I’ve been invited to a 40th anniversary reunion at my old university. (Yes, I know. Kind of you to say so).
This length of time encourages reflection. It spans my time in higher education and most of my professional life. Since I teach students now, and they’re understandably fearful of the future, here’s what I’d tell my 18 year old self.
You don’t know what this is yet. But looking back, you were already considering it when learning about the reinvention of the monarchy in the reign of Victoria, or when reading fourteenth century texts on the chivalric code. Public relations is an ideal second or third career - though studying it at university should give others a head start.
Beginners often think it’s like events management. There may be events and stunts, but I see public relations as a battle for ideas.
The battle between public and private is key. I’m not referring to the political battles over public and private ownership (though there’s a suggestion we’re about to go back to the politics of the 80s). I’m referring to life, liberty and the pursuit of privacy.
Public relations is central to this battle of ideas - on all sides. That’s why Facebook hired Nick Clegg to a global PR role.
It’s possible to find a pattern in retrospect. It only looks messy and uncertain as you start out in life.
A pattern in my career choices is now clear to me. My twenties was for learning. My thirties was for earning. My forties was for fulfilment - and I’ve still not quite figured out what my fifties is about. There’s still time...
Reciprocity, dialogue, two-way conversations. These concepts are at the heart of public relations. But you can expect a bumpy ride to achieve conversational parity. You’ll feel obliged to put in for some graduate training schemes. One such interview will be excruciating. Looking up from your CV, where you’d noted your hobbies as ‘reading and walking’ (honest and socially acceptable, if unambitious) your interviewer will say: ‘Not exactly a team player, I see.’ There was no answer to this. I can now see that while I was indeed unsuitable for their corporate role, nor would a conventional corporate life have suited me.
You think that money is a simple equation. Income minus expenses equals cash in hand. That’s part of it, but you also have to weigh up assets against liabilities. And set both against the most precious commodity of all - time.
When you’re a student, though cash poor and asset poor, you are rich in time. (I know, it was easier to be a full time student back when there were no fees and there were grants to cover living expenses. But students today have more time, say, than their parents.) Use it to develop friendships; to travel; to read. These are also assets for life.
At my stage in life, I’m becoming cash poor once again (habits of thrift learnt as a student are valuable still) - but this time I’m reasonably asset rich (through property and pensions) and I know the value of time. The equation works well for me.
The worst position to be in is to be cash poor, asset poor and time poor (the fate of many minimum wage workers with children to support living in expensive cities). There’s an upside to any other state you find yourself in.
The advantage the young have over older people is that you’re seeing places for the first time. Who ever forgets their first visit to Paris (yours was in 1970)? Travel will become cheaper in your lifetime and people will go further and further. But I warn you against missing out on experiences closer to home. You are yet to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice: there are some first impressions to look forward to. Closer still, you already know Wells Cathedral, but many don’t.
Train stations lift the spirits. This cannot be said for airports, motorway service stations, bus stations or ferry terminals.
Train travel is also more sustainable than most other forms of mass transport. You knew all about environmental issues in the 1970s - so it seems surprising that decades later people are becoming aware of environmental issues for the first time. I hope it’s not too late.
Like so many in public relations, you’ll become a words person who is less comfortable with numbers.
But don’t you remember laboriously working out average league attendances by manual long division (calculators were an expensive rarity back then)?
To succeed in public relations you’ll have to love words and love numbers. Partly, it’s that you’ll need to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work. Partly, it’s that insight comes from data.
I recently let loose my long-dormant inner geek to compare final league positions at the end of last season with average league attendances for all 92 football league clubs in England and Wales.
This led to one main insight: Lancashire continues to outperform (there are historical reasons for this, I know, but it’s a surprise nonetheless). There are many clubs achieving much better results than their support merits in this area of England. Accrington, Blackpool, Burnley, Fleetwood, Preston, Rochdale are among the over-achievers. Yorkshire (and indeed the whole of the east of England) is full of sleeping giants who are worse than their fans deserve. Chesterfield, Sunderland, Lincoln, Bradford City, Leeds United and Grimsby are six of the seven worst under-achievers (Coventry City is the other).
Make of that what you will. But it can relate to public relations: would you prefer to work for a small club on a great run (Accrington or Fleetwood, say) or a large club that's yet to return to the top (pick almost any club from Yorkshire)? Which is the more compelling narrative? Which is likely to offer better pay and prospects?
Forty years on, growing older and older,
Shorter in wind, as in memory long,
Feeble of foot, and rheumatic of shoulder,
What will it help you that once you were strong?
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.