This post is the fifth in a series of Q&A sessions with friends, former colleagues, acquaintances and other contacts who I consider both influential and inspirational. Each of these individuals possesses a skillset that I believe you will find valuable. They have each made an impact throughout my career path and I wanted to feature them in this series.
Name: Troy Johnson (@TroyJohnsonAU)
Profession: Director of Communications & Marketing, Auburn University Raymond J. Harbert College of Business
Degree: Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations/Journalism from Troy University; Master of Technical and Professional Communication from Auburn University
Troy and I first met in Auburn around 2015 when I was looking for new opportunities. Though he and I were both members of the local PRCA Chapter, we weren’t close friends at the time. However, I reached out to form a better relationship in hopes of picking his brain as I searched for new opportunities. We’ve remained close since then.
In 2016, Troy and I also formed an agency/client relationship. The Raymond J. Harbert College of Business is a client of Verge Pipe Media‘s and I was the main point of contact for the account. Troy and I worked closely on strategic digital marketing efforts and further strengthened our relationship.
Even though I am no longer with VPM, Troy and I remain close friends and he is still a sounding board for me when I need one. I hope you enjoy the following tidbits and advice from Troy Johnson.
1) How does your current profession align with the degree you graduated with? If you have held other jobs, how closely have they been aligned?
While I earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations, the profession has experienced dynamic changes since my initial graduation in 1992. Portable technology and social media were as fanciful as the flying DeLorean from “Back to the Future” at that point. The Internet wasn’t accessible to the masses yet. It was another three years before I worked in an office where we were able to receive e-mail, and that was to a departmental address rather than a personal inbox. While the foundational elements of public relations I learned as an undergraduate remain relevant, there is little resemblance between what we were being prepared for then and what I experience now. The media landscape is very different, for one. We still place value on earned media, but we’re frequently able to bypass the traditional messengers these days and share information directly with our publics through social media, e-mail, push notifications, and other means. The biggest change I’ve experienced is the ability to collect relevant data and to be nimble in making necessary changes. We now have the ability to monitor the success of a campaign in real time and move to Plan B with minimal discomfort. All of those wonderful algorithms in the social media and software as a service universe also enable us to be far more targeted in our communication. A process that may have once resembled a shotgun blast is now a laser pointer.
I recently completed a master’s degree (while working full-time) in technical and professional communication. I selected the program because of its emphasis on web usability and accessibility, as well as design and rhetoric. The latter component is surprisingly relevant to what I do now. Part of my function is helping the public understand the value of academic and industry-focused research. Often, you have to simplify complex information in a way that makes it easily understandable for the masses.
The latter component, the focus on rhetoric, was particularly interesting and applicable as well. We studied Aristotle, among others, and examined the rhetorical moves they executed in attempting to persuade others. That’s useful for any PR or marketing practitioner.
2) What did you ‘plan to do’ after college and how close is that to what you’re doing at this point in your career? Were there any deviations along the way and did they help/hurt your path to your current job?
It took me a while to settle on public relations as a career choice. That was my initial plan, to do PR in the non-profit, agency, or political realm. But, as a double major in college, I was offered a six-month journalism internship at the Birmingham News (now better known as AL.com). They treated me like a veteran reporter, even assigning me to interview Michael Jordan during the height of his athletic fame. I loved the adrenalin rush of competing against other media and digging for news. That led to a 16-year career in which I covered everything from Southeastern Conference sports to the Olympics for various newspapers in the Southeast. I left that industry in 2008 because I didn’t like the uncertainty plaguing it. I had worked as a columnist for the last half of my career, which probably connected to PR in more ways than I realized. You’re the face of your news organization, for better or worse, but have opportunities to engage the community in ways many reporters don’t. One day I’d speak at a Rotary Club, the next day I’d be a guest on a radio or TV show.
In making the transition to public relations while initially working for Auburn University’s College of Education, I’ll admit there was a learning curve. In journalism, deadlines are often managed in minutes or hours rather than days. The focus is on immediacy. But people interact differently with the academic side of a university than they do with its athletic teams. At the same time, journalists are conditioned to be observant, to be resourceful, and to be multi-taskers. Those qualities are important for public relations practitioners, too. Coming from journalism, you may be well prepared to handle the tactical materials — the deliverables — that your organization or client needs. But there is an adjustment in terms of understanding the value of primary and secondary research before a project and conducting research on the back end to evaluate. You have to ensure that what you do is purpose-driven.
3) What’s your best piece of advice for today’s entry-level candidates?
When you apply for a job, show that you have done your homework. Have you visited the organization’s website, looked through any of its print materials, taken inventory of its social media, experienced its product or service in some way? Having been on a number of search committees and making various hires, I can say my biggest pet peeve is when an applicant misses the mark in a cover letter. So many write about how being hired by the university fulfills their dream or objective. That’s nice, but I want to know how you are going to add value to my team. A lot of people view cover letters as a formality, but it’s a chance for you to tell your story. How does your skillset align with the job opening? That’s what I want to know — not that you’ve been an Auburn fan since you were 5 years old.
4) What do like the most about your profession?
I love the problem-solving component. You’re trying to drive action, change perception, build awareness, curate existing relationships and foster new ones. There’s no better feeling than seeing your work result in a national media placement, or being able to see that you have helped persuade previously disengaged individuals or groups to invest their time, talent or treasure in your organization.
5) What is the biggest challenge you face in your profession?
Managing the flow of data. It’s referred to as Big Data for a reason. There’s more of it than there used to be, and it can be overwhelming. We’re fortunate in that we have a Data Scientist who is helping us build a better framework for managing the flow of information and helping to ensure the right people know the right things at the right time.
6) Why do people leave your field or company? Do you agree with why they leave?
In my professional circle, most fellow practitioners are long-timers or are just beginning their careers. If they’re not leaving because of retirement, you may have some who start their own firms or set up an LLC and do consulting work. They may leave an organization, but they tend to remain connected to PR and/or marketing. In the corporate sector, you see some departures due to downsizing or restructuring.
7) Are you considering leaving your current field or company?
Not at all. I wish I had made the transition to PR sooner. I also enjoy working in a higher education setting. You come to work feeling good about who and what you represent.
8) What is your favorite social media platform?
Probably Facebook, although I understand why it wears down so many people. It’s a versatile platform, and it’s more personal than, say, Twitter. In my personal use, I probably treat it the way I would a barstool at a local pub. It’s the place where I pontificate, try to make people laugh, occasionally argue, and share news I consider important. Because I work for a College of Business, I can say LinkedIn is an important platform in my professional role. You’re able to conduct research there on alumni or industry partners. I also value the ability to target specific companies or industry sectors. Some of the applied research conducted by our faculty offers relevance to executives in a variety of industry settings — banking, supply chain and logistics, management, accounting. We’re able to connect and share news with corporate leaders who may not be part of our alumni network.
Lately, I’m finding myself becoming more active with Instagram. It is becoming more vital for our organization since we serve individuals in their late teens and early to mid-20s.
9) What was the last book you read? The last TED talk or other e-learning content you consumed?
Not counting what I read to my 5-year-old son at night … my recent reads have included “Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations,” a non-fiction account chronicling the life and career arc of the firm’s namesake, and “Headed for Home,” a fiction/humor book by a friend, former Auburn University professor Mary Helen Brown. In terms of web-based learning, it runs the gamut. The Public Relations Society of American offers an abundance of resources. Also, as someone who works within a College of Business, I find value in checking out occasional webinars offered by Harvard Business Review. That sometimes helps me in understanding the common language or our faculty and industry partners.
10) Where do you receive your news and information?
It’s a mix of print and online newspapers, TV, and Facebook. I tend to read the following newspapers online: The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Opelika-Auburn News (local). I also have access to print issues of the NYT and Wall Street Journal. I watch local TV stations, and will occasionally check out the weekend morning shows like “Meet the Press,” but rarely consume cable news. I tend to monitor on Twitter rather than engage on the platform. I find Facebook to be useful in finding useful stories that may surface throughout the day, but tend to be very selective about what I read or view from it.
11) What are your hobbies? Do you wish you had more time to pick up a hobby?
I love spending time with my family. I have a 5-year-old son who is into a bit of a polymath. He’s taking lessons in everything from tennis to acting to ceramics to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
I love to travel. My first time outside the U.S. was covering the 2000 Olympics on assignment in Sydney, Australia. I’ve been making up for lost time since then.
And, finally, having been an athlete in my fading youth (football and soccer), I love to exercise and play sports. Right now, because my creaky joints don’t hold up well running full-court in basketball, my primary diversion involves weight training and power lifting. I like pushing, pulling and moving heavy things. I refer to myself as an AFG — Athletic Fat Guy.
I’m trying to make time for other pursuits. I serve on the state board the Public Relations Council of Alabama and have just recently started as a board member for Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity.