You don’t just become the vice president of an international public relations firm over night. There are steps to take, skills to hone, relationships to build. You have to have a background – a history – that leads you there.
As a history major at the College of Charleston, Damian Joseph ’05 became fascinated by the stories that have led us to where we are now. And what he learned from his coursework and his professors has led him all the way to Chicago, where he is vice president of SE10 Public Relations.
“When I left the College of Charleston, I went to Northwestern University for journalism school, and out of school, I started writing for Businessweek, and then I wrote for Fast Company for a couple of years,” he says. “I wrote about business innovation and design. So, a lot of scientific breakthroughs, design breakthroughs and other really fascinating stories. After journalism, I transitioned into public relations.”
And, the rest is history.
The College Today caught up with Joseph to talk about his time at the College, how it got him to where he is today and why he thinks all CofC students should spend a little alone time communing with nature.
Why did you decide to major in history at the College?
It was during my first few classes at CofC that I became fascinated with history. I was captivated by the stories. History is full of stories about real people and real things that happened. It’s about princes, paupers, tradesmen, artists, philosophers, political leaders, military leaders and your average Joes. I wanted to read about things that really happened to people. I wanted to understand the context of the time that we live in now by looking backward through history. I wanted to understand how we got here as a society, in terms of art, in terms of economics, in terms of our political systems, our philosophies, our religions. I really wanted to understand what brought us to this point and learn about the pinnacles of human civilization.
Also, I really liked the coursework, the way that you study history: reading books, reading documents, reading old accounts of things that happened. I enjoyed writing papers and I enjoyed a good deadline. I also found value in working with history professors. They challenge you to go against the norm. They challenged me to ask the right questions, do my own research, synthesize the information and then come up with a point of view and make an argument for what I wanted to communicate. That was definitely the best skill I learned the whole time I was at the College of Charleston, and it’s really what attracted me to history in the first place. In a lot of ways, history is up for grabs by historians. There was no one right answer, and I was really attracted to that.
How does your history major connect to the job you have now?
Studying history was very relevant to public relations, actually. The process of reading and writing and communicating is also what you do in the history discipline. So it’s asking the right questions, it’s going to the right sources, it’s absorbing information from lots of different places and synthesizing all of that information into new thoughts and new ideas. Then you need to communicate that through a writing process that involves grammar, and syntax and pithiness, but also knowing that you need to educate, or inform, or persuade, or entertain or connect emotionally with an audience.
I think studying history teaches you empathy for people. If you’re in public relations or in journalism, you need to communicate to an audience and you should have some sort of empathy for their standing so that you can do that effectively. I think that is extremely relevant if you’re in a communications field. It is really important to have empathy and establish long-term relationships with an audience so that information actually resonates with people.
Tell us about your job in public relations.
My job in public relations entails moving around massive amounts of information to lots of different groups of people through several different channels and mediums, and tailoring that information in a way that they can consume it and they can understand it. So, it is communicating, it is educating, informing, persuading and connecting emotionally. These are the things that we are charged with. I need to do that through being a good writer, a good video producer or a good speech writer, for example. I need to come up with ideas that are unique solutions to communications challenges. I need to formulate communications solutions for the business goals that my clients need to achieve.
What’s the best thing about your job?
My favorite part of public relations is actually still writing. The further along in your career you get, there’s more business, there’s more meetings, there’s more client work and projects to manage. But I still enjoy when I need to write a speech or an article for a magazine, or a script for a video, sitting down with a blank page and having to come up with something to tell a story – knowing that, at the end of this process, I’m going to have something to show for it. I still enjoy that challenge. I still get a bit of adrenaline rush when I have to write something on deadline.
How did your time at the College influence your job today?
One of the biggest ways my time at the College of Charleston influenced my career was actually through working with professors. The relationships that I had with some of my professors were really profound. Even during the process of graduating from the College and doing my applications to go to graduate school, I worked with professors and I learned a lot through that process of trying to communicate who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.
I think the process of writing papers, talking about big ideas, trying to communicate to an audience, attempting to make arguments, etc., was the necessary training I needed to go on to work with people at Northwestern, to work with editors at some of the magazines I’ve worked with in journalism and the people that I’ve worked with in PR agencies. I find that not only did this help me in my career, but I have a much richer life because of that experience.
What CofC class had the most impact on your daily life?
Art history was big for me. I grew up playing music and I was always fascinated by music. I was already interested in the arts, but having courses in art history to really understand painting, and sculpture, and how revolutionary a lot of those artists were and how dangerous it was for them to be doing what they were doing had a real effect on me. The fact that they challenged the system and spoke truth to power through art. And now I really enjoy the Art Institute here in Chicago or going to different exhibits. And I really do feel like I understand, to some degree, what they were doing and how the progression of art before them was meaningful, what they were able to accomplish, and then what came after them.
What benefits do you think going to a liberal arts and sciences college has?
I think a liberal arts school like the College of Charleston is about education in and of itself, and about becoming a person with an enriched intellectual life that has a working knowledge of a lot of disciplines so they can enjoy a lot of different aspects of life. You’re exposed to so many different subjects – history, math, science, sociology, economics, speaking different languages, art, music. Even those courses that you don’t particularly like, those can actually sharpen you the most. They force you to think in different ways, use your brain in different ways. I’m able to go to an art museum and I have a basic knowledge of art history that enriches my life. The same thing applies to understanding economics, understanding science. I have a basic level of scientific knowledge, which enables me to enjoy PBS documentaries about the space race or about new scientific breakthroughs. And I don’t just mean the scientific method, but the understanding of what it took for humans to create these systems to obtain this knowledge and this expertise. I think it prepares you to be a better citizen and a better all-around person and have a richer life.
What advice do you have for students who are considering coming to the College of Charleston?
I’d give two pieces of advice to prospective students. One is to really open up to all of the subjects that you’re going to study. It being a liberal arts school, you should expect that you’re going to be exposed to a lot, even the subjects that you don’t particularly like are going to resonate with you later and are going to train your brain to think in new ways, help you think critically and give you knowledge and valuable information that’ll be relevant throughout your life.
I would also advise you to take advantage of being in Charleston because it’s a special place and you can really commune with nature while you’re there. You’re right there on the beach, and of course it’s fun and sun on the beach, but it’s also a profound piece of the earth that’s very special and is a very spiritual and sometimes a mystical place. The sun, the moon, the tides, the shore, the ecosystem, the generations of people and animals that live and die by the ocean. I would advise you to spend some alone time and really absorb what nature and what living by the ocean means because it’s important. If you’re open to it, it will change the way you look at life.
Also, it’s important to know that the College of Charleston is a really good stepping stone to further academia if that’s what you want to do. The best schools in the country will take you from the College of Charleston. It does have that credibility as a serious place to study.
What advice do you have for CofC students who are about to graduate?
I have two pieces of advice for someone who’s about to graduate from the College. One is to go for broke with your career. Go to the best company that will hire you, go to the best graduate school you can get into, if that’s what you want to do. Work with the experts in your field. By starting at a higher level, your career is going to have a better trajectory. You’re going to have a chance to work with the best and the brightest people in your field, and that’s really going to sharpen your skills and give you the lay of the land for what industry you’re going to be in. If you’re coming out of the College of Charleston, you’re probably educated and smart enough that you can skip some of the rudimentary things in your field and really go work with the best people. Also, you’ll be surrounded by people your own age who are doing the same thing. So you’re going to find peers with the same sort of passion and skills and expertise that you have, and those relationships are going to matter for the rest of your life.
Second piece of advice would be, even though your 20s are all about getting somewhere with your career, or your relationships, or where you want to live, who you want to be around, it’s really important to enjoy the ride. Don’t make it just about getting to the next thing. Embrace awkwardness, embrace failure, embrace missteps, come to value closed doors. I think really it’s just about enjoying where you are, even if you’re trying to get to somewhere else.