Interview: Robert French

Robert French, a professor at Auburn University, has helped inject the subject of blogs into the curriculum of PR students.

Robert French, a professor at Auburn University, has helped inject the subject of blogs into the curriculum of PR students.

He encourages students to keep their own sites and interact with PR bloggers. He also established, a free weblog service for PR students and practitioners. He talked to about how he introduced blogs to his curriculum, how students interact with PR professionals who blog, and how students have embraced the medium.

Q: When did you start employing new media techniques in your lesson plan?
It was over a year ago. I was reading blogs and noticed there were several PR bloggers. I began reading them before I started blogging, which is a wise choice. As I read them, I thought of ways to incorporate them in our class. I began to notice more and more PR bloggers [establish a presence] online. I realized that if students could interact with them, it would be much more valuable then just reading case studies. Not that I'm dissing case studies. I thought, "What if I could get these people to join together in order to help students?" I didn't pitch anyone at all. I just set up blog and wrote in it that I would love for PR practitioners from around the world to volunteer to help. Sure enough, they did. Octavio Rojas, a PR practioner from Madrid, Spain was the first to contact me. There are now ten volunteers of them.  

Q: Before the proliferation of PR blogs, did you encourage students to try to establish relationships with practicing PR professionals? Did you find PR bloggers to be more accessible than the average PR professional?
We encourage our students to take on as many internship as they are willing to or capable of doing. Our program is very experiential. We have always encouraged students to [interact]. But PR bloggers are obviously already willing to speak their mind and interact with other people. Perhaps that does mean they're a little more. But I [cautioned] students that if you start talking to a blogger, and they think you're nuts, they'll might tell you right away. With a blog conversation, you get [feedback] pretty quick.

Q: When you brought the PR blog environment to your students' attention, did any students report that they were reading or writing blogs?
I'd say ten to 20% of the students were blogging, and maybe 30% to 40% knew about blogs. Now any student that comes into my class knows about blogs. There has been a dramatic increase in just one year.

Q: Do you try to teach lessons in terms of old and new media, or do you try to integrate them?
I try to make things as interrelated as I can. The aspect of tracking [traditional] news online, that integration is already there. 

Q: In discussions about pitching media and bloggers, do you teach truisms for both environments?
We did an experiment this semester where students practiced pitching to people through e-mail and pitching to bloggers. We didn't implement all of it [in the real world] because I feared we weren't quite there yet. If pitch to a blogger; you have no idea what they're going to do with it. If I pitch any traditional journalist, I have a reasonable expectation that you're going to follow some traditional rules. If you don't like the pitch, you'll probably just throw it away. But bloggers have been given a Gutenberg present and are empowered to use it. So they may well just write and say how stupid you are. I think we've seen that with Russell Beattie and Steve Rubel. There are a lot of mean things that are being thrown about. We also used a wiki to create press releases. I think it was an interesting exercise, but it has a ways to go before being polished. 

Q: Do you feel that students have a different opinion about larger agencies now that blogs and new media practices are in vogue?
It's all anecdotal because individual students are all different. But I would say all of them look at [the new media environment] with skepticism and try to think about ways to adapt it into what they want to do. I would say, this semester, about three or four of the students out of 40 are really interested in new media. Many of them still look at it as techie and geeky. If you look at it from a business standpoint, that's fair to a degree because so many of those doing business blogging are tech people still. Blogging is a new tool, just like the internet was ten years. I say, "Don't look at it as a panacea. Blogs will not replace PR."

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