The Victorian PR Student Forum

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend an event organised by a number of PR academics from across Victoria – The Victorian PR Student Forum. The enthusiastic attendees consisted of students from several universities; Deakin, RMIT, Swinburne and Melbourne amongst the highest numbers. Some incredibly generous communications professionals from the absolute top of their industries gave up their time to come and share their experiences with us – telling stories and giving advice on everything from issues and crisis management to engaging with new and social media to developing internal communications tactics. Following the morning’s key speakers sessions, a number of communications companies opened their doors to students, and we attended open house sessions across the Melbourne CBD, getting the chance to speak to professionals in their ‘natural habitats’. They were all incredibly welcoming and generous with their time, experience and advice.

The first speakers of the day consisted of representatives from various industry associations – the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) were all in attendance. They all explained their organisations’ functions within the PR and communications industry, and outlined the benefits of membership, as well as providing some advice for differentiating ourselves in a competitive workforce.

We were very fortunate to have Andrew McGinnes, Head of External Affairs and Media for QANTAS, as our keynote speaker for the day. He was not only an experienced practitioner with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with us, but also a friendly and engaging speaker who demonstrated a great deal of passion and interest in his work. I know I speak for many of the students present when I say that his excitement about the work that he is able to do everyday was inspiring for a group of up-and-coming communicators.
Andrew’s expertise at the moment lies with issues management, and this was the topic he chose to speak about primarily. In his own words, issues management is about “minimising damage to your organisation’s reputation when things go wrong”. Whilst this is obviously a simplified definition of what is an incredibly complex task, Andrew was able to share with us a number of examples from his own experience that demonstrated the types of issues that he has faced in his many years in the industry.
As he explained, a major challenge that faces issues management professionals is that “it’s always harder to get a good news story out than a bad news story”. When dealing with pollution spills, mass redundancies and product recalls to name a few, Andrew’s advice was always to attempt to remove the emotion from the story first. Disgruntled customers can be very compelling, and if they get onto talkback radio for example, there will be no way to compete with them. Removing the emotion from the story and trying to have a rational discussion that justifies a company’s actions logically is the best way to tackle such issues. In some cases however, things just go wrong and at that point it is the job of the issues management practitioner to help the organisation own up to their problems in the most graceful way possible. Andrew introduced us to “The Three Rs: Regret, Responsibility, Remedy”.
Aside from providing some insight into issues management, Andrew also shared a lot of general advice to us as students, attempting to find our own niche in the communications industry and secure our first internships or jobs. Some of his words of wisdom included: “The person with the sentence will always beat the person with the paragraph”, “You need experience to run the show. You don’t need experience to stand next to someone who has experience. Look at who you can learn from”, “PR is an art, not a science” and finally to always be aware of what is happening in the world around you – sometimes without even being personally involved in an issue, you can “import” knowledge and experience from the case studies and examples you’ve taken notice of and examined.
All the students I spoke to and myself included, were very impressed by Andrew’s presentation. I thank him wholeheartedly for giving up his time to speak with us.

Following Andrew McGinnes, we heard from Dionne Lew, Director of Corporate Communications at VicRoads. Ms Lew (@DionneLew on Twitter) is also an incredibly knowledgable and experienced professional who was keen to speak to us about “demythologising views of working in government”. There can tend to be a view amongst students that governments consist of “brown cardi-wearing” professionals who are behind the times in terms of technology and media, but Dionne was a perfect example to show that this is not the case. VicRoads host the second busiest website in Australia, and carry out around 150 proactive media events in a year (such as press conferences, photo shoots etc). Dionne emphasised the importance of “looking at where people are going for information” and working with the media that will get your message to your target audience as effectively as possible. She explained some examples to us and showed some visuals from few campaigns, such as a video that was released to increase education around the graduated licensing system, and an explanation of the iPhone application game ‘City GT’. This game was released as part of a campaign to try and reduce the number of young people talking on mobile phones whilst driving. (for further explanation, you can view the video here) The issue of gamification was an interesting one that emerged in Dionne’s talk – people don’t expect to be advertised to when playing games, so they tend to get past people’s defences and can often deliver messages quite effectively. This will be an interesting space to watch in terms of communication and public relations platforms.
I know personally, Dionne’s presentation has changed the way I view working in government. Rather than a stuffy and out of date workplace, I now consider it to be an opportunity to be creative and to influence the direction of governmental communication as they further explore the possibilities of technological developments. I would certainly be more likely to consider a career in a government department, after hearing her speak.

Following a short break, we heard from Trevor Young, aka ‘PR Warrior’ (@trevoryoung on twitter). Trevor currently works for the world’s largest independent PR firm, Edelman. As a “full-service agency”, Edelman handles a huge variety of clients from different industries, so Trevor’s experience and advice was invaluable to us as students. He spoke to us primarily about working in an agency or consultancy, and about some of the research that Edelman conducts regularly. Some interesting facts and figures were explored, such as the fact that only 35% of Australians surveyed consider CEOs to be a trusted source of information. Instead, most people are likely to rank internal experts, academics and their peers as more trusted sources. In relation to this data, Trevor discussed the issue of transparency and the way that it has been affected by technological developments. As he explained, because social media makes a lot of business activities more transparent, and CEOs and the like are more visible, there is a great opportunity for organisations to use new media to build trust amongst their publics, providing it is used effectively. Unfortunately as Trevor also explained, “there is a big disconnect between major corporations who are moving very slowly through the digital space and Australian consumers that are moving very quickly”. Trevor also touched on the way that consumption of media is changing, and explained that “the average person uses 8 sources of media each day and need to see or hear something 3-5 times to believe it”. Like the other speakers, he also had some advice for us as prospective communications professionals. He outlined some of the great aspects of working in PR as well as the potential challenges, and gave us some tips for creating our own identities – particularly online. “Your brand identity is just you. You don’t craft an image online which isn’t your image offline.” He suggested that if you are interested in others and interesting yourself – through social media and other media forms such as blogs, podcasts, videos etc – you will make yourself more attractive to employers. “Our business is all about being curious.”

Our next speaker was Laura Hill, Media Advisor at CARE Australia. Laura spoke very passionately about CARE’s international aid work and had some interesting insights into the media’s role as a humanitarian actor. As she explained, the media is one of the main reasons that issues of poverty are propelled into people’s lounge rooms. They have the ability to affect communities, produce surges of fundraising and humanitarian responses and influence the policy makers at a governmental level. Touching on examples of current and past humanitarian disasters, Laura explained the demands of working in a role that requires 24/7 devotion. She explained the small steps she takes to try and maintain some balance in a job that can often have her deployed into disaster areas with little notice and expected to face the media almost immediately. Her main tips for working with the media were: look beyond the traditional media, don’t be naive (ask questions and check facts), put your ‘so what’ hat on (think about why the media/public should care and use that angle), be vigilant in deciding what is news and finally don’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face communication. Laura’s passion for her industry and her job were clearly evident in every word she spoke and it was fantastic to hear from someone who felt they were making a positive difference in their work.

These speakers were followed by a ‘Young Guns’ session with three up and coming practitioners – Amy Saunders, Steph Baxter and Nathan Luker. They answered questions from students and shared their insights and experiences regarding finding and completing internships, getting your first job and differentiating yourself from other graduates. Their insights were great to hear as they were very relatable to us as students who are only a few years away from being in their position ourselves.

Following lunch, students divided up and attended the open house sessions around Melbourne. All the practitioners had wonderful advice and insights to share and were more than happy to take questions from curious students. In the evening, many students and professionals who had attended during the day met at the Royal Melbourne Hotel for a networking event that allowed for more questions to be answered and for students to get to know each other and the professionals in a more informal setting.

Overall, the Victorian PR Student Forum was a fantastic day that provided insightful, beneficial and entertaining experiences for all the students present. I would like to thank all those involved in organising the event including Ross Monaghan, Robert Gill and Paul Adams, as well as all the professionals who gave up their time to speak to us, meet with us and show us around their workplaces. It was an invaluable experience and if it was to become an annual event, I could not recommend it more highly to any students of PR and communications.

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