Professor Justin Joseph instructs undergraduate and graduate courses at Boston University’s College of Communication and serves as faculty co-director of PRLab, the nation’s longest-operating student-run PR agency. With two years of PR agency experience and more than 20 years of in-house experience, Professor Joseph is a veteran public relations professional and marketing communications executive. He has been teaching at BU since 2009, and he holds an M.S. in Marketing Communication from BU and an MA in Theology from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In this interview, Professor Joseph shares his perspective of the PR field.
What led you to pursue a career in PR?
To be honest, I didn't even know PR existed as a career option until my senior year of high school. I’m a problem solver by nature, who also happened to feel far more comfortable writing and speaking than I did with solving a math equation or learning the periodic table. During my undergrad years, as a student at COM, I got to learn with the best. I didn’t have any connections to this industry, nor did I know anyone who worked in it. But I was drawn to my professors and every word they said in class. They opened my eyes to so many possibilities. I think in many ways, I’m still drawn to those possibilities.
When I heard that it was possible to work in an industry based on using communication to solve critical problems, I was in. I still get excited when a client or organization presents me with a business challenge: “How do we launch this product in that market?” “How do we elevate the need for this solution among our customers?” “What can we do to educate and motivate investors?” PR has always given me an opportunity to address challenges while being creative. Communication also gave me an opportunity to try so many different industries and tasks to see which ones I liked doing and which ones I may not be interested in.
Tell us about your experiences working in agencies and in-house. Having worked both, which did you prefer? I went to work on the agency side first, and my client was a big consumer tech company. It was amazing to see what consumer tech was like and to be on the agency side representing them. I had a chance to learn so many of the foundational elements of public relations in the agency setting. I would never trade that. But the truth is, I also learned many things I really didn't care for or want to do, and that led me to the client side of marketing and communication, where I’ve spent over 20 years of my career. I started to learn the parts of PR communication I loved. Corporate communication, crisis management, executive visibility, thought leadership, product launches, etc. During my second year in-house at a global consumer tech company, I was given the amazing opportunity to serve as a company spokesperson. Everyday, I was using those writing and presentation skills to tell my brand’s story to key stakeholders all over the world.
Leading in-house communication teams, and partner agencies, allowed me to think deeply and critically about the unique problems that my organizations were facing, and then use creativity to solve them. This is not a universal rule, but I think it's the young professional who's been through the agency side that tends to be more valuable on the in-house side. They tend to have more broad experiences across multiple clients, multiple industries, and multiple projects and tasks. Now, that's not saying that you have to do just agency or just stay on the in-house side. But I do think that if you've tried both, it can be very helpful in charting a career path.
I would encourage all of you to sit and think: What am I good at? What can I do? What do I enjoy doing? What can I get paid to do? What do I ultimately want to do? Who do I ultimately want to be? Many of those questions won’t be answered during or right out of college, but they are worth pursuing.
What is a challenge that you have had to overcome as a PR professional?
As a son of immigrant parents, it was never lost on me what a tremendous sacrifice it would take for me to attend a prestigious university, like BU. My parents worked tirelessly for decades so that my brothers and I could experience the opportunities they were never given. Right from the moment I declared my public relations major, I knew that I couldn’t count on family connections or a vast network to guide me through college and the job search. To be honest, I had never met a PR professional in my life until my first day of “Principles and Practices of PR,” when the late Professor Terry Clarke walked in. During the attendance roll-call, he got into a verbal altercation with a student and threw him out of the class. The rest of us sat in shocked silence. Ten minutes later, the dismissed student returned, and Professor Clarke informed us that the young man was actually his son. He was teaching us the role of cognitive dissonance in life. It’s a lesson I never forgot, and I remember thinking in that moment, “Wow, if I ever get to be a teacher, that’s the kind of teacher I’d like to be someday.” Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would get to teach at that very University I was so fortunate to attend.
I was shy and introverted, but those early classes taught me that you don’t have to be given a network. Go create one. So I took on the challenge of meeting people, asking if I could help them, trying to connect one person I knew to another. Now, 25 years after being in Prof. Clarke’s class, I get to use my network to help my own students find internships, jobs, graduate programs, and any other next step they may be considering.
From a career perspective, some of my favorite challenges have been the crises that I’ve helped lead organizations through. While it rarely feels joyous at the time, the adrenaline and camaraderie are things I can’t forget. From product failures and event mishaps to bankruptcy filings and angry investors, I’ve often found that the deepest challenges can be the most profound teachers. I can remember many days when my organizations had to make massive
announcements, and so many pieces had to fall into place perfectly. Those days were often filled with stress and even the self-doubt that comes from “PR professional imposter syndrome.” However, each challenge was an opportunity to build a tiny bit of confidence for the next challenge.
What skills have you found most useful through your PR experience?
I genuinely believe that many of the human skills are still the most beneficial: Listening, caring, being generous, reading a situation, understanding your audience, conversation, knowing when to speak, when not to speak, and building genuine relationships that go beyond, “What’s in it for me?”
That being said, writing and presenting are still foundational to PR success. For me personally, presentation skills became a giant part of my career. When I served as a spokesperson for companies in consumer tech, education, and health care, I realized that many people were relying on my words, so learning had to be an everyday part of the job. Reading relentlessly, knowing my business, and understanding the competition were all part of a discipline that came from having to present regularly. When your brand's stock price, media mentions, employee morale, and investor sentiment are affected by things that you say, you push yourself to develop that skill even more. When presenting became a bigger part of my role, I had to get much better at that.
What advice would you give to students looking to go into the PR field?
Control what you can control. With everything else, be patient and comfortable that it’s not in your hands. You can control how much knowledge you’re taking in, how hard you’re working, and the good habits you’re building. Focus on those areas that you can improve and find ways to improve them.
I remember the stress I would put on myself to secure that first job and try to plan the next five to ten years. Looking back, that was a mistake. Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride. Being adaptable is a marketable skill in this industry. Allow the uncertainties and unknowns of today to develop in you a patience and flexibility that will serve you and your future organizations.
My strongest advice would be to never forget the profound impact of the skills you have. You have the power to influence. What will you do with that power? There are so many worthy causes and important missions that need great communicators to tell their story. Regardless of how busy you get, always try to carve out a portion of your week to pursue things that matter. How can I positively influence those around me and those I can reach with the power that I have
been given? There will always be things that seem “important” and things that actually “matter.” Try to learn the difference, and pursue what matters.
Written by Isa Xu
Edited by Audrey Tumbarello