The PR function has clearly evolved into a management discipline, as opposed to simply a communications function. As such, there is simply no need for multiple writing courses as an essential part of PR majors.
Inasmuch as the accreditation requirements of most PR programs limit the number of credit hours students can take in the major, some hard choices must be made in streamlining the curriculum. Most programs have at least two required writing courses, a journalism-writing course and a PR-writing course. Many schools also offer a third – an advanced writing course.
However, after years of hearing employers describe what they want in a PR graduate, I must take a stand. One writing course is enough. A CCO recently told me, "I need employees who can think and avoid creating problems with bad judgment. I can teach them to write a news release in 10 minutes, but I can’t teach them to not make bad decisions." Past columns of mine have featured the need for critical thinking, ethics, and strategic management acumen. These skills are in increasingly high demand.
The credit hours freed by not having an additional two writing courses could be used toward topics more relevant in modern PR: management, leadership, social media strategy, ethics, change management, issues management, internal relations, investor relations, integrated marketing, and so on. With these course concentrations, PR majors can better compete with the students emerging with business degrees. Potential employers often tell me they want to hire business, history, or philosophy majors because they can think critically – and they can be quickly trained in PR writing style.
Let’s face facts. If you cannot write well, you should not enter the PR field. I half-jokingly tell my students, "If you don’t know the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’ by college, this is not the major for you." The days of writing news release after news release have given way to the cleverly-worded 140 character snippet. Knowing how to write a news release is de rigueur, but can be taught in a simple class session or two that would enable students to move on to more advanced topics such as how to get that information to segmented publics who care about the message. Strategy should drive tactics. Always.
The field has significantly changed over time. We are a part of strategic management, meaning that research, strategy, and competitive positioning drive everything we do. Communications is a part of most fields. We must realize PR is a management specialty these days, rather than a wordsmithing position that is delegated a topic to disseminate from management. We’ve become specialized. For comparison, it’s hard to imagine a cardiology program requiring a writing class, even though communications is a part of that profession. Similarly, we have to expect good writing as a basic prerequisite for entering the field. English departments teach grammar and writing, so we should let them do that.
Our majors will be better prepared for the demands of their future employment if we equip them with an understanding of the basics of management, labor relations, research methods, public affairs, ethical decision-making, conflict resolution, crisis management, and other PR areas. A university education is more costly than ever, so let’s make a PR degree worth the investment.
Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.