Recommendation letters and references

I’ve had some conversations with students lately and I noticed they know very little about recommendation letters. In the spirit of transparency, I thought I’d provide some information that can help students make the best decision about asking for recommendations and references.

What goes into a recommendation letter?

When I write a rec. letter, I’m expected to mention how long I’ve known the student and in what capacity. Hint: If I don’t know you well enough (i.e. you haven’t taken a class with me, you haven’t worked closely with me on PRSSA or something similar), it’s best not to ask for a letter.

Next, I’m expected to explain why I recommend the student. What are the student’s demonstrated abilities that make her/him right for the job? By demonstrated abilities, this means that I have to support my claims with specific examples from your performance. This often involves talking about your assignments and class performance. In fact, Clemson now requires you fill out a FERPA waiver* stating you allow me to discuss this confidential information in the letter. Hint: If you haven’t performed very well in my class, it’s in your best interest not to ask me for a letter.

Often, I’m expected to rank you among my other students. For example, I can state that “this student was in the top 1% of her class” or “in the top 5% of students I’ve ever worked with.” Hint: Ask for a recommendation from a professor who can rank you (very) high.

What should you send me along with your request for a letter?

First, think about who can give you a great recommendation based on your great performance. If you ask me for a letter but you’ve not done great in my class, you put both of us in an awkward position. I usually avoid to write letters if I can’t say that I highly recommend you for a position, without any reservations.

Second, contact the person and ask if they could write you a letter by a certain date. Or, ask if they agree to be listed as a reference. Never, ever list someone as a reference without getting their approval first! If they do agree, then:

Third, send a formal request including the items in the FERPA waiver*. Attach a current resume and the information about the position you’re applying for. Include a firm deadline by which the letter needs to be received (no, that cannot be “tomorrow” – it should be at least one week).

If you’re an employer and you read this, can you help out? What do you look for in recommendation letters professors write for their students?

FERPA waiver*

Your request for a recommendation letter should include the following information (which you can type in the body of an email):


I, _______, am currently or have been a student at Clemson University. I hereby give Clemson University permission to disclose the following student education records under the following conditions:

1. Student Education Records to be disclosed:

2. Person or entity to which the above-referenced Student Education Records can be disclosed:

3. Purpose for which the Student Education Records can be disclosed:

4. This permission to disclose Student Education Records will remain in effect until _______________

Student Name

Student Signature


Edelman Digital Bootcamp

I’m live-blogging EDB, look for several updates throughout the day.

Other EDB updates: twitter, EDB website & blog

Session 1 – Social Media 101

Erin Caldwell kicks off the day with her personal story. As an Auburn student, she became familiar with the PR blogosphere (see this blog’s blog roll for a start), she started the Forward Blog and built her reputation online. Edelman contacted her and by the time she interviewed, they pretty much knew they wanted to hire her. Being able to use social media & building your professional reputation online can help you get a job in public relations, whether you want to practice online or offline PR.

Team Edelman introductions and personal stories about social media a-ha moments. Different stories, different people, with technology backgrounds varying from tech guru to “barely able to turn on a computer” – but all share passion, curiosity, and love for their work [9:05 am].

Who’s here from Edelman: Chris Broomall, Erin Caldwell, Steven Field, Phil Gomes, Jena Kozel, Monte Lutz, Stephanie Wasilik. Bios here.

Educators’ track

Session 2: How PR practice uses social media

PR educators introduce themselves and talk about: helping students establish connections between social and professional uses of social media; motivating students to learn social media; disparity between expectations (students know all about social media) and reality (students are not familiar and even intimidated by new communication technologies – RSS what?!) [9:50].

Phil Gomes provides the big picture of current social media use in PR.

Phil saw blogging as the ultimate media relations tool – you can demonstrate journalists that you’ve read them, and have reacted to their work.

Don’t think of it as a technology problem; the technology in social media is easy to learn.

Phil describes his approach to teaching social media in the Chicago T4 lab. They spend one day immersed in online conversation analysis. Phil doesn’t believe in teaching products, so he teaches his students to use free tools to analyze existing conversations about a client. Tools you can use: bloglines, technorati, alexa, blogpulse, etc.

Job description for an entry PR job (assistant account executive):

  • administration
  • coverage + conversation tracking
  • list building + community & member-list generation
  • editorial/speaking calendar building + identifying client conversation-entry opportunities
  • list & opportunity qualifications + deep-dive analysis
  • team knowledge mgmt
  • AP + web style
  • etc. [10:20]

Phil loves the advanced search in technorati that identifies all links to a specific URL. For example see who links to this blog.

What Phil looks for in a job candidate:

  • intellectual curiosity
  • up-managing skills (free of CLM -career limiting moves-)
  • an examined, omnivorous media consumption life (facebook or myspace? why? WSJ or NYT? why?)
  • basic knowledge of social media tools

== Tired : Pitching :: Wired : Engagement ==

Don’t write self-referential posts (what I did/wore today) – be useful.


The ideal job candidate would have:


  • perspective; understanding of online communities – Phil loves this Wired article
  • good online writing skills: concise; interlinked
  • online law & public policy (DMCA)
  • communication, technology & society
  • critical consumption of media
  • an understanding of rules/culture of online engagement [10:40]

Session 3: Social Media Tools in the Classroom

Session 4: Social Media Assignments

Educators shared assignment ideas that make use of social media in various PR and communication courses. [4:15 pm]

Session 5: Wrap-Up – Best Practices

Students sum-up some of the lessons that stood out:

  • transparency
  • there are many free social media tools out there!
  • update your site/blog often
  • blogger relations require a different mindset

Edelman practitioners were impressed to see students taking time out of their weekend to learn these skills – there’s hope they’ll have new colleagues with the right skills set.

Phil Gomes wrapped-up the day.

Congratulations UGA students for organizing a great event! You’ve worked very hard and it definitely paid off, it was a very successful day!

[5:30 pm, signing off]

Triple astroturfing cheeseburger

So, what exactly is wrong with the anti-counterfeiting campaign run by Heidi Cee? Or was it run by Hunter College students? Or was it actually run by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC)? Or was it actually run/paid for by the corporations behind the IACC?

That’s exactly the point. If figuring out who’s behind a public relations campaign feels like playing with Russian dolls, you’re most probably dealing with a case of astroturfing. Here, I see a triple case of astroturfing:

  1. IACC is a front group for corporations. Creating front groups or coalitions to campaign publicly and lobby for corporate interests is a textbook astroturfing tactic. See Beder, Sharon. “Public Relations’ Role in Manufacturing Arti?cial Grass Roots Coalitions.” Public Relations Quarterly, Summer 1998.
  2. The campaigns that students have run on many campuses, not only Hunter College, are in fact a public relations tactic for promoting IACC’s goal, are supported by IACC, and paid for by corporations. This relationship, even if it were fairly implemented and did not interfere with course content and academic freedom, is tainted by many shades of gray. To sort through them, let’s think of the publics on those campuses. Do they know that they’re targeted by an IACC campaign? Is it clear to them who exactly is behind the message? Are they fully informed and able to make a decision about the message’s credibility, which includes its source? Some campaign materials I’ve seen on IACC’s website do list IACC and a corporation (Coach, Perry Ellis, etc.) as a source of support. But is supported by a clear disclosure of interest and authorship? The shades of gray are getting darker…
  3. Finally, there’s the issue of a deceptive campaign that uses a fictional character (Heidi Cee) who engages social media. On her blog, “Heidi” writes that it’s her initiative to run this campaign and that she approached the IACC and raised funds from Coach for the campaign. It’s not until the very end of the campaign that a press release and a one-line blog post reveal that Heidi Cee doesn’t actually exist. Some people might find humor in this campaign, but the social media savvy will know that social media culture does not tolerate deception.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar case of astroturfing layered upon astroturfing (layered upon astroturfing). It’ll make a neat example in a public relations lesson, one that the poor Hunter College students are learning the hard way.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are some links to help you catch up on what happened.

First, read this post that summarizes the story: A public relations campaigns class at Hunter College was closely directed by Coach (member IACC) to run an anti-counterfeiting campaign. The campaign used a fictional character. The major issues people point out about this case are academic freedom and the deceptive campaign strategy. More relevant posts on this case:

Update [Feb. 27 9:00 am]: I came across the class blog for this course. It was mainly a tool for students and professors to stay in touch. But I found a number of problematic posts showing that no one thought twice about using deception, such as these about deceiving friends on facebook or the media. And this one summarizes the origins of the campaign’s concept.

Edelman Digital Bootcamp hosted by the University of Georgia March 1, 2008

I’m looking forward to this event and I hope PR students and educators from the Southeast will attend:
The University of Georgia is hosting the Edelman Digital Bootcamp for students and educators throughout the Southeast March 1.

Edelman, the world’s leading independent public relations firm, seeks to provide both students and educators hands-on skills integration training about the professional use of new media.

Students will break into teams, and then Edelman practitioners will direct them in a mock campaign. Students will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with Edelman facilitators to research, design and implement a social media solution for the assigned client. This approach will allow students to network with professionals while
gaining valuable hands-on experience.

An additional track will be available to educators, with more of a focus on sharing ideas and encouraging the adoption of new media in more communication curriculums throughout the Southeast.  Educators will have the opportunity to discuss the practicalities of teaching new media, share lesson plans and more.

Social media continues to grow, making this event a valuable opportunity. The registration fee is $20 [correction: $25] for students and includes refreshments and lunch during the event. A casual reception for discussion and networking will conclude the conference., the official Web site for the event, will go live a few weeks before the event and feature online registration information, photos, blog posts and other new media elements.

For more information, please contact Cindy Schnably at or (304) 283-6825.

Making of “A Vision of Students Today”

If you haven’t seen the video A Vision of Students Today, it’s not too late. You’ll certainly enjoy it and it will make you think. If you’re a student, I’d love to know how you relate to the video and what it means to you. Moreover, I’d like you to tell me what you think it should mean to me, as an instructor.

The video’s author, professor Wesch from Kansas State University, explains here the step-by-step process of making the video. I thought students who are thinking about an alternative project for their senior theses would like to see how you can use a video to report research results.

Transcendental meditation in Iowa

Someone from the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) contacted my husband the other day.  MUM is an Indian university that has a campus in Fairfield, Iowa. It turns out that MUM is not your usual (Indian) university. MUM’s philosophy of education focuses on developing pure consciousness and self-actualization, and helping students and faculty achieve their true human potential. They train all students and faculty in transcendental meditation, which is practiced twice a day at MUM. They offer a degree in sustainability. They have an organic farm and serve organic vegetarian meals in the school’s cafeteria. They don’t work on the semester schedule, instead students take one 4-week course at a time. This enables students to focus on one thing at a time, improves learning, and reduces stress from multitasking.

The concept sounds intriguing at the very least, and too good to be true at most. I’d love to visit the place and see for myself how these principles translate in everyday life at MUM in Fairfield, Iowa. But just from reading the website, I find several aspects of this concept very attractive:

  • integrating self-actualization, mind development, self knowledge, and stress management in education. As I learn more about meditation, I think there are so many techniques I’d like to share with my students – to help them, at the very least, learn to manage their attention
  • living a balanced, stress-free life
  • focusing on one course at a time
  • having time and resources (instructors) for practicing meditation, yoga, and pranayama (breathing techniques)

I wonder, is there anything we at “traditional” universities can learn from MUM? Anything we can do, in our own courses, to provide a more holistic education and reduce stress in our and our students’ lives?

good things come in 3’s

It’s been raining advice for students, here’s the third installment:

Todd Defren (@TDefren), principal at PR agency Shift Communications recently wrote excellent advice in this blog post: What I Wish My New Employee Knew.

See also good advice from PRSA on preparing a PR portfolio.

So, students, what do you think? Feeling more motivated? What will you do this semester to invest in yourself and your future?