PR students: What our students need to know

As a fresh intake of PR students start at university, Matt Rumble hears the views of four tutors on the skills these would-be PROs need in order to be successful.

September marks the start of a new wave of students arriving at university. But for this new set of PR students, there have been some major changes to the education ecosystem. Not only have fees risen sharply, but a new PR apprenticeship scheme has launched, which offers 'on the job' training to young people without the need for degrees.

The industry itself is also evolving rapidly as digital technology changes the media and allows for direct-to-public comms. Many companies are finally waking up to the importance of transparency and growing public power.

Amid these changes, PRWeek asked four high-profile PR degree course leaders what they believe their students need to know in order to succeed. All say that comms will become increasingly important to businesses, as they realise the power of a good public image. Subsequently, they predict a rise in demand for comms-savvy candidates to take broader management positions in firms. This requires a wider and deeper understanding of the business and political landscape from new PROs.

They also believe the financial and political struggles of the media will create a greater reliance on the PR industry to supply high-quality content to under- resourced and brow-beaten journalists. But despite the changing landscape, much of the key advice remains the same: network, build contacts and do not forget the power of strong journalist relationships.

Good luck to all the new students. And from the PR industry, welcome.

SPECIALIST SKILLS Graduates need expertise in web design, photography and video production

Pete Wilby

Pete Wilby, Degree leader in public relations, Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University

Agencies and clients that I talk to are very concerned with students' ability to write. Obviously they need graduates who understand the nuts and bolts of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But they also emphasise the importance of writing in an appropriate style for different audiences - promotional, news, feature, business and report writing - plus an appreciation of house styles for differing publications.

A good grasp of general knowledge offers greater opportunities in career development. But it is becoming beneficial for graduates to offer additional specialist skills, such as design, web design, photography and video production when seeking work.

Changes relating to new media are obvious, but students must realise communication problems are not solved by throwing social media at them. Media relations are still key. It's down to the credibility of the message. People are more likely to believe the reputation created by journalists, broadcasters and editors, rather than what you say about yourself online.

Digital media are very important for raising awareness, but the authoritative interpretations of issues are usually provided by journalists.

Their reports and comments fuel Twitter storms, so you need to keep them on your side to 'control' public opinion expressed via social media.

To increase their employability, we encourage our students to make contacts, build networks, make themselves known and grab every opportunity that comes their way.

This means doing more than the minimum number of weeks in work experience, building up a personal portfolio of achievements, entering competitions, getting work published, attending conferences and networking events, and maintaining a high social media profile.

QUICK CHANGE Students require flexibility to adapt to a constantly changing industry

Tom Watson

Professor Tom Watson PhD, Professor of public relations, Bournemouth University

Many students start with a narrow view of PR - that it's all about going to and organising events, and having fun. From the start, we emphasise the width of PR tactics and that the profession is not just about having parties.

Students need to realise they are going into an industry that is constantly changing. It has all changed from the days when I would go out and post press releases. Everything is getting faster and students have to be very flexible with everything they do in their working lives.

For example, social media are giving PROs the platform to bypass traditional media and go straight to target audiences. Once people ask some hard questions about what works and what does not, we will get a better understanding and they will be used more effectively.

We have moved our digital comms strategy module from the fourth to the second year to ensure students understand digital comms properly before their placement year. Employers are not satisfied by students just being able to use social media and the internet. They want students who can produce effective strategies that work online.

But some key skills still remain. The ability to write proficiently in a range of styles is as important as ever and with the shift online those skills will become more prevalent.

One of the big changes I visualise in the next few years is organisations educating staff about their role as company ambassadors. They are becoming aware that staff can also communicate the message and PROs will be important in educating staff about communication. There will also be a greater emphasis on integrating comms directives with business directives - good firms will use PR people on main boards, not just as an aside.

WAY WITH WORDS An absolutely vital skill is the ability to write compelling copy

Trevor Morris

Trevor Morris, Visiting professor in public relations, University of Westminster

People who apply for PR courses often know little about PR. Most do media studies and their idea of PR comes from popular culture. We have to explain to them that they will end up working for government and small organisations rather than the fashion industry.

The biggest thing for students is having a greater understanding of public affairs and wider audiences. There is more attention on the way companies market themselves now.

We are integrating more advertising ideas into the course because the distinction between advertising and PR is becoming less clear cut.

We are also increasing teaching about digital comms as that grows, but we preach the importance of having a critical and reflective attitude to digital. All the best news stories still come from traditional media. Social media just increase the awareness and discussion around an issue. So, building traditional relationships with journalists is still vital.

There are a few main things I teach my students. Firstly, they need to read a lot. It's important to read things they might not be particularly interested in because they need to understand the issues that are affecting people from different demographics. They also need to practise their writing skills. It's often the most overlooked aspect of a PR professional's job, but writing compelling copy is absolutely vital. Students also need to go to events and meet people with different interests to increase their understanding of what is happening.

The job market is tricky now. The most successful students are those who realise PR degrees are only a foundation. They have to be determined, network by going to events and do internships. The big message I preach is that a reputation for reliability never lets you down.

HIGH STANDARDS PR Professionals must be scrupulous in providing high-quality information

Anne Gregory

Professor Anne Gregory, Director, Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Business School, Leeds Metropolitan University

Today's students need to be aware that the world has become increasingly complex, interconnected and fast moving. The PR practitioner of the future will have to be the supreme contextual intelligencer - the ears, eyes and interpreter of what is going on in and around an organisation and providing that intelligence for senior colleagues to make decisions that will gain support.

Organisations are using PR increasingly to help them understand their technologically empowered stakeholders. These stakeholders can now create issues and opportunities from anywhere in the world, which means organisations need to be in touch with them at all times.

PR professionals are no longer information gatekeepers. Everyone is a communicator now and PROs are relied upon to advise businesses and employees how to control that. Technical proficiency within channels and content is also now assumed and instead businesses require strategic advice on how they can successfully communicate online.

Massive changes within traditional media mean more opportunities for PR to supply content. But traditional media are still the authoritative news sources, so PROs must be scrupulous in providing high-quality information.

The good news is the job market is buoyant. We have almost full employment for our graduates and not just in PR - media companies and general management positions where being comms-savvy is now considered crucially important.

Increasingly, organisations are being defined, maintained and judged by the quality of their communication and this will only grow.

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