing all of this along with paying sharp attention to emotional intelligence and connecting with everyone in your organization will lead you well on your way to becoming a transformational leader. 

How to become the GOAT of PR with Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA

Kaye Sweetser was full of energy, inspiration, and passion to welcome us and kick us off on our busy Saturday of International Conference. The four main points that she hit on were clarity, creativity, critique, and passion. She stressed the importance of clear and complete storytelling as we look to create impactful campaigns in the future. She recommended the book Writing Without Bullshit to use as a guide for writing with clarity.

Creativity, according to Sweetser, meant being able to look at things from every angle and being a problem solver, a do-er. She suggested that if you don’t possess creativity in this sense, then maybe you should reconsider your career choice as a PR professional. 

“You better ask somebody,” is the Snoop Dogg quote that Sweester offered to address the importance of critique. Workshopping your work is key and should be done every time. Going along with that point, Sweester stressed the importance of collaboration. She stated that you should volunteer to do the hard things, share your knowledge, and lift others up. 

One of my favorite quotes from the weekend came from Sweetser and goes as follows: "You never have to cut someone down in order to stand up." This really resonated with me and was a great quote to end her session on.

Agency Sessions: PRSA Global Agency Panel, Nebo Agency Session

A huge aspect of the PR and Communications industry is agency life. So far this semester, Capital PRSSA has hosted two events focused around agencies, so being able to continue this deep dive into agency life was a fantastic experience for me.

Starting with Kimm Lincoln, President of Nebo Agency, I liked how she stressed the human-centered aspect of Nebo Agency. Lincoln built off of that point throughout her presentation as she discussed the importance of storytelling, a human tradition, and how audiences want companies to be a force for good, something that corporations sometimes forget but is a crucial aspect of the human condition.

The PRSA Global Agency Panel echoed some of these points while introducing new ideas as well. Every person on the stage echoed the idea of fostering a positive company culture and investing in your people as an agency. One idea that was echoed was making decisions with your company’s employees in mind first and foremost, and everything else will follow suit. 

Another theme that was praised was change, because if you’re not changing, then you’re probably going backward. Change must align with culture and the industry, and it is what successful agencies are doing. Pieces of advice for students such as myself included being a lifelong learner, being a reliable member of the team, and going the extra 10 percent, or “plus one” as one of the speakers coined.

Drawing 400,000 people to Columbia, S.C. for The Great American Eclipse with Tracie Broom and Merrit McNeely

A total solar eclipse is a rare event that allows us all to stop what we are doing and focus on something bigger than us. For the city of Columbia, S.C., the latest total solar eclipse proved to be bigger than the city as hundreds of thousands of new visitors flooded into the city to partake in a weekend of events leading up to the big day back in 2017.

Tracie Broom and Merrit McNeely, executives at integrated communications firm Flock and Rally, joined forces to share their knowledge on how this special weekend of tourism came together. It took over two years of planning and collaboration on a city-level, with public institutions partnering with local businesses to coordinate one of the largest weekends for tourism the city has ever seen. A key takeaway that I got from the session is that regional collaboration works better than competition. 

The session makes me inspired and hopeful for other cities to try something similar in the future. One of my colleagues from Scripps PRSSA, Katherine Keber, and I walked out of the session inspired to facilitate something similar for an Ohio city in the future. Seeing that Dayton, Ohio is in the path of the Total Solar Eclipse of 2024, we would like to provide them with some of our notes in hopes that it inspires the similarly-sized Ohio city to capitalize on the special occasion that awaits them in the future.

PRSA General Sessions: Bob Woodward and Laura Ling

As a student who is equally interested in journalism and PR, being able to attend sessions featuring legendary journalists was exciting and insightful for me. Bob Woodward and Laura Ling are both award-winning journalists who have done so much more than just typical news reporting. Both of these people have made history and have brought about change for the greater good, something that transcends the profession they were called to serve in.

Starting with Bob Woodward, he spoke on his experience in breaking the Watergate story and how it relates to today’s impeachment inquiry. Being able to connect recent history with the events of today provided an insight into today’s headlines that not a lot of news media talks about, so it was refreshing to see. His session reassured me that good journalism sparks conversations for the greater good and that journalism is vitally important to a thriving democracy.

Laura Ling’s keynote was impactful in a different way. It honestly was one of the most impactful speeches I’ve ever received and it’s message extends far beyond the session, the conference, and the profession in general. Ling retold a heart-wrenching story about her time as a prisoner in North Korea and the humanity that led to her eventual release. Ling was able to befriend the guards that despised her when they first met, and she noted that even though the culture of her captors varied so much from Western culture, common principles of humanity still prevailed and allowed her to live and connect with the people around her. Her speech made me think about how important love and understanding are and how those concepts can be applied to every aspect of my life, not just my career.

Concluding thoughts

Attending PRSSA International Conference allowed me to develop both personally and professionally. Being able to spend a weekend with like-minded professionals was invigorating and inspiring. I feel like I have found my niche, my people, and that feeling inspires me to come back here and do great things. I am grateful for the connections I made with friends old and new, and I look forward to continuing the conversation into the future as I further my professional development. San Diego was beautiful, by the way. I loved being able to explore the city in my downtime and look forward to the next time I may indulge in a California burrito.

I want to extend my sincerest thanks to Central Ohio PRSA for funding some of my trip and for allowing me to guest post on this blog. I also would like to recognize Capital University for funding part of my trip, and last but not least PRSSA/PRSA for putting together such a special conference. I look forward to continuing my development as a professional and hope to positively impact my chapter at Capital University with some of the new ideas and inspiration I have returned with.

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