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The hardest job in the world: explaining your job to middle school students

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For some reason in a weak moment a month or so ago, I agreed to do four 30-minute presentations at my son (age 13) and daughter’s (age 11) Middle School about my 20-year career in public relations. As the first kids ranging in age from 11 to probably 14 started to file into the auditorium, I could sense the days of blind adoration of ‘any adult present’ I enjoyed during my elementary school visits was over. The looks ranged from “who is this old lady standing there” to “I hope I can sleep during whatever boring topic SHE talks about.”

The challenge was on. I was determined to not only make these kids learn something about public relations, but to have them have a bit of fun as well. I decided to open with a question about what they kids thought public relations was – one hand shot up – ‘um, relating to the public.’ “Good answer I encouraged.” A bunch of nervous laughter ensued. Finally a kid raises his hand “does it have something to do with ‘connecting’. “Yes, exactly” I say. A kid from the back said, “You mean like Xbox Connect?” And I said, “Well sort of if you are using it to connect with other people like your friends or maybe even expanding that circle.”

Wendy hard at work (photo by Denise Panyik-Dale, Alcatel-Lucent)

After talking a bit more and defining PR, I finally piqued their interest a bit more when I told them what I actually DO all day. When I mentioned the fact that I tweeted I could see the tide was turning a bit and they were giving me a second look. Maybe I was not as completely ‘old school’ as I first appeared when I referred to a ‘fax machine’ as an early on essential tool of the trade. A murmur of mini conversations erupted followed by many more questions like, “Can I follow you?” which turned into “Do you do Intstagram, Tumblr, Facebook – and a bunch of other social media tools I was barely aware of. Sadly I had to admit – “no I was not that cool.”

Then I talked a bit about my company, Alcatel-Lucent. With the exception of my own children no one had heard of it. I tried Lucent – still the same blank stares. I then tried a different tactic, “Okay who has a cell phone?” All hands shoot up in the air. “Who has WiFI at home? “All hands shoot in the air. “Well how do you think that works?” One kid to my right yells out “a battery” the next one says “Verizon.” All true, but not what I was looking for. I had to give a few more clues. Who has passed the large cell tower by the fire station down the road? Heads are nodding in agreement. Have you seen the stuff hanging off that tower? More heads nod. “That is what my company does – and that stuff make your phone work.” Whew – clearly our brand doesn’t expand into the youth market : )

I closed with an example of the difference between marketing, advertising and PR from the Internet a marketing colleague shared with me recently. I have seen a few different versions of this floating around, but this one was well suited for the teenage crowd. It went like this:

“If a young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If the young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is — that’s advertising. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is — that’s public relations.”

Then I asked “so how many of you have done the last things for a friend of yours?” Lots of laughing and smiles. “So all of you have been actually practicing public relations and you didn’t even know it.”

So in the end, did I convince this group of apathetic kids that public relations was a rewarding and worthy career — probably not. But I am hopeful that years from now when they are ready to enter college or maybe even in a college setting there will be some distant memory of lady who was talking about ‘some kind of relations’ who seemed to actually like her job. And maybe that will be enough to bring some new fresh blood into the communications industry. I did have one small personal victory from the experience as well . When I later asked my own kids how I did they mumbled a “good mom” so while only a few words I know that I did not ruin my kid lives (yet) and that for me is probably my biggest victory of the experience.

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