This week, like many of my colleagues, I’m scrunching my work week into about 4 days before heading to Orlando for the Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference.

PRSA OrlandoComing from Alaska, I’m also looking forward to some warm sunshine. This conference is my largest professional development expense each year but it pays dividends well beyond its expense. For those coming for the first time, or wanting to know how to maximize the experience, I offer some tips:

1) Plan ahead for professional development workshops

There are so many professional development workshops it can be overwhelming. Before reaching Orlando, figure out what types of things you want to learn. Then you can focus your attention on those topics in the program. To make things easier, the workshops are divided into several tracks:

  • Strategies — Sessions address strategic thinking and planning, reputation, behavior change, branding, marketing mix, risk communications, collaboration and policy development.
  • Tools & Techniques — Sessions address proven tactics, techniques and case studies in public relations, integrated marketing communications (IMC), messaging, word-of-mouth, media relations, media pitching, content creation, skills building and social media.
  • Specialization — Sessions include targeted content for PRSA Professional Interest Sections-sponsored programming, focusing on specific audiences and industries. Topics include health, global, travel, employee communications, diversity and financial, among others.
  • ROI — Sessions address the roles of research, social media measurement, ethics and brand value, as well as The Business Case for Public Relations™.
  • Leadership & Management

Imagine. Create. Inspire.Download the conference app to your smart phone and select session you want to attend. At the bottom of each session on the app is “add to calendar.” If you think you’re interested, add it. Once you’re done, check your calendar for duplicates and decide which is the higher priority. I sometimes don’t delete the second choices from my calendar as, occasionally, a session won’t focus where I thought it was going to focus. It’s okay to move to your second choice when that happens.

2) Take notes

Once you’ve decided on sessions, download the presentations for those workshops which the presenters provided ahead of time. Then, take notes so you can remember relevant information when you’re back home and need to apply it. On the other hand, don’t spend so much of the conference note taking that you don’t see those around you.

3) Attend social and networking events

Meeting other professionals from around the US and other countries is a wonderful benefit of the conference. Don’t skip out on any of these events including the opening night reception, lunches, exhibit hall events and such. In fact, there’s a newcomer’s session Sunday morning at 11 AM. This is a great opportunity for those new to the conference.

If you have a specialty or want to grow one, check out the activities from PRSA’s professional interest sections, especially during Monday’s lunch. Here you can meet people who share your specific career interest. There are also a couple of tweetups already scheduled you shouldn’t miss…even if you’re not on Twitter.

There are also opportunities to meet with senior professionals from PRSA’s College of Fellows about your career goals, have your resume reviewed and get answers to your most pressing professional needs.

Now that you’ve made a few friends, get a group together for dinner on Monday night. There are several restaurants within 10-15 minute cab ride of the hotel.

4) Attire

You don’t have to wear your most formal business clothes but make sure you look professional. Slacks and sweater sets are some of my favorite outfits. You’ll be mixing with those who could hire you some day as well as those who want to work for you. Look —and act — the part you want others to see. Wear comfortable shoes. No matter what, you’ll be walking a lot to get from workshop to sessions and such. There’s no point in having achy feet.

5) Have fun

Having gone to the conference and been involved in PRSA nationally for several years, I see friends there I only see at conference each year. But we look forward to seeing each other. The time spent chatting in the lounge or hallways can be as valuable as the time in a workshop.

6) Follow-up

When you get home, enter your new friends’ contact information in your address book and send a follow-up note. Connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or whatever your favorite tool is to keep you connected throughout the year.