What You Don’t Learn About Public Relations in a Textbook

We’ve all had that moment where we’re in a sticky situation, wishing we had some sort of rulebook to help us navigate. Some people read their horoscopes to gain a sense of direction, but even that doesn’t change the nature of their problems. Whether it be a student or a professional, obstacles are encountered where reading the fifth chapter wouldn’t do any good. In comes the cliché: “There is no manual for life.”

That adage is no truer than when discussing public relations. As pre-professionals in the PR field, concepts that our textbooks and instructors have offered to us are still fresh in our undergraduate minds. Even so, in the actual career of PR, there are plenty of lessons that your professor couldn’t have set you up to learn. Professors are much like parents watching their children ride bikes without training wheels for the first time. They have to stand back and hope that when it is time to find balance, you have been given the necessary tools to be successful.

So what really happens when the books are closed, sold to some stranger in a truck, and you’re handed a diploma as you walk across the stage? There are the basic guidelines of PR that you can apply to real-life situations, such as learning how to separate business and personal issues. But for the broader ideas, such as “ethics,” can you truly read and absorb what it means to have character?

The truth is, our most important training doesn’t come from our assignments. Rather, our lessons are derived from experiences where we may have to choose between garnering a hefty profit by creating a false image for the public, or walking away from that money to preserve our integrity. Can a textbook teach you how to build character? And not just build it, but consistently put it to the test? It is easy to say what is and isn’t ethical, but the theory and practice aren’t always equitable.

The career of public relations has been a popular subject when discussing careers that foster an environment of dishonesty. This unfortunate misconception alone is proof that it’s not about the lesson, but how one exercises it thereafter. The textbook is a useful guide for black and white situations, but the public relations field is anything but black and white. It is a career that thrives off of the very fact that there is constantly a gray area in ethics, and that’s where we do our job best. We add our individual touch of character and integrity – the feeling in our gut that dictates what is right and wrong. That same feeling that is unique to each of us as professionals is one that can only be acquired through our experiences as people in the world.

Now that’s a lesson that you can’t quite pay for at Barnes and Noble.

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