Graduates of the University of Montana School of Journalism go on to do great things, in journalism and beyond. They direct newsrooms, report on international issues, photograph history, inform the public on air, start their own businesses, influence public policy, publish books and become leaders in their communities. Here, we spotlight some of our alumni who showcase just how powerful, and versatile, a journalism degree from UM can be.
This installment spotlights Erin Billings, who graduated in 1995. Billings worked as a political reporter in Montana and then in Washington D.C., where she spent 10 years reporting and editing for Roll Call. She then moved into public affairs and strategic communications and is now the Senior Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for Global Strategy Group.
Question: Was this the type of work you thought you’d be doing when you went to school? Share any details you’d like on your work trajectory?
Answer: When I graduated from J-School, I thought I would spend my career in journalism. But after nearly 15 years, I was ready for a change, and decided to pursue a career in communications and public affairs. I’ve now been a communications consultant for six years, and I’ve found that the skills I honed as a journalist are wildly transferrable. Now I help clients navigate the media world so they know what to expect, when to expect it and how best to tell their stories.
Can you describe an average day on the job?
There’s no average day on the job in public relations, which is perhaps why I find it so rewarding. I work on a diverse and broad client portfolio – from nonprofits, to corporations to trade associations. Each client need is different (and evolving), and the issues and challenges change day-to-day.
What experiences at the J-School were notable in preparing you for your work?
Journalism School taught me the fundamentals – writing, editing, strategic thinking, all of which I use every day. The practical side of journalism, and the skills I learned at UM, taught me the importance of deadlines, responsiveness and decisiveness. It was one of the best building blocks I could have had in this career.
What are the skills you learned in J-School that you use on a daily basis? In your work? In your life?
Writing is one of the most important skills for any professional, no matter what path they choose. The J-School taught me how to write well, write thoughtfully, with precision and accuracy. The J-School also taught me to be curious, ask the right questions, and arrive at smart solutions. I use these skills every day, both professionally and personally.
What do you think makes the J-School special? Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at the J-School?
The J-School is special, not only for the quality of the programs and the professors, but also because of the community it creates. The relationships and experiences I had on campus made such an impact on me personally and professionally. Some of my fondest memories were while working on the Kaimin, until all hours of the night, with an amazing group of students who wanted to work hard, loved the news, and who wanted to tell the most interesting stories in the most thought-provoking ways.
What do you wish you would have learned at the J-School?
I wished I had more time at the J-School so I could have explored some of the other aspects of journalism, including photo journalism. If I were to go back today, I would want to spend time learning about digital analytics and the sophisticated tools therein. I would also like to learn more about paid media strategies.
What advice would you give a student just starting out in journalism school? Or, what advice would you give to someone considering journalism school?
I would tell any prospective journalism school student to appreciate the range of possibilities a degree can offer. Journalism school is not just for someone interested in becoming a reporter; it offers a baseline of skills for a variety of careers (communications, journalism, public affairs, political work, advocacy, etc.). The fundamentals learned in journalism school can put any student on a successful professional path.