To support a medical center

Over the summer, William and Mary students can be seen globally doing a myriad of activities. From service trips to study abroad to internships in foreign areas, it’s hard to plan any decent get together with my on-campus friends when my on-campus friends are in locations like China, Japan, Ireland, and France.

But for me, this summer, there were no exciting foreign excursions or exploring funny quirks of people from abroad like last year. I decided to stay right here, at home, in good ol’ Richmond, Virginia.

You see, ever since the beginning of this year, I’ve been exploring a new aspect of journalism at W&M, a broad field called Public Relations, and it only seemed natural to me that I continue it into the summer as a student intern at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus in downtown Richmond.

Before this year, I had only worked as, what many communications professionals refer to as “hard news journalism,” reporting objectively on news as it happens for a newspaper, eventually making my way up to co-news editor, and managing a section.

Then, in January, I decided to pursue this new field, serving mainly as a writing intern at William and Mary News, writing feature articles and “positive” news stories as they occur around campus.

Public relations often get a bad rap from hard news journalists, who often refer to the field as the “dark side” of journalism. In a sense, that’s true. One of the many jobs of public relations officials is to find ways to promote a specific label or message to the general public using the media. Thus, articles that often come out of public relations bureaus are often press releases slanted towards promoting one thing or the other.

Photo taken on a shoot on the last day of internship. Funny how the first and last story I covered this summer was out of that building behind me. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Gordon, VCU Public Relations)

Photo taken on a shoot on the last day of internship. Funny how the first and last story I covered this summer was out of that building behind me. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Gordon, VCU Public Relations)

Photo taken on a shoot on the last day of internship. Funny how the first and last story I covered this summer was out of that building behind me. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Gordon, VCU Public Relations)

But it truly wasn’t until this summer, where I realized that being a “public relations specialist” is more than just simply writing positive news articles. It’s maintaining an active relationship with existing media entities, it’s ensuring the safe and effective communication in the case of an emergency, it’s planning and carrying out press requests while simultaneously ensuring the safety of your own organization, all the while promoting the positive message of a label to the local community.

In a sense, my interning at William and Mary taught me about these facets of PR as a foundation. But it really wasn’t until this summer where for the first time, I was put into a situation where I needed to do public relations for a medical center, where I realized just how important the role of a public relations specialist is.

Having a hospital as your label complicates things much more than having a liberal arts college.
Suddenly, you’re thrust into a situation where it’s not just the safety of students, but potential safety of patients that’s also at risk. In addition, because VCU Medical Center, being a Level 1 trauma center, is where they take most victims of gunshot wounds or serious car accidents in the greater Richmond area, as a PR professional, your contact with the local media is unusually higher than at a small school like W&M.

Thus, the importance of having effective PR professionals is suddenly much more important in a hospital setting than ever before.

True, there were certain aspects of PR that I came in knowing. I came in knowing how to write feature articles, how the PR professional relationship with the local media works, and how important promoting the VCU medical center label was.

But there were also several hurdles I had to overcome. For one, getting over the challenge of having to think of patient safety in addition to student/faculty safety in media relationships was especially challenging for me. William and Mary is a relatively small campus with students and faculty that understand media, for the most part anyways. VCU, likewise, but add to that fact patients and their families that have just undergone serious stress, and you have yourself a firm PR challenge when trying to organize the press and promote an image. Perhaps, most importantly, patients in the care of the hospital are the hospital’s responsibility until discharge, which also means it’s the PR professional’s responsibility to ensure their safety too.

I think, for me, another huge challenge I had to get over was adjusting to writing in a medical sphere. At William and Mary, sure, I covered complex articles, but never something that involved terms like “B-cell lymphocytic leukemia” or “hematopoesis” or “hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” Understanding and gaining a basic understanding of the terms I was writing about, was just part of the obstacle I had to overcome as an intern. Researchers had spent several decades trying to understand a specific topic, I had to learn it in a little over an hour and simplify it for the general public: that was a challenge.

Thirdly, and most importantly, working at a hospital, you deal with miracle-like stories of success most of the time, but unfortunately, you also deal a lot with death. It’s unavoidable, it just comes with the territory. At William and Mary, deaths do happen, but usually less than once a year, if you’re lucky. At VCU Medical Center, death happens almost every day, and it’s how you deal with the deaths that could affect how the media views a particular death. I don’t think I’ve still mastered talking about something like that….

People too often paint a picture of public relations as a bunch of spin-doctors that care nothing about the objective reporting. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The job that PR professionals do in the field to promote a message is indeed important, but they do so much more to ensure the safety of individuals that really made me value my time at VCU’s Office of Communications and Public Relations.

Categories: Careers, Other, Student Blogs
1 Comment
  1. Bernice

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