Tuesday, December 3, 2013

From Journalist to Publicist: How Cycling Changed My Career Path

There’s an old saying: It’s a bad day if you don’t learn something new. I don’t know if it’s a common saying or just something I heard from my dad, but in either case, I have found it to be almost universally true. If you can walk into a new experience and walk back out without learning something new or interesting, you were either watching TLC or you’ve wasted an opportunity.

This outlook took me all the way to university, and when I graduated, I found myself looking for something new to learn that would preferably lead to a career in the not-so-distant future. I vaguely knew what I was looking for; something writing related that would let me travel. More importantly, I knew what I didn’t want: Journalism. This presented a slight problem since, for as long as I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a photojournalist. It was partly familial influence, and partly because I was inspired by a version of journalism defined by Walter Kronkite. In either case, I realized shortly after beginning a Bachelor of Journalism that, outside of being a brain surgeon, there was nothing I wanted less.

Fortunately, I realized that before it was too late, and transferred to the looser field of Communication Studies. While that gave me some breathing space, it left me in a bit of a bind. I found myself asking: What am I going to do for the rest of my life? What exactly can I do with a degree in communication studies that wasn’t journalism or telemarketing? 

Courtesy of Carleton University's Communication Studies admissions page,

Then Lance Armstrong and his doping scandal happened. When I heard about it, somewhere in my mind, I made a connection between the media reaction to the scandal and something my first year journalism professor told us during lecture. She told us that there were two strands of media: journalism and public relations. In short order, I figured out which strand I wanted to fall into.

I saw media handlers shuttling Lance Armstrong from interview to interview, fielding questions from reporters with answers that had obviously been pre-assigned. I listened as communications officials from Team Radio Shack and the Union Cycliste Internationale, the global governing body for cycling, run journalists around like a herd of cats, trying to keep a handle on the situation. 

Courtesy of Union Cycliste Internationale,

I watched as the North American media went rabid, and it seemed like every late night talk show was filled with Lance Armstrong jokes. I saw reactions from other cyclists, some genuine and some so obviously fabricated and filtered that it was hilarious. 

As I watched, the pieces clicked together in my head and for the first time since my first year of university, I knew what I wanted. I began to focus on learning more about public relations, both in North America and in Europe. At one point, I had forty different texts on public relations on my e-reader, and had followed the communications directors of each of the major Tour De France teams on Twitter. I filled my social media feeds with information, picking up the details of crises management when the world is watching. I wanted to be the person writing those Facebook posts and Twitter team updates. I wanted to be the one arranging interviews and media appearances.

However, this left me with a new problem: I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how to get there. I was almost entirely certain that applying to MSNBC straight out of university would end in a painful silence, so I fell back onto my earlier assertion, that it’s a bad day when you don’t learn something new, and began investigating further education on public relations. 

Courtesy of Mohawk College's website, mohawkcollege.ca

That decision led me to researching graduate programs for public relations, finding one here at Mohawk with rave reviews. It seemed like a perfect fit, and three months into the program, I can honestly say that it was a good decision on my part. Taking what I already knew about my desired strand of public relations, as a team publicist or communications official, and looking at it in context with what I’m learning in the program has helped me gain a clearer understanding of what it means to be a public relations practitioner. I’m learning something new every day and heavy course load or not, I count those as good days.

When people ask me why I chose public relations, my default answer is to say that I chose it because of a deeply ingrained disdain for journalism, with some vague references to Star Wars thrown in for comedy. In reality, the fall of Lance Armstrong helped me decide my career path, changing what I wanted to get out of a career after ten years of schooling. 

Public Relations was introduced to me as 'the dark side', something that would destroy journalism and had a decidedly unsavoury reputation. The decision is up to the individual of how they want to practice PR, but it is a matter of ethics.

Photo courtesy of the Star Wars Wikipedia page.
Whether the stars will align and I’ll become a team communications official is still to be determined, but what I’ve learned, and will continue to learn in the program, will help me build a life after graduation. I wouldn’t have had the motivation to continue an education in Public Relations if it hadn’t been for Lance Armstrong’s self-destruction, so when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s thanks to him that I’m in this program at all.

It all comes down to opportunities, and learning everything you can. I consider myself lucky, both for being in this program and having the good fortune to have had a front row seat to the Lance Armstrong media circus. It wasn’t expected, but it changed my life, something I’ll be grateful of for a very long time. 

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