As a student, I have plenty of questions about public relations and the professional world in general. Some of the best answers and advice that I have received, have come from professionals who are currently working in a variety of different fields. Those professionals are doing what we aspire to be doing. They have made it through their internships. They have made it through their first real jobs. So it is time we learned something from them and let them tell us how they “PRactice what you PReach.”

My first interview is with Jeremy Pepper. He is a PR professional who has worked with clients such as Cisco, GM and Verizon Wireless. Pepper has also worked with smaller “grass roots efforts.” He understands that “the basis of any
campaign starts locally.” Pepper currently works as the Director of Public Relations and Social Media at Palisade Systems, but he also owns POP! Public Relations. Pepper was not afraid to be in the first wave of PR pros to accept integrating social media into the mix. His award-winning blog, POP! PR Jots, and his participation in communities such as BlogHer prove that he is not only credible but passionate for the field. With all his experience, Pepper has some strong opinions about PR and social media. I hope you all enjoy and learn from them as much as I have.
Q1: Looking back at your experience so far in PR, what inspired you to start out in the field?
A1: I fell into public relations – I studied philosophy at the University and wrote for the college paper as well as running student government campaigns. During that time I was helping a friend out on a PR campaign and he suggested I go into public relations. And the big part was the ability to talk to people, get them to relate and write well. Plus, working on the breast cancer stamp.
Q2: You have had experience working with huge companies such as Cisco and General Motors, but you also have worked local PR jobs. In your opinion, would you rather work on the larger PR projects or the local “grass roots efforts” and why?
A2: Both have their benefits, and, of course their downsides. Working on grassroots efforts, there are greater chances to get to do bigger work and more responsibilities, while the bigger accounts have bigger budgets and more opportunities to learn how big companies work in PR and social media. Right now, I like working on the large corporations (while I still do small companies and grassroots outreach). The bigger the corporation, the bigger the project, the bigger the budget – and the bigger the idea. But like I noted, both have their pluses and minuses.
Q3: You were ahead of the game when social media entered the playing field. How did you get a jump-start with social media and what was the most difficult part about the transition?
A3: I’ve always been somewhat a tech geek, so like different and new technologies out there. Plus being in San Francisco during the launch of most of the stuff gave me the opportunity to meet many of the developing companies at events and try out the tech as an early adopter (I have a whole blog post on it). But a big part of it was working on Kodak and doing outreach to influencer sites (eg, DPReview, Steves-Digicams, Imaging-Resource) as well as chat groups on the topic on Usenet. At the end of the day, though, it’s about community relations, whether it’s online or offline (or in real life). So I just always put that to use in PR and social media: finding the audience that might be interested in what I’m working on, and letting them know about it.

Q4: Many college students, including myself, are having to adapt their social media styles to a more professional audience. Do you have any tips for how students can stand out to PR professionals using social media?

A4: First thing is to network. But another key part – and probably the most important – is to know what you don’t know. Too many students walk in thinking they’re the end-all, be-all in social media without realizing that just because they’re the “digital generation” doesn’t translate into actually understanding how the tools work in a corporate environment, or how to design a plan with strategies, tactics and outcomes that best fit what the client wants AND needs.

But a key thing to take-away is that everything (or almost everything) is public. If you are going to friend people on Facebook that are potential bosses or colleagues, set up another group or setting that limits what they can see. And start building a portfolio with tangible results. This is an opportunity to highlight yourself with the usual internships, but also to show your value. Don’t let them treat you like an intern, but also strive to learn and listen.

Q5: Many companies are still not using social media. I have had professors suggest that I offer myself as a social media intern to gain more experience. However, I have a difficult time pitching to these companies and non-profits what I can offer as a social media intern. What advice can you give about pitching a social media position to a company or non-profit that does not currently use social media or utilize it to its fullest potential?

A5: Well, it’s hard pitching yourself as a social media expert to companies or non-profits as you are still in college. For internships, though, there are some opportunities but you need to present the pro’s (and con’s) of social media engagement, as well as conveying that this isn’t a one-off for them to do but something that needs to be done post-internship. Explain to the NPOs, etc that social media is an extension of their community relations or customer engagement and then showcase what is already being said in the space, on Twitter, in blogs.

One of the hard things here is that I’m one of the people that says never to rely on an intern for social media programs. Too often, they do not know the intricacies of the business and are unable to answer the harder questions, or say no comment in a polished way. There’s a way to deflect and not answer that still seems like an answer.

Q6: You speak at many different Universities giving advice to students. What is the most common problem you see with students and what advice do you offer to help fix the problem?

A6: I think I addressed it above, but there is this whole “we’re the digital generation, we know better” attitude that needs to go away. Being on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare (or whatever) doesn’t mean that you understand how to use them in a campaign. It amazes me to see students lecturing long-time PR people (including me) on digital and how I don’t understand it because I’m too old. Um, okay, but ageism doesn’t work and the older people are what run the accounts.

It’s a partnership – and we’re all here to learn. But too many young people think there’s nothing to learn or anyone they can learn from nowadays.

Q7: You have had a lot of success with your blog, POP! PR Jots. What advice can you give to PR students who are trying to stand out with their own blog?

A7: Write for yourself and a few friends. I’ve always written for a handful of people, friends that are also in the industry, so I don’t worry about audiences. If you write worrying about numbers and audience, it’s going to sound forced and trying too hard. But if you write for a few people, write in a way that they’ll be interested in and will read, you’ll come to a natural voice. Yes, I tend to chose more interesting topics, but I’m also writing for an audience that my equal.

If I wrote for traffic, I’d write daily and write long drivel that says nothing. There are enough social media blogs that do that – and do it quite well – but I’d rather help change the industry. The other thing I see – a lot – is the “you write for me, I’ll write for you” sharing nowadays. It’s a way to grow traffic, find new audiences, but I don’t partake as I’d rather keep it on my own site.

Another thing to look at is syndication. It’s a way to grow audiences. But key is having a natural, normal voice.

Q8: Any extra comments or advice you have is greatly appreciated.

A8: Advice: don’t be in such a rush. There is so much out there in public relations and social media that we all have to learn, that it takes time. And it’s about doing your time. We all start out at the bottom and work our way up. Yes, some faster than others.

But it’s not a race. Relax, have some fun and just do good work and things should come to you. But, I’ve heard too many stories of students or junior people presenting themselves as experts, and then it blowing up in their faces with clients and agencies. Badly.