MEET YOUR DEPARTMENT CHAIR – Maria Russell
Maria Russell is a professor of public relations in the Newhouse School. She is a proud alumna of Newhouse, where she received her Master’s in newspaper journalism. Russell was previously a consultant for the Greater Syracuse Program, an editorial assistant/writer for the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the director of community relations for the United Way of Central New York, and vice president of communications for the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce. Russell currently runs the Executive Education Programs for Newhouse and is the interim chair of the public relations department, as well as a member of the board of directors for the Central New York Community Foundation.
Q: What is your favorite course to teach in Newhouse?
A: I enjoy teaching PRL 206, the public relations introductory course, as well as PRL 497, management. I created the management class based on my professional experience. When I was a student here, we never really learned how to manage communications. PRL 497 teaches students how to manage people, time, budgets, etc. It’s cool to see students from beginning to end. They come in without a great understanding of public relations, and by the time they are seniors they are so ready for their careers.
Q: Do you have any particular interest(s) within public relations?
A: I like projects that make a difference. In doing public relations for United Way, I got to see how 47 agencies were making a difference. I love Syracuse so I love telling the Syracuse story, helping with economic development, and helping citizens feel good about their community. I like having causes as opposed to a product.
Q: What is your favorite part of working in public relations?
A: I love special events because they’re fun. I like working with media because I think it is a symbiotic relationship. They need us, and we need them. There are so many people who are afraid of the media or don’t like them, but I like journalism, and I think we need good journalism as citizens and as a society. Journalists are under such pressure today, so how we can help them be accurate, fair, and have their content and story on time are good things for us to do.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I’ve realized that I like going into a situation where things are not going well or are underdeveloped. When I went to United Way I had to build a public relations department in a matter of months, and within a year we were winning awards. I like going from scratch to excellence. It was the same thing at the Chamber. I had to build a whole PR department from scratch again, and that was fun. I came to Newhouse when public relations was one of the smallest departments. With great faculty and students, it is now one of the largest departments in Newhouse. I like taking nothing and building it into something.
Q: Did you always want to work in public relations and/or communications?
A: In high school and college I was very into journalism. I would skip math classes to go to the journalism lab. I came to Newhouse for journalism and worked for a public relations representative in the New York State Legislature while in college. This thing called ‘public relations’ was bubbling up. My degree was in journalism but virtually all my jobs were in comnmunications and public relations.
Q: How did you know you wanted to work in public relations and/or communications?
A: One of my college internships was working for the public relations director of my undergraduate school. It was a small office so I had a corner in her office, and all I did was cut out newspaper articles about the college and clip them into big notebooks. The director was on the phone the whole time, and I could hear all of her conversations. I think I learned how to deal with different publics by osmosis. I just realized how important it was to balance all these people and have good relationships everyday.
Q: What has been your proudest moment in your communications career?
A: Building United Way and the Chamber program, and when professionals point to Newhouse and our students. I was at a conference, and a very high-level chief communications officer for a Fortune 10 company got up and was supposed to talk about research. All of a sudden he went on this rant about students who can’t write. My heart stopped. Then he said “Oh, I don’t mean Northwestern, and I don’t mean Newhouse.” Another time, Richard Edelman said to a national audience, “I don’t know what Maria Russell is doing up there, but she’s producing great employees for us.”
Q: What qualities do you think make a student successful?
A: Passion and time management. I think if you are not excited about taking your public relations skills and putting them toward what you are passionate about, it’s just another job. And if you are going to spend 14-hour days, you’d better love what you do. I think most of our students are really excited about what they are doing. They have amazing experience by the time they graduate. Employers don’t have to babysit new employees that come out of Newhouse. You can be a very bright person but if you are not focused and able to multitask, than you will not be successful.
Q: What qualities do you think make a person successful?
A: Employers say education is very important, and they want to make sure students are getting a good education before they come to them. Personal and interpersonal qualities really make the difference. Critical thinking skills, emotional maturity, being a good team member, and being able to see around corners are great qualities. Employers say curiosity and inquisitiveness are important, as well. If you are not approaching things like a journalist would, you should be.
Q: Do you have any fun fact(s) about yourself?
A: I worked at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and that led to several other national competitions where I worked the press room. I created what is now the Annual Balloon Festival for Syracuse. I did press for the Special Olympics when they first came to Syracuse.
Q: What is/are your favorite quotes?
A: “The best thing about leaving Newhouse is that the door is never closed” (Matt Levine) and “He who teaches learns twice” (Confucius).
Q: Do you have a personal message for Newhouse students?
A: Take advantage of everything Syracuse has to offer. You are sitting in a very rich environment, you’ve paid a lot of tuition to be here, and something we all fail to do is say, “Oh my gosh, there is a great speaker in the Herg. I’m going.”