The next step in PR education's evolution

An evolution is occurring in the field and education must evolve, too. The real challenge is how to balance the skills the market still requires with some crucial capabilities that cut across disciplines and classes.

PRWeek's April issue included a Master Class discussion on PR education and how it needed to evolve to serve an expanding professional role. Four professionals and one educator weighed in and outlined a daunting challenge.

They called for PR education to arm students with more business education, a global perspective, social media mastery, ingenuity, creative content and storytelling capabilities, more ethics, courses in philosophy, more foreign language ability, and, of course, basic technical skills, media knowledge, and critical-thinking capabilities.

The experts are right: an evolution is occurring in the field and education must evolve, too. In fact, education is changing at many universities. The challenge is not how to accommodate these new requirements as extra classes. That won't happen in a packed 30-hour major. Also, PR students already complete many such courses – e.g., philosophy, economics, literature, science, math, and social sciences – to meet core liberal arts and humanities requirements. The real education challenge is how to balance the basic skills the market still requires with some crucial capabilities that cut across disciplines and classes.   

Critical thinking is one of them, perhaps the biggest. This was emphasized in interviews I recently completed with 12 leaders in the field. They explained that finding talent was one of the most important issues today – and they were referring to mid-management, not entry-level talent. They want individuals with business knowledge, a broad set of capabilities, and especially critical-thinking skills. As one executive summarized, “I want high-performing generalists, not specialists. I want people who are strategic and who understand the business. And I want people who are critical thinkers and can solve problems anywhere in the world.

Educators can do more to help students develop critical-thinking capabilities in every class, but it requires concentration and reflection, which seem increasingly elusive in an age of short attention spans. It's even difficult to agree on what critical thinking means. I'll take up this subject in my next column. So please drop me a note and define what critical thinking means to you. Or better still, share a powerful critical-thinking exercise or experience.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D. is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals, and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu.

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