The ‘Accidental Academic’: Lifelong Learning with South Carolina’s Jeffrey A. Ranta

October 1, 2014

Jeffrey A. Ranta
Jeffrey A. Ranta

Instructor Jeffrey A. Ranta teaches multiple courses at the University of South Carolina, including PR and advertising campaigns courses, and advanced PR writing. He also serves as the faculty adviser for the PRSSA nationally affiliated, student-run Carolina Agency.

“I love what I do and I love sharing my experiences with others,” he says.
His professional career started as a Naval officer, which makes sense given his childhood dream job.

“I wanted to fly for the Blue Angels,” he says. “Growing up near a Navy/Marine Corps Air Station, we saw them fly nearly every summer. I ultimately found myself in public relations and the Blue Angels are a great example of unconventional public relations done right.”

Ranta, an agency veteran who is currently pursuing a Ph.D., was a 2014 recipient of the Plank Center Educator fellowship. He spent two weeks at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., this past summer.

Here, Ranta discusses the makings of an effective leader, the outlook for current PR students and the rewards of teaching.

What were some of your leadership takeaways from serving as a Naval officer?

A fundamental of good leadership is understanding individual motivation. Everyone has motivational or inspirational touch points. As a leader, your job is to discover these triggers and use them to help foster success for those in your care.

We all want to do a good job and be great at something. A good leader facilitates this as much as possible.

Describe your personal leadership style.

I have heard my leadership style described as “coaching/mentoring.” I believe in accountability, setting high standards, rewarding creativity and acknowledging quality work. Good leadership rests in the goal of finding ways to help or encourage those in your charge to positively exceed even their own expectations.

What makes a good leader?

Doing the right thing for your people within the confines of the circumstances in which you find yourselves. Occasionally, challenging those circumstances is also necessary.

Also, knowing the mission, understanding the obstacles, visualizing success and communicating that vision to others.

What advice do you have for someone interested in serving in the Armed Forces?

For public relations, public affairs or even IMC students, there are few better opportunities to practice your craft than working in the Armed Forces as a communicator. Being a Navy PAO was the “toughest job I ever loved.” It will take a lot of time, effort and commitment, but it gives a lot back in pride, self-confidence and relevant experience.

How did you make the transition from the Navy to civilian PR life?

Transitioning from the military to civilian PR life had its challenges. Being a military PAO was a great opportunity. And though it sounds counterintuitive, I felt like I had a great deal of autonomy within a fairly rigid organizational structure with consistently high expectations. In that environment you knew what the job was, you knew what to do to thrive and you worked hard.

That has not always been my experience in the civilian PR world. In this culture, at this time, communicators need to be more entrepreneurial and the landscape for success is sometimes less clear.

At the end of the day, however, the skills I learned as a Navy PAO translated readily and the self-discipline, self-confidence and general feeling of aptitude I learned in the military worked to my benefit and that of my employers. I found I had a much stronger work ethic and was a much better employee for having served.

Why did you make the transition from the agency world to the academic community?

I describe myself as an “accidental academic.”

I always thought asking the “why” and “how” questions were some of the best parts of the job. In academia, intellectual curiosity is highly sought after and provides the essence of good research.

In addition, over the length of my career, I have found that I excel in explaining complex topics and concepts in ways that people understand — to me, this is a fundamental definition of teaching.

This past summer, you served a Plank Educator Fellowship at ESPN Headquarters. What was the purpose of your time at ESPN?

Initially, I was brought in to assist with PR efforts associated with ESPN’s launch of their new SEC channel. But there was so much more going on during my visit, (FIFA World Cup, Wimbledon, NBA Draft, etc.) that it soon became obvious that, with my experience and skill set, I could fit in anywhere. Ultimately, I served on the SEC team and several other places. It was an awesome, enriching experience.

What were some of the takeaways from this fellowship?

The experience has helped me in the classroom and in my own academic research. Imagine an opportunity to study and work alongside some of the best in the business.

I would describe it as an intensive internship with rich opportunities to consult and do research as well. The ESPN corporate communications team “gets it.” They know how to do what we do and they do it extremely well. I learned from them. I contributed to their mission. I studied them. It was refreshing to see exceptional communicators in action, in real time, not just through someone else’s case study.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

Seeing student success. I frequently receive e-mails from students who have landed their dream job or their dream internship and I am excited and encouraged.

It is also rewarding to see students exceed their own expectations. I am particularly fond of our student experiences in our student-run agency and in our advanced PR writing courses. In these classes, you can see the students’ pride at a job well done when the client is grateful for the help, or when their press release gets a solid media hit, or when we, (the school) win professional awards for outstanding student work.

It is also fulfilling when you see an average or below average student, a writer, for example, step up and earn that ‘A’ through hard work or multiple revisions.

What is the outlook like for soon-to-be PR graduates and new practitioners?

There has never been a more exciting time to do what we do. The explosion of media, social media, self-publishing opportunities and rise of new communications technology have created a golden opportunity to work in this profession.

However, long-term success in this profession will require diligence, perennial self-assessment and an entrepreneurial mindset. This equates to a consistent reinvestment in one’s skill sets to stay current and relevant. A successful practitioner knows video, digital media, social media, and great writing and is always on the lookout for ways to use those skills to help someone communicate something of value to someone else.

What advice do you have for current PR students?

Many wonderful opportunities await. But, you should take steps now to get to where you want to go.

Learn as much as you can. Study what works and figure out how to do it better. Be selfish in your personal and professional expectations. Invest in your development as a communicator. Focus on your destination. Keep your existing skill sets current and, when the opportunities present themselves, get new ones.

What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Do what you say you are going to do. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Bloom where you are planted. All other things being equal, follow your passion and work toward it — it’s where you want to go anyway. Aim high — you might get there. When we take the long view of things, we accomplish 90-plus percent of the things we set out to do.

You are continuing work on your Ph.D. What is the importance of lifelong learning?

What is life but learning and doing and managing change? Change, both good and bad, is a constant and it is all around us. As we move through life, we need to embrace change. One of the best ways to do this is keeping our minds refreshed through lifelong learning.

Getting to Know… Jeffrey A. Ranta

Any three dinner guests — and what you would have to eat?

C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Leonardo da Vinci. We would probably eat Italian since Leo’s the oldest and it is generally much more exciting cuisine than “bangers and mash.” Or, perhaps, I would expose them to sushi — for what I am sure would be their very first time.

Best place to travel?

Australia or Singapore — I have visited both and loved them both.

Favorite movie?

Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King”

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



Jeff Ranta says:

Thanks for this. And for the LaPlaca story. Hope others liked it.

Oct. 2, 2014

Mrs. Glenn Ranta says:

Thanks for this article.One of the best strategies is toencourage life long learning. Embracing change is the ultimate and most necessary require ment to accomplish all strategies.

Oct. 3, 2014

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