Public relations pros talk careers with student group

Haley Church • Nov. 3, 2014
Virgil Scudder at The Media School
Virgil Scudder, who owns his own firm, spoke to students in the IU chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America Friday. He was on campus for a College of Arts and Sciences Executive Dean’s Advisory Board event. (Grayson Harbour, senior | The Media School)

Two alumni with longtime careers in public relations made time to visit with the Beth Wood Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America Friday for a roundtable discussion about working in the industry.

Virgil Scudder, BA’58, radio-television, and Douglas Freeland, BA’80, telecommunications, talked with about 10 PRSSA members in the Ernie Pyle Hall lounge. Both were on campus as members of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Executive Dean’s Advisory Board.

Scudder is a former NBC personality who founded his own public relations firm, Virgil Scudder & Associates, in New York. He has been on the dean’s board for 20 years.

Freeland is director of customer engagement and alliances at McDonald’s, and he is new to the dean’s board. 

“I thought this was a great opportunity for our members to have a more intimate conversation with PR professionals,” said president Tori Lawhorn, who networked with IU Journalism and the College to arrange the chat.

Scudder and Freeland at the table
Scudder and Douglas Freeland talked about jobs, ethics and some of their own experiences during the roundtable chat in Ernie Pyle Hall. (Grayson Harbour, senior | The Media School)

The two drew on their own experiences as they offered suggestions to the students about crafting a career in the field.

“If I could give you a piece of advice in public relations, it is to listen a lot before you speak, and don’t be afraid to volunteer,” Scudder said of the types of employees he thinks will be successful. “A good model is someone who will volunteer and do their best. They’re not perfect, but they’re trying.”

Freeland said he values specific skills when working with new employees or with interns.

“The students who are really good writers are the ones who stand out for me,” he said. “But the thing that is going to be critical in moving forward is creativity.”

Both said ethical behavior also is critical for professionals, who must understand what is acceptable as they work with clients. For example, Scudder said he was working for a judge at one point in his career, and said that the judge had illegally received campaign funding from Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamster ‘s Union leader linked to criminal activity in the 1970s.

Scudder said he had no choice but to walk away from the situation, even if that meant losing his job.

“I was driving home that night and thought, ‘Hmmm, I wonder what I’m going to do for food,’” he said, laughing.

Working for McDonald’s, Freeland has faced similar challenges. McDonald’s is a sponsor of the NFL, and when the news broke of Ray Rice’s suspension from his team for domestic violence, Freeland’s team had to figure out how McDonald’s should react.

“I know the media are focused on the NFL right now, but it’s not too long until they come after the sponsors,” said Freeland.

Scudder and Freeland at The Media School
Both Scudder, left, and Freeland are alumni. Scudder majored in radio-television and graduated in 1958. Freeland has a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications, 1980. (Grayson Harbour, senior | The Media School)

He asked Scudder what he thought of the issue.

“I think the NFL turned its back on things it shouldn’t turn its back on like domestic violence,” Scudder said. “The league closed its eyes.”

Lawhorn said she enjoyed learning from the real-life situations.

“I like that Douglas connected his work with current events, especially touching on the latest situation with the NFL, since McDonald’s is one of its main sponsors with its All-American Game,” she said.

“His advice didn’t feel like it was pulled from a textbook,” she added. “This is a real situation he had to deal with not too long ago, and he’s now sharing how he dealt with the problem.”

During the last half hour, students asked questions.

Junior Kathryn Vance asked Freeland about the McDonald’s “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign. The campaign was launched to share details of ingredients and nutritional value with costumers, from calories and fat to origin of the meat the company uses.

Douglas Freeland at The Media School
Douglas Freeland described a recent situation where his company, McDonald’s, had to make PR decisions when its ties to the NFL became problematic. (Grayson Harbour, senior | The Media School)

He said the reactions have been eye opening.

“The response has been great,” he said. “We didn’t want to be defensive with the campaign, but just lay the facts on the table.”

Further questions focused on internships and careers, and the two talked about resumes, interviewing and jobs.

“They will be looking for your ability to speak and the proper use of the English language,” Scudder said of potential employers.

At the end of the discussion, Scudder quoted Maya Angelou as a reference for how to behave in the realm of public relations.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” he quoted.