Graduating Page Center intern reflects on transition to ‘real world’

May 10, 2018

Sarah Vlazny

By Sarah Vlazny, Page Center intern and recent Penn State alumna

Graduating with public relations degree in 2018 feels a little like graduating with a law degree in a country that’s just had a regime change. Not only does it seem like the practice of public relations is undergoing more changes now than ever before, but the very definition of the profession is changing as well.

When I entered the public relations major as a freshman, I had a very narrow image in my head of what public relations actually was. I pictured myself as the spokesperson for a Ford or an Amazon; the one news stations call when a car malfunctions or when a new product is released. I quickly realized that it is an undercurrent in nearly every aspect of society—from government, to news media, to corporations. From my perspective, the field is changing in different ways in each of these areas—sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad.

I think some of the most promising changes are happening in the corporate sector, and I’d like to think a lot of these changes are brought about at least in part by my generation. My generation is no longer satisfied when a company simply donates to a nonprofit as a way of fulfilling their corporate social responsibility, or when a CEO delivers a speech to simply apologize for a wrongdoing.

Many of us crave authenticity and demand accountability. We like companies that have real corporate purpose. Some of us bought Toms shoes because the company donates to people in need. Some of us protested outside the Starbucks in Philadelphia that was accused of racial profiling. When Uber was exposed to scandal after scandal, some of us switched to Lyft.

"Perhaps even more than caring about companies we buy from, we care about the companies we work for."

Perhaps even more than caring about companies we buy from, we care about the companies we work for. Many of us strive to work for a company that is both innovative and responsible. Some of us balk at applying to positions at companies with a tarnished history, like BP or Wells Fargo. Almost all of us prioritize companies that treat their employees well, and today’s technology makes that aspect of the job search all the more transparent.

Almost everyone I know that applied to a job, whether in communications or any field, checked sites like Glassdoor to see what people had to say about their experience with the company. We can also reach out to past and current company employees on LinkedIn, and for many major companies all you have to do is Google “What is it like to work at Company X?” This transparency and demand for authenticity forces companies to do better, which is what I see as one of the most promising developments in the field of communication.

"The battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was so intense, so divisive, that it forced even the most current event-agnostic college students to dive into the world of politics."

Unfortunately, what I see as some of the most negative changes in communication are at least partly attributable to my generation as well. Those have to do with communication in the government and media. Perhaps nothing exposed these changes more than the 2016 presidential election. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was so intense, so divisive, that it forced even the most current event-agnostic college students to dive into the world of politics. Most of the time, social media was both the battleground and the ammunition. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a clickbait article from a non-reputable news site on my Facebook feed leading up to the election, I could probably pay off my student loans.

That’s not to say that the majority of young people don’t know the difference between “fake news” and “real news.” Most people my age can spot the difference between a newsy ad and a news article, but I do think there is general disagreement as to what is even the definition of “fake news” and “real news.” The divide between the news outlets people deem reputable and those they don’t is often drawn across party lines, which can create a lot of confusion as to what is fact and what is opinion.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that there are often two different sides of the story coming from the source of the story itself. People my age are growing up in a time where the White House and the FBI can tell the American people two different narratives, and the result is that many of us tune it out as noise. Not knowing what version of the truth to trust, we turn to Snapchat for human interest stories or Twitter for 280 character bites of information. And until we as a generation understand how to seek and analyze information, and until communications professionals understand how to harness these new tools to communicate effectively, this could be a very dangerous thing.

"I think everyone could benefit from a course in public communication."

The issues facing communications now are relevant to everyone. Given what I have learned throughout my time at Penn State, I think everyone could benefit from a course in public communication. Business majors who understand public relations would understand the importance of not only corporate social responsibility, but of purpose and authenticity. Medical professionals or scientific researchers would better understand how to effectively educate people about health issues or share their important findings. Sociologists, economists and anthropologists would learn about new tools and methods they could use to share their knowledge.

Though studying public relations in the current communications climate feels a little like learning how to pilot a helicopter in a hurricane, it could also not be a more imperative time to do so. There is a lot changing in public communication, some things for the good and some for the bad. But to copy the words and sentiment of Larry Foster award honoree John Onoda, “I have hope.

Throughout my four years at Penn State and my two years working with the Page Center, I have had the opportunity to discuss crucial communications issues of our time with some of the most influential communicators of our time. Because of their passion, dedication, and ingenuity, I am confident that the coming few decades will be interesting and influential years to be in the field of public communication.