Part-Time Lecturer Jack Grasso jokes that he was inspired to pursue a career in Public Relations (PR) because he was “a recent veteran of the U.S. Army, married and with my beautiful daughter on the way.”
The complete truth, he said, is that he pursued his career because of the chance it gave him to write and “use facts, references and clear language as the raw materials in creating mutually beneficial business outcomes.”
His long and successful career in public relations and communications also enabled Grasso to mentor colleagues, and in 1998, when he retired after many years as a Vice President of Communication at AT&T, he soon turned his years of experience into a new career: teaching public relations at SC&I. For 14 years, Grasso has taught and mentored undergraduate students who are studying PR in the Communication Department. Today, many of his students are also members of SC&I's chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and SC&I’s student-run public relations agency Scarlet PR.
This year, Grasso was rewarded for his hard work by his students, seven of whom nominated him as “Career Mentor of the Year.” In an email to Grasso notifying him of his nomination, Toi K. Tyson, chair of the selection committee at University Career Services, wrote, “We had over 90 nominations from students across the campus, and your seven glowing nominations from students Grace F. Kolojeski, Kirsten M. Baydar, Kimberly J. Jones, Joseph T. Cammarato, Milena Drozd, Kaley A. Heuschkel, and Nicole Ferranti truly stood out among all the members of the selections committee! Seems to us that you are not only doing some great work within the PRSSA and Scarlet PR organizations, but you are also providing a world-class mentoring environment for Rutgers’ students.”
When Grasso first learned of his nomination, he said it “was indeed a complete surprise. I knew nothing about it until I received an e-mail one day from Career Services informing me that I was chosen for this very special award from the over 90 nominations that were submitted. I immediately erased the e-mail because I thought it was a phishing attempt and I never thought it could actually be for me. The next day in my classes, the students were all abuzz about it. One of them forwarded me the e-mail, once they learned I had erased it.
“It took a while to sink in because I always thought mentoring went with the job of being an adviser to an active student organization and having about 170 students or more each semester. As I thought about it and learned more about the effort my students put into composing and submitting so many complimentary and laudatory letters of nomination, I began to feel very proud of their outpouring of gratitude and respect for whatever I may have done to help them form their paths to a meaningful professional and personally satisfying future.
“Remembering my Mother’s admonition to remain humble no matter what success you achieve in life, I really feel that I am privileged to work with members of the faculty and staff here at the School of Communication and Information who mentor students every day. Any one of them could have been chosen for this honor.”
Grasso and the students who nominated him were invited to an awards ceremony and dinner on May 4, 2017. Speaking of the event, Grasso said, “At the Career Services Awards dinner, a short video was presented in which I was introduced by several of my students. To hear them express such praise and regard was very touching and something I can share with my family who sometimes wonder about exactly what I do at Rutgers. [Watch the video here].
“I am very grateful to University Career Services who bestowed the honor, to my colleagues and especially to my students who have helped me discover things in myself that, at this stage of my life, give special meaning to my work and my mission as a teacher and I guess, as a mentor.”
SC&I took this opportunity to interview Grasso for a Q&A about his career prior to Rutgers and his views on the vital importance of teaching and mentoring at Rutgers.
Q&A with Part-Time Lecturer Jack Grasso
Where did you spend most of your career?
I spent the first few years of my career in sales and marketing but eventually moved into public relations. I liked to write and found PR to be where writing is the most critical skill. I moved around, all with public companies like Litton Industries, The Boeing Company and finally landed at AT&T where I spent most of my career. I was Vice President of Communication for their internet development division and retired from there in 1998. I joined Rutgers that year.
What did you enjoy the most about your career in PR? Please include any anecdotes you would like your current and potential students to know!
Whether it was a news release, a speech, a media conference, a new product announcement, or a major media interview, I had many satisfying achievements in becoming a senior communication executive. A job like this has many facets requiring the skills of a counselor, an expert in all aspects of the enterprise, a developer of aspiring young and talented professionals and a contributor to policy decisions across a wide range of disciplines.
What inspired you to want to teach PR, and what aspects of it do you find the most rewarding?
I retired from AT&T at a relatively young age. My youngest son, Andrew, suggested I consider teaching somewhere. I applied to all the schools in the NYC area—except Rutgers. I thought a school of its size and reputation would not consider a PR guy with only a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology. Andrew said “send your resume to them anyway.” I faxed (remember those?) my credentials to the Communication Department, they contacted me immediately, I came in the same day, they were just meeting about the need for an outside professional to teach public relations. I started the next day. Moral of the story: listen to your children. They may have a perspective about you that you may not have.
The most rewarding part of the job is helping young people make a decision about PR as a career, giving them some advice and support and then hearing about their landing a PR job or something related to it like marketing. Sometimes I have to tell students that their skill set may be more suited to something else like marketing or advertising. Above all, I try to make them believe in themselves and if they think they can do something, I tell them they must do it. I often say to them, ‘Don’t spend your life wishing you had tried something and never getting around to it.’ That is why I do this. Nothing is more satisfying or compelling than inspiring young people, helping them discover themselves while keeping up with the many ways the communication professions have changed over the years.
What advice, tips, etc. do you always give students before they think about embarking on a career in PR?
That’s easy: ‘writing, writing and writing.’ Of course, they should know all about the sea change taking place in media as social media is becoming close to being on a par with traditional channels of communication with the public. They should listen, keep informed of what is going on in the world, have several news feeds on their desktops and read, read, read. Besides excellent writing skills, having a passion for perspective and context are also critical in being successful in PR.
Did you start Scarlet PR? If not, how do you mentor the students in this group and in PRSSA?
Having a student-run PR Agency is part of our PRSSA Charter. We had one years ago but frankly, there were not enough students who were prepared or interested enough in PR to realistically serve clients with PR expertise. Most of the client engagements were more about marketing and sales and I thought it was not in keeping with our PRSSA charter. We suspended it for a while but the interest in PR began to gain momentum. We added more sections, experienced increased demand and it began to look like a true PR agency would be a viable enterprise. We spent one semester on researching other PRSSA chapter agencies; the next semester on planning the right model for our chapter; the next semester as an experiment to see what might work and how it might be received by clients in the area; the next semester (Fall of 2016) we went live and it was successful in obtaining and serving a few clients. One lesson I wanted students to learn was that planning, learning, adjusting and then moving ahead are the ingredients to sustained success. I am asked for advice frequently on specific clients and their needs but for the most part, the students run show. Luckily we been blessed with excellent and highly motivated leaders of Scarlet PR and the support and leadership of the PRSSA Executive Board.
What qualities do you think are necessary in a mentor, and how do you mentor your students? Do you have advice for anyone who hopes to be a great mentor?
Being a mentor is not an intellectual skill or experience. I’m reluctant to say it resides in your heart because that might sound a little too ethereal. It really resides in your psychological disposition toward sharing what you know and what you’ve done with young people who are interested in learning and have an eye to their future. There are of course, really great young men and women who really don’t have a plan or a concept of what to do with a swiftly approaching future of real life. On some level they are the ones that respond more readily to mentoring and get on a track with a special level of commitment and energy. The key is to regard them as fully functioning adults who are honing their skills for the work ahead. The most effective technique of mentoring is sharing your own stories about how you got started and how you grew and how you became a viable participant in a meaningful career. You have to let your students know you are not anything special, that you were once in their position, that you worked hard because the best luck always comes from the hardest effort.