So You Majored in Engineering

So You Majored in Engineering

By John Harrington

Whenever people ask me what I majored in in school, I always pause and consider just how long I want to ramble on trying to explain my weird, cobbled together major before I give up and just say “I made stuff with computers.” The official title of my major was “Integrated Digital Media,” a sort of catchall name that encompassed aspects of computer programming, web design, video production, UX design and 3D animation. Toss in a hefty dose of math and science since this was an engineering degree and you’ve got yourself a unique, weird major that makes explaining what you’re doing to relatives at family reunions an oratory task on par with Homer relaying the Odyssey.

And while I may not have gotten any better at explaining my major in those 4 years at school, I did pick up a few things along the way that are surprisingly applicable across these two different fields. Going from pocket protectors to press releases, here are 4 things I learned about PR while majoring in Integrated Digital Media:

“User Personas” aka Know Your Audience

In User Experience (UX) design, they have a concept called “user personas,” a fancy way of saying “fictional example people that you imagine would use this product.” So for instance, you could have “Emily: A 35 year old CEO from San Francisco who works in finance but only uses her phone for email and calling” or “John: A 23 year old PR employee from NYC who’s comfortable with computers but uncomfortable thinking about his student debt.”

The point being, you want to create these different and very specific user personas while building and designing your product so that you’re forced to think about how all facets of your potential audience will interact with it. Will older users know to scroll down on our landing page? Is this sub-menu design intuitive? Is the sign-up form design causing a lower conversion rate?

And while I’m certainly not worrying about the pros and cons of hamburger menus in PR, I am always thinking about my audience. Whether it’s a pitch, a press release or a byline, it’s important to always force yourself to think of your audience in specifics, not vague generalities, to force yourself into that headspace of relatability and accountability to write something that truly connects with the reader.

Imagine You’re Making a Documentary

In my video production class sophomore year, our semester-long project was to make a documentary. It could be about whatever we wanted, but the catch was that it had to be about a topic we currently knew nothing about. The goal with this restriction is that it would force us to dive into a new subculture and learn everything we could about it.

When shooting a documentary, the common shooting ratio is 100:1; that means that for every 100 minutes of footage you shoot, you typically only end up using 1 minute of it in the final product. What this boils down to is that, when you’re shooting a documentary, you need to live and breathe this topic. Even if only 1/100th of what you’re learning and seeing actually makes it into the film, the other 99 still helps inform and provide context for what is important.

The same thing applies to PR. When you work at an agency, you can have clients in vastly different fields—fields that you may have had no experience with beforehand. But, like a documentarian, you need to dive headfirst into those fields and become an expert. You need to understand the culture and the norms, stay on top of industry news, figure out who the influencers are and what they care about, research which reporters are covering the space and what their favorite topics are. You need to do all this research not just to provide background information, but more importantly, know where to go next. You need to take those 99 pieces of information you gathered so that you can write that 1 amazing thought leadership byline, or that 1 amazing pitch to the perfect reporter. Sometimes you’ll hear camera crews say, “Shoot everything, we’ll edit in post”. What this means for PR is, read like a cameraman and write like an editor.

Prototype, Iterate, and Fail Fast

Looking in on the tech and engineering worlds, they seem to be particularly enamored with two things: extolling failure and rapid development. Facebook’s motto was “Move fast and break things.” Two Ph.D authors wrote a best selling book called “Fail Fast, Fail Often.” VC’s want exponential growth and they want it yesterday. And while I was in school, this took me a while to get used to. “You mean I can test out things I know aren’t fully functional?” “You’re totally ok walking through a hastily scribbled paper prototype?” These concepts were new to me; it takes a lot to let your unfinished projects out into the wild, to not only accept but invite criticism in your early stages of ideas so that you can iterate and continue to improve. I’ll be honest, it was scary.

But what this taught me is that creation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And great creations exist by getting as many different ideas and pieces of feedback as you can. We may not be shipping code in PR, but we are moving fast and we too can’t be afraid to break things every once in a while. If something isn’t working, it’s better to know now than to spend a huge chunk of your time working on it before sharing and finding out then.

Have an idea for a byline? Don’t just talk about it, prototype it. Bust out an abstract or some bullet points and share it with your team. Have some off-the-wall pitch you want to try out? Do it! Reporters get hundreds of emails a day, if it works, great. If it doesn’t, tweak it and try again somewhere else. That reporter will have forgotten it before they even hit the delete button. Today’s news cycle moves incredibly quickly, and while this may not be great for our attention spans, it is great for experimentation. Move fast, share early and experiment; it’s the PR way.

Be a Human

The first movie I ever saw in theaters was Toy Story, and ever since I’ve loved Pixar and all things animation. So when I had the chance to take 3D animation classes in college, I was ecstatic! Turns out, though, that animation is much less Woody and Buzz and much more oh-my-god-did-I-seriously-just-spend-4-hours-animating-2-seconds-of- footage-and-how-did-my-keyframes-get-shifted-and-why-won’t-this-lighting-render-properly-gahhhh-I-quit.

As I found out, it isn’t until you actually have to animate a character yourself that you realize just how difficult it is to make something look human. Is their walk too stiff? Did their arm move a frame too fast? Did gravity seem too light when they landed? Are they blinking too much!? And suddenly you begin to think a lot more about how humans interact: how we move, how we talk, how we sound, how we behave with people we know and those we don’t.

What this taught me above all else is always remember to be a human. In PR, our most frequent contact is with reporters, the same reporters who are bombarded day in and day out with mail-merged mass pitches and irrelevant news in sectors they don’t cover. Making it even more difficult is the fact that almost all communication happens through email; they can’t hear your tone of voice or read your body language, we’re stripped of the things that make us most human.

So what do we do? We think like animators. We focus on those small human characteristics that let our voice shine through and stand out above the noise. We write unique, specific pitches based on the reporter. We write like there’s actually another human on the receiving end, and most importantly we do away with robotic business-speak and write in a way that let’s our voice and personality show that there’s a human on this end, too.

It’s certainly been a bit of a shift going from computer code to public relations, but being at LaunchSquad has enabled me to continue what I loved most about that weird, cobbled together major of mine: always be learning something new and pull from as many different fields as possible. And if you’re a fellow techie who found yourself in the land of PR, let us know in the comments below! And if you’re curious about what other skills transfer to the PR world, check out more unconventional ways to hone your industry knowledge here.

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