PRSA Sections Series: Nonprofit and Association Public Relations

If you have ever wanted to know more about different types of public relations careers straight from professionals in each area, the PRSA Sections Series is here to help. The PRSA Sections Series highlights the 14 different PRSA public relations professional interest sections. Each month, two professionals will sound off on their specific sub-category of the industry in a question and answer session.

Our first post in the sections series was written by Richard Waters (see bio below) and focuses on the world of association and nonprofit public relations.

Richard Waters

Richard Waters

1. What kind of work do professionals in your section typically do?

Public relations in the nonprofit sector may be one of the most broadly focused all-encompassing jobs in the industry. As with corporate and agency, nonprofit public relations practitioners work in event planning, social media marketing, media relations and crisis communication, but they also do much more that is specific to the nonprofit sector. They likely also conduct fundraising campaigns, lead or assist with membership and volunteer recruitment and retention efforts, engage in public affairs lobbying and advocacy and coordinate collaborations between their organizations and others in the nonprofit, for-profit and government communities.

2. What can students expect when pursuing an entry-level position in the industry?

In a smaller nonprofit, there are fewer people to do the work, so you will likely have a greater opportunity to showcase how your training in public relations can add value to the organization across a range of activities, rather than being limited to working on one specific activity. Although this reality can be overwhelming at times, smaller nonprofits also provide a wonderful opportunity for you to flaunt your versatility and provide a chance to learn and grow and try new things.

In a larger nonprofit organization, you will likely have the ability to hone your leadership and teamwork skills because different departments will have different responsibilities. You’ll work with individuals who are passionate about their career but who are wrapped up with language and jargon specific to the cause and organization. You then figure out ways to relay those stories to the public with more accessible messaging.

Also, salaries continue to grow and are competitive with many for-profit industries, so don’t rule out working in a nonprofit organization simply because of the label “nonprofit.” Nonprofits are just like for-profit businesses in that they must earn revenue to keep providing services. Excess revenue at the end of the year is invested for long-term organizational growth.

3. What advice do you have for students looking to enter your sector of public relations?

Some say a job is a job, but working on an issue you’re passionate about can make a job feel like a calling. Your personal connection to the cause enhances not just your professional credibility but also your ability to carry out the daily tasks without becoming tired or burnt out. The nonprofit sector is so broad—from fine arts and higher education to religious, political and social service organizations—there’s no question you can find an organization working on a cause you care about. The biggest piece of advice I could give someone is to spend some time thinking about your passions and interests and then search for opportunities in that sector.

4. What essential skills do students need to do well in the industry?

Ultimately because of the versatility of nonprofit public relations, success in this area, just as in the for-profit world, boils down to being a great communicator who knows how to tell a compelling story. You’ll also need to be good at relationship cultivation, which makes active and engaged listening of vital importance. And, of course, a good public relations professional must have  a problem-solving attitude, unfailing reliability and professional transparency.  

5. What has surprised you most throughout the course of your career?

The biggest surprise to me probably relates to the lack of awareness about what public relations actually is. I’m always amazed at people who reduce public relations to being event planning, media relations or customer service. The industry can’t really carry out an awareness raising campaign for itself, because then it would simply be labeled “spin” by critics. So hopefully, PRSSA and the students across the globe studying public relations can help educate employers, friends and family that public relations is relationship cultivation and reputation management through open, timely and regular communication.

Does this post have you motivated to look for an internship or job in association or nonprofit public relations? Be sure to check out the PRSSA Internship Center and the PRSA Job Center for postings.

Richard D. Waters is an associate professor in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco where he teaches graduate courses in strategic communication in the Master of Business Administration and Master of Nonprofit Administration Programs. Prior to earning his doctorate, he worked in development in the healthcare sector in northern California. He continues to consult Fortune 500 and Philanthropy 400 organizations.

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