Universities around the country are implementing new and social media into their PR curricula as part of an effort to better prepare their students for a future in the industry.
The Alabama Special Camp for Children and Adults, a.k.a Camp ASCCA, is the world's largest camp for people with disabilities. It has an extensive and sophisticated Web site - complete with a blog, videos, and tons of multimedia links. And it got that site for free, thanks to the work of PR students at Auburn University.
There, PR instructor Robert French has spent eight years at the forefront of the movement to integrate new media skills into PR education. The school's PR department also takes on student-led projects to benefit local nonprofits. This year, PR writing students are building online newsrooms for nonprofits like Camp ASCCA, to help bolster their media visibility.
French's approach is to "fold in" modern day skills training into traditional classes. In his Style and Design class, for example, teaching the principles of layout has been augmented with student-created video blogs and individual PR-focused blogs. Students also collaborate on a site for positive school news, LoveliestVillage.org.
"The idea is to get them familiar with the applications, and understand the concept of reaching out to a particular audience," French says. "The Auburn audience seemed easiest."
While he sees that many incoming students have not used many of the newer technologies like Twitter, the current college generation seems more comfortable learning new media than their predecessors. Students are also exposed to other emerging tactics like word-of-mouth marketing.
"Blogs are word of mouth," says French. "One of the things I always show [students] and involve them with is the WOMMA Association. They should recognize the standard of ethics that are set in these areas."
Auburn's forward-thinking program has proven a boon to graduates who take advantage of the social media training to boost their own marketable skills and establish themselves as a brand. One example is Christin Eubanks, a 2007 PR graduate who now works as an AE for Converseon in New York. The agency found Eubanks thanks to the blog that she started in French's class (and maintains to this day). "It really taught me a lot of new things that I wasn't aware of about PR," Eubanks says of French's teaching. "[He provided] a way to look at [PR] as more of a conversation as opposed to mainstream, mass media."
She was so inspired that she purchased a domain for her personal Web site, linking it to her PR blog and online resume. Skills gained in school, like podcasting, she now puts to use on behalf of clients.
"I didn't want to be just pitching or researching. I wanted to be doing a lot of other things too," she says. "You can do that through social media."
Although universities across the US vary widely in their adoption of social media, it seems that PR programs with close ties to the industry are quick to change with the times.
William Sledzik, who led his own firm before becoming an associate professor, teaching PR at Kent State University, has seen academia come to appreciate the import of the Internet.
"This whole digital age rolled over us rather quickly," he admits. In the mid-1990s, the teaching focused simply on writing for the Web, and the technical skills needed to use it on the most basic level. With the rise of Web 2.0 and social networks, Kent has approached the issue more aggressively, creating a dedicated PR online tactics class.
"We did not define precisely what we were going to teach in it," says Sledzik, "other than that we were going to teach what was important at the time in terms of online tactics, and it would morph with the times."
Since its founding, the class has encompassed everything from e-newsletters to podcasting and blogging skills. Its fluid nature highlights the opportunities for even specialized niches of PR studies to incorporate new media into the curriculum.
Northeastern University's assistant professor Walter Carl, whose specialty is organizational communications, has made sure that online elements are well represented in his field. In one Advanced Organizational Communications class, he focused on corporate blogging practices, allowing students to interview top bloggers to learn how the medium translates to a corporate setting. In a Special Topics class, he guided students through the complexities of WOM and viral marketing, tying them into the rise of social networking sites. Students contributed to an ongoing class Web site, and created their own WOM program proposal.
"They really felt engaged, because nobody knew the answers - it wasn't a teacher up there saying 'This is how it is,'" Carl says. "From my [view] as an educator, it's quite a liberating experience."
Prominent universities need to keep their PR curricula current to maintain their own good reputations. The University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication has recognized that professionals deeply involved in changing media take their students along for the ride.
"We [need] input from folks who are really exploring the frontier as we change our curriculum," says Jerry Swerling, who directs the school's PR program. He sought to "turn inside-out our whole media strategies course," because the mass media model was giving way to the proverbial long tail.
The man who has taught that media strategies course for the past three semesters is Matthew LeVeque, an SVP with The Rogers Group. Now, students use an in-class blog to post summaries of their work, get their reading assignments off of a social bookmarking page, Twitter to each other about PR, and - most notably - no longer use a textbook.
"I think it's an unbelievably exciting time, because things are changing and evolving," says LeVeque. "It's far more interesting than if it was just same old, same old."
New media tools in PR education
These allow students to share thoughts, collaborate on assignments, and to keep abreast of classwork virtually
Individual student blogs
Student-written blogs focusing on PR topics are a solid addition to online resumes of recent grads
Learning this new but simple tool in the classroom has allowed students to lead the way for adoption in the real workplace
Professors take the instant mini-blogging tool into the educational realm by using it to spark a conversation about communications among class members
Some schools give PR students a taste of journalism by having them file online video reports of campus news