A place to call home

In recent years, the question of where to house a university's PR program has become a point of debate. Tonya Garcia surveys the differing views

In recent years, the question of where to house a university's PR program has become a point of debate. Tonya Garcia surveys the differing views

Last January, PR agency CapComm began work on a four-month project for the Smithsonian's Jazz Café to help drive attendance at the weekly event. Using research supplied by the client, the agency helped create a development package that was used to let potential underwriters know who they would be reaching with their funding. It also used the information to create news releases for local radio and TV stations, and garnered media coverage - no small feat considering that CapComm is the student-run advertising and PR agency at Howard University.

"It's timely, real-world experience," says Dr. Barbara Hines, director of the graduate program in mass communications and a Howard faculty member since 1983. "Students are visible to businesses and held accountable for the work they do."

Working at CapComm is a requirement for those enrolled in the PR program at the university, which boasts being the first black college in the US to offer a PR course and a PRSSA chapter.

"The students learn how to strategically plan and implement PR activities while tracking their billable time," says Dr. Rochelle Larkin Ford, advertising and PR sequence coordinator at Howard and a former student of the program. "This prepares our students uniquely to enter ad and PR agencies or client-side with the ability to work with those agencies."

The existence of CapComm certainly falls in line with one of the major goals of the PR program at Howard: expanding beyond the walls of the John H. Johnson School of Communications where it is housed. Students take liberal arts courses during their freshman and sophomore years, are required to take a minor outside of the communications school (business administration and the Entrepreneurial Leadership and Innovation Institute's entrepreneurship minor are popular), and complete a supervised internship in addition to one semester of work at CapComm.

Howard's undergraduate PR courses have been taught within the journalism school since 1985, when it moved from the communications program, but it is still kept largely separate from the traditional print or broadcast curriculum. It became a major sequence in 1986.

"[It was] a natural evolution that we moved the PR courses to the department of journalism. Their hallmark was the emphasis on writing and strategic thinking," Hines says. "It's a matter of being creative and flexible. You don't have to teach everything in your department."

Creativity and flexibility are necessities in both the professional practice of PR and its instruction. Historically, PR has been taught within journalism schools, emphasizing the writing skills and media interaction necessary for the job. But changing PR functions have spurred the discussion among educators about where to place the estimated 200 to 300 PR programs across the country.

Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, which contains a journalism program, believes that journalism schools, especially "enlightened" ones that take new media into account, are an appropriate place for PR courses.

"It's two sides of one coin," says Swerling. "That coin is social dialogue. And if you think in that broader context, we [in the PR industry] have a responsibility to make... bloggers and gatherers of information better journalists."

But as the role PR plays in the success of an organization has increased, it has created a greater demand for practitioners with a wider grasp of business tactics.

And so, says Maria Russell, chair of the PR department at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, "Now that [PR] is becoming more securely a management function, more are saying it should be in business schools. But the problem there is that in many business schools, PR is a subcategory of marketing, which does not sit well with PR professionals."

Elizabeth Toth, professor in the University of Maryland's Ph.D. program in PR, conducted interviews for this year's Commission on Public Relations Education study, presented at the recent PRSA conference.

Among the commission's findings, it discovered that industry leaders place greater value in a graduate degree in PR over an MBA because of the cross-disciplinary nature of the program.

Toth's personal opinion takes it a step further. She believes it is also important for PR practitioners to have a complementary knowledge of other aspects of arts and sciences. "That seems to be what the industry is saying," she says, "that [PR pros] should have a knowledge of the world."

Does PR belong in journalism school?

Yes

Dr. Joseph Sora, Assistant professor, Department of Journalism and Multimedia Arts, Duquesne University

It's a natural fit to have PR in the J-school. There's a lot of crossover [between the fields]. Why shouldn't we replicate that in the academy?

In teaching PR, a lot of my colleagues are working journalists. There's a tension between journalism and PR, and I think it's a healthy tension. The journalist's view of PR isn't always great, so I get a really critical perspective. It's easy for me to bounce ideas off them about what they're looking for from a journalist's point of view.

Not only do the students get to rub elbows with journalism majors, but they're studying with people they'll be working with. PR is always going to be tied to the media industries that surround it. The students get to see both sides of the game. It's much easier to stay current and to stay in the issues that affect the media.


No

Dr. LeeAnn Kahlor, Assistant professor, Department of Advertising, The University of Texas at Austin

A student with a journalism degree will be able to serve the PR industry well with solid writing skills and an ability to research topics on the fly.

They're well-trained for performing [tasks], but ill-prepared to sit at the table with management and offer counsel that jibes with the organization's mission and goals. They aren't prepared to understand management's function.

By moving PR students into the ad department, we've created a curriculum that still taps into J-school courses, but now they also have to take a core of classes focused on PR principles, writing, strategies, cases, and campaigns. On top of that, students also take at least four classes in the business school... and several additional ad courses in [my] department. It's a demanding degree plan, but the feedback from the industry is really positive.

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