Helping Others to Find a Voice

Baylor's growing public relations program teaches students how to communicate effectively and ethically.

Helping Others to Find a Voice

Rae Jefferson knows she had unique opportunities at her first two jobs after graduation. In both, she was a one-woman communications office for organizations that had never even had an employee dedicated to doing public relations at all.

“I've just been really fortunate that I've had two positions where I had supervisors who really trusted me to be able to do a lot of different things and organizations that were small enough to be able to try stuff, or where my position was brand new,” she said. “And they both said, ‘Do whatever works, and if it doesn't work, don't do it again.’ It’s been a lot of trial and error, but it's been really fun.”

Jefferson, who graduated from Baylor in December 2016, was a news-editorial student in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media, and didn’t actually take any public relations classes until she had some elective hours during her senior year. But it was the journalism basics she learned in the news-editorial classes that prepared her for the PR courses.

“I took several writing classes that really refined and sharpened my writing, and I took several classes that required you to design publications and pamphlets and things like that. All of those things were all building blocks,” she said. “When you're in the middle of doing it, sometimes it can be like, ‘Why do I have to do this again? Why am I editing another story? Why are they talking about (Associated Press) style again?’ It all builds up, and when you get out into the real world, you realize, ‘Oh, I do actually use this stuff.’ And all that repetition really helps.”

Jefferson is the communications director at the Family Health Center in Waco, where she has worked since December 2018. Previously, Jefferson was director of marketing and communications at Creative Waco, which is where she did her required internship while enrolled in Dr. Cassy Burleson’s Advanced Public Relations class.

“Advanced PR was one of my favorite classes at Baylor because it really just threw me into the fire, and I had to learn as I was doing the work,” Jefferson said. “And I realized that a lot of the skills that I had learned as a journalism student, all those writing skills and all that refining information and interviewing people to get exactly what you need to know and understanding inverted pyramid writing,  all that really helps with being able to do public relations work.”

Placing students in internships — most of which pay at least $10 an hour, and a few pay up to $20 — and letting them gain real-world experience is the goal of the class, said Burleson, who’s been teaching Advanced Public Relations for 12 years.

“They go to work, some of them for the very first time, and for 10 hours a week. The requirement is 160 hours for this semester, so that's 160 hours of actual work experience,” she said. “And before remote PR got put into effect (in the spring semester) they had to actually go to the workplaces. While they're at the internship, they also get a chance to develop a close relationship and a bond and to do things that are actually used by their work sites so that they can develop a portfolio.”

The portfolio is “one of the major pieces” of the course, Burleson said, and it’s not just an overview of the work the student has produced at that semester’s internship. Instead, the portfolio showcases work the student has done throughout her or his undergraduate career at Baylor. And at the end of the semester, each student’s portfolio is reviewed by at least five professionals working in the PR field.

“Some get a few more because some people just want to do that extra one because it looks so pretty, and they want to look inside that one, too,” Burleson said.

In addition to the professionals who review portfolios, Burleson has a rotating cast of guest speakers in the class, some of whom drive from Dallas or Austin to meet with the students.

“I don’t have to convince them” to visit the class or review the portfolios, Burleson said. “They want to give back and want to help groom the next group of public relations practitioners. They are a very loving, concerned, supportive network of people.”

It was a guest speaker in an Introduction to Mass Communication class in the mid-1980s that set Chris Talley on his path to a long career in public relations. After Don Ferguson spoke to Dr. Loyal Gould’s students about corporate public relations, “I went up to him as soon as that class concluded and said, ‘I want to do what you do,’ and he helped me get my first internship,” Talley said. “And he’s my mentor to this day.”

Talley, who graduated with a journalism degree in 1988, is senior vice president and chief communications officer for USAA in San Antonio. He’s been with USAA – which provides banking, investment and insurance services to members of the military – since 2011. Previously, he was senior vice president, senior partner and general manager with FleishmanHillard, a PR and marketing agency with more than 80 offices in 30 countries.

Public relations has been taught at Baylor for more than 70 years, with the first PR courses appearing on the books for the 1948-49 academic year. More courses were added in 1956, and public relations was offered as a sequence for journalism majors in 1958. In January 1970, the Baylor chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America was chartered, and just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

“It's a special organization on campus because it's focused on professional development,” said Dr. Marlene Neill, faculty adviser for PRSSA. “We bring in guest speakers so that students can hear from professionals in the field and start to build their network by making connections with alumni and other professionals who actually work in the industry, which is very helpful when they start applying for jobs and internships.”

Neill is just the fourth adviser of the chapter in its 50-year history. Dr. Adrian Vaughan helped form the organization in 1970, then it was overseen by Dr. Michael Bishop and professor Maxey Parrish before Neill assumed the role in 2012.

Marlene Neill and Mia Moody-Ramirez
Marlene Neill and Mia Moody-Ramirez

Most students who are majors in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media are studying PR, said Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, who has been chair since June 1, 2019, but it hasn’t always been that way. When Moody-Ramirez joined the department in 2001, most journalism students were following the news-editorial track.

“They wanted to write for magazines or newspapers, or they wanted to become an editor for that type of publication, which is exactly what I wanted to do,” when she finished her undergraduate work at Texas A&M. “I wanted to go out, write and try to make a difference.”

At the time, public relations was not a respected field, she said. Those who worked in PR were known as “flacks” or “spin doctors,” which are not flattering terms.

“The field is now better respected,” she said. “It has a code of ethics. PR professionals have more credibility. And so we've seen a complete turnaround, where people want to go into the PR industry, because they know that it is a respectable industry. They feel like they can go in and work for a company and help that company with image management, crisis management, issues management. They feel like they can make a difference.”

The ethical component of public relations education plays a large role in PR classes at Baylor, and is a particular area of interest for Neill, who for five years served on the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards for the Public Relations Society of America.

“Ethics is one of my favorite areas to talk about,” said Neill, who has been at Baylor since 2006. “I draw a lot from the research that I've done with people in the industry, about their actual experiences that they've had when they face ethical dilemmas and how they've handled them. In my class last week, we talked about the different strategies and tactics that you can use to actually raise your concerns, so we draw from the experiences of people in industry and tell (students), ‘Okay, these are the kind of approaches that you can use’” when facing situations that call for ethical decision making.

For Talley, “everything starts with telling the truth.”

“Tell the truth, be straightforward and upfront,” he said. And what's carried through all my years is, in a matter of how you handle a crisis, you tell what you know, acknowledge what needs to be addressed, if something needs to be fixed, and then what you’re going to do to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future.”

The lessons in conveying a story that students learn in their beginning reporting classes easily transition to PR, Talley said.

“The power and importance of storytelling has stayed true,” he said. “Everything has always gone back to storytelling and the need to communicate. And so even despite all this stuff that's around us all over the place, and now new ways of communicating, it still comes down to telling the truth and being very forthright and empathetic and engaging in communication.”

As Baylor’s PR students graduate into the job market, they’re finding that public relations jobs command a higher salary than those in journalism. Burleson said her goal is that all PR graduates obtain a first job with a salary to “make as much as they pay for a year at Baylor.”

“I'd like to see every graduate employed at a salary commensurate with that,” she said.

Moody-Ramirez is pleased with the employment prospects of the department’s graduates.

“Our students are getting jobs and they're getting really good jobs,” she said. “They have good jobs in management. They have jobs for some of the top PR firms. They're also going on to law school and getting into the top law schools. I think what we do well in our department is we prepare the total person, so we help them develop speaking skills, writing skills, communication skills and advocacy skills.”

And then some students opt for graduate school after finishing at Baylor. Claire Garza, a senior studying public relations, said she’ll continue her education after graduating in May 2021.

“I’ll either be (studying) strategic communications or fashion design,” she said. “My dream job is to combine public relations with the fashion industry.”

Unlike Jefferson, who came to public relations late in her academic career, Garza figured out that PR was the field for her the first time she set foot in Castellaw Communications Center, home to Baylor’s journalism department since 1974. Not knowing much about public relations, “except my mom told me it would be a really good idea for me to look into it,” Garza said, she met with Parrish, one of the department’s academic advisers. He told her about the department and various facets of the public relations industry, “and I walked out of that building knowing I wanted to be in this department. I want to be a journalism PR major. I want to be part of this culture.”