ANALYSIS: PR Education - The three Rs still get an A+ incollege-level PR studies

Recent fads and recent crises have caused some to question the

validity of the way PR is taught. But those doing the teaching argue

that chasing recent trends is fruitless without the basic skills. John

Frank reports.



With the economy mired in recession and clients trying to trim costs,

the value of PR remains under scrutiny.



And it starts from the ground up, as college-level PR programs are far

from immune from these concerns. Students who started school four years

ago in a robust economy are suddenly facing a tough job market. That's

causing them to wonder if their education has equipped them with the

right skills for a profession that increasingly needs them to focus on

value for the dollar and quantifiable results.



PR educators, however, aren't worried about their programs becoming out

of touch with today's marketplace realities. The economy's current woes

and the changes over the past few years in the face of the profession

shouldn't precipitate wholesale changes in PR education, they

contend.



That's because PR programs are trying to turn out generalists with a

basic skill set in PR, not specialists in tech PR or investor

relations.



PR education needs to stick to the basics - writing, research, and

communications skills - rather than quickly change to suit a current fad

or respond to an economic downturn.



Furthermore, some say, one of the biggest problems during the tech

bubble of recent years was people turning out poorly written press

releases, or others not being able to clearly communicate exactly what

their clients or companies did.



In 1999, the Commission on Public Relations Education, an industry

group, published "Public Relations Education for the 21st Century." That

report outlined recommended course content for a reputable PR

education.



Its recommendations - which included such courses as Case Studies in

Public Relations, Public Relations Research, Measurement and Evaluation,

Public Relations Writing and Production, and Public Relations Planning

and Management - remain appropriate today, educators agree.



"In many ways, PR education has been ahead of practice for many years in

teaching research and accountability," says Jim Grunig, head of the

department of communication at the University of Maryland, recently

named the US' top PR graduate program (PRWeek, January 7).



PR educators not only defend current curricula, they also become

agitated by the thought that they need to change their syllabuses in

response to muttered accusations that PR contributed to the dot-com bust

last year, or to such current brouhahas as the collapse of Enron.



The tech wreck came about because of "too many not-fully formed people

going out and trying to promote things they didn't fully understand,"

says Bill Adams, associate professor in the school of journalism and

mass communication at Florida International University, and a member of

the commission that issued the 21st Century PR recommendations. "It's

hard to believe that anybody with true public relations skills added to

the collapse," he says.



Clarke Caywood, director of the corporate PR graduate program with

Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and someone who

left academia to work in the tech world, defends PR education despite

the tech downturn, saying, "Everybody's just looking for something to

blame for last year's debacle."



Getting down to business



Caywood is also quick to add that PR education is deficient in one

important area: encouraging and requiring PR students to study more

about the business world. He argues that even undergraduate PR students

should be taking marketing, accounting, and finance courses to better

understand how their eventual clients or employers run their

businesses.



"Traditionally trained PR students don't get enough background in

business," he says. "The tradition is for communication students to not

take those types of courses; journalism schools don't encourage students

to take them."



The counterargument is that PR students are comfortable in the world of

words; they don't feel comfortable in the universe of numbers,

statistics, and spreadsheets. "We are attracting people who are not

naturally quantitative," says James Terhune, head of the PR graduate

program at the University of Florida.



Caywood doesn't accept such arguments, however. "The reason they can't

do numbers is because they're not asked to do numbers," Caywood says of

PR students. "That's a stereotype that's just wrong." Caywood contends

that PR programs shouldn't be accepting students, whether at the

undergraduate or graduate levels, unless their math aptitudes come close

to their verbal skills.



The 1999 commission recommendations talk about PR students studying

accounting, finance, marketing, and strategic planning at the graduate

level. Marketing and finance are also included in undergraduate skills,

but listed after more PR-specific areas such as communication and

persuasion concepts and strategies, communication and public relations

theories, relationships and relationship building, societal trends,

ethical issues, and legal requirements and issues.



Ray Simon, professor emeritus at Utica College in upstate New York, is a

pioneer of PR education. In 1949, Utica asked him to create the school's

PR program. His first PR requirements included an "introductory" course

and a "writing" course, Simon recalls. PR students were also required to

take a "journalism editing" course.



By the 1970s, courses that reviewed PR case studies were common, a step

Simon says provided a major boost to student understanding of PR. "The

big change was in the case courses. Cases require students to come to

grips with what is really out there," he says. Classes that sent

students into the field to work in PR followed. More recently, courses

have been introduced to deal with use of the internet and technology, he

explains.



Today's PR courses comprise only about one fourth of all the credits PR

majors take in undergraduate programs. The rest are usually liberal arts

courses. Studying psychology and other behavioral sciences is key for PR

students, says Adams. "The theoreticians want us to really steep our

students in theory; that's where you really use those liberal arts

courses," he says.



Sticking to the basics



Adams' words are echoed in the commission's recommendation that "the

undergraduate public relations curriculum be grounded in a strong

traditional liberal arts and social science education. A minimum of five

courses should be required in the major. Coursework in public relations

should comprise 25%-40% of all credit hours, with at least half of these

courses clearly identified as public relations courses - the remaining

60%-75% in liberal arts, social sciences, business, and language

courses." The commission went on to strongly encourage a minor in

liberal arts, social sciences, or business.



John Edelman, managing director for global human resources with Edelman

Public Relations, has spent a great deal of time looking at PR education

issues, and believes the commission's recommendations still form a solid

base despite current economic ills. "The ability for a PR person to

respond to whatever is happening and evolving goes back to the basic

skill set," he says. "Writing and communications skills are even more

important now," when clients are clamoring for results for their PR

dollars.



THE EVOLUTION OF PR EDUCATION

A PR curriculum in 1949:

- Introduction to PR

- Public Relations writing

- Editing

Recommended curriculum now:

- Introduction to PR

- Case studies in PR

- PR research, measurement, and evaluation

- PR writing and production

- PR planning and management

- PR campaigns

- Persuasion strategies

- Societal trends

- Ethical issues

- Legal requirements and issues

- Supervised work experience in PR (internship)

SOURCES: Ray Simon, professor emeritus, Utica College, and Public

Relations Education for the 21st Century



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