John Doorley, academic program director and clinical assistant professor, graduate program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, New York University
Fernando Figueredo, Chair of the Public Relations and Advertising Department, Florida International University
Terry Hemeyer, professor of communication management and public relations strategies, University of Texas-Austin
Cristina Pieraccini, Professor, Communication Studies, SUNY-Oswego
Maria Russell, Professor of PR; Director, Executive Education, Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University
Elizabeth Toth, Professor and chair, Dept. of Communications, University of Maryland
The value of a master's degree
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What do you deem to be the greatest value of getting a PR master's degree? Is it worth it for an established pro to go back to school for one?
Fernando Figueredo (FIU): It's very important to have the strategic element that goes along with a master's degree. It raises the way you look at the profession, but it also raises the different elements that go into communications. A master's degree helps you look at the whole picture of communications, not just PR, even if it is called a master's in PR. We have a master's in strategic communications because we realize it's more than just PR.
When you go back to school after being in the workforce, the established pro has the opportunity to interface with younger pros who may be coming up the ranks. That benefits both.
Elizabeth Toth (University of Maryland): Part of it depends on the age of the individual. A lot of people practicing PR now didn't get the master's degree because the degree wasn't there until the 1980s. I know of several people working in the industry for 15 or so years who don't have an undergraduate degree in PR. They came from a journalism or English background. For them, such a degree can be especially important, especially to get that strategic and research element.
Maria Russell (Syracuse University): A lot of people got into PR because they were good writers, but now the field has progressed beyond the writing. That will never go away as it is the artistry of PR. But over the years, it has become a science and a management function. That's what established PR pros crave when they come back for a master's.
They seem happily surprised that they can learn the foundation and the theories underneath PR. Why did my campaign succeed? Why did it fail? This is all new to them because they grew into the job and got promoted because of their writing. It's almost an “A-Ha” moment for them.
Toth (Maryland): It's almost a requirement now as a credential you need to advance in the field of PR.
Russell (Syracuse): I hear from a lot of people who say, “I work at this major tech company and everyone around me not only has a master's degree, but a PhD. Here I am with a bachelor's degree. They feel they have a lesser respect because they're not as credentialed as their bosses and colleagues in other disciplines.
If you look at society, a college degree today is what a high school degree was 40 years ago. Continuing to learn, especially in a changing field such as PR, is a requirement.
Toth (Maryland): For those who have been working in the field for 15 to 20 years who want to make the transition into teaching that credential is important, too.
Terry Hemeyer (University of Texas-Austin): I'm an example of someone who does not have a bachelor's in PR. I have a music degree, which I value greatly. But I was in my field for seven years and then I went back to get my master's in communications.
Public relations is a tough term. How do you define it? As we've discussed, it's a discipline and a broad one – IR, litigation, government, crisis, social media, and so on. A lot of people don't understand that.
Going back for your master's, as long as it includes management, economics, some business courses – that's what employers value. They want a PR person to understand their business. You would get that knowledge in a good master's program.
Toth (Maryland): The industry is also demanding master's programs.
Figueredo (FIU): We have seen a shift in the past two or three years. It's not just that the downturn is sending people back to school for a master's degree. Established pros are truly seeing the value in it.
Hemeyer (Texas): As long as it's a program that has courses beyond standard PR tactics.
Toth (Maryland): The point Terry is getting at is that there is not standard quality across all PR master's programs. We are only now creating the standards and accreditation to make sure these master's programs are of high quality.
Russell (Syracuse): There's something called the National Commission of Public Relations Education. Since 1985, they have spent a tremendous amount of time looking at PR education. It's always been a balance between practitioners and educators doing these studies. I believe they have finally got the undergraduate foundation right. Every six years they look at what they should be teaching their undergrads and a lot of schools now subscribe to this model. That has raised the standards at the undergrad level.
However, the master's programs, which are burgeoning now, have not been subjected to that same kind of review. There have been some white papers and a gold paper by IPRA, and some research by the University of Maryland, but there hasn't been the comprehensive look at master's programs. But these programs have been exploding.
Toth (Maryland): Particularly online with distance master's programs.
Figueredo (FIU): That's something everyone is interested in, but it's hard to get that strategic discussion going in that setting.
Hemeyer (Texas): Online distance learning is a huge debate right now. I would maintain that in our business the communications message is still the same no matter what channel you use. It's timing. It's what you say and when you say it. A lot of that is very difficult to get in distance learning.
Toth (Maryland): In the research the University of Maryland recently did that Maria referred to, we tried to provide three models of master's education. One was a purely academic model. The second is the professional model. The third is an inter-disciplinary model.
John Doorley (NYU): It's important to have a master's degree today. If you get it in philosophy or history, that's terrific. Nobody can argue with the benefit of that. However, I have to say the very question itself is paradoxical and troubling because it really reflects what even senior people in the industry think, which is PR is hard to define. They often don't understand that it is a validated social science, which means there is a theory and history that can be taught, things that can be replicated.
If people cannot define what they're doing or talk about it in rigorous academic and practitioner terms, how can they sell it to the people with the money – the senior business leaders? How can they get a seat at the table? And the reason for it isn't to get the money. That's nice, too, of course, but it's so that you can influence the performance and behavior that you then have to communicate about. You can't get a seat at the table if you can't define what you're doing.
Hemeyer (Texas): If someone comes back to the master's program after being in the job force, it takes that person out of the day-to-day crisis where everything is happening so fast and it gives you time to think and analyze things. You can better define what you do when you go back to school after that experience.
To the businessman, if you can't demonstrate ROI in communications, you're not going to be successful. It's one of the toughest things PR pros have to do.
Toth (Maryland): In our research, we conducted 20 interviews with people we considered to be leaders in the field. The three program models I mentioned before were the ones that resonated with them, which we were very please with because this leadership didn't have a preference for the MBA, they were actually very open and understanding of a master's in PR. That was a breakthrough in the research I've seen on master's programs.
Hemeyer (Texas): I teach a crisis management class as part of our MBA program and I bet 10% of my class is communications students who were getting their MBA. They were having a little trouble with the finance courses, but they're doing fine. I'm pleased that marketing and communications students are coming through the MBA program.
Toth (Maryland): That does make sense to me if they have a foundation in communications, but if they've never studied communications, a master's in PR makes more sense.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Would you suggest to a college-aged student just graduating to get their master's in PR right away or is it better if they go into the field for a few years, get that perspective, and then come back for the degree?
Russell (Syracuse): Going into the field first might help you decide what master's degree to get. If you work in the field for a while and you say, “I'm really intrigued by healthcare communications,” you might want to get a public health administration master's degree.
To Elizabeth's point, a lot depends on where you came from as an undergrad. We tell some grads to not get a degree in PR on the master's level. It may be too duplicative. Perhaps an MBA is the answer.
We tell them it's probably best to work for a while, understand the direction you want your career to go, and then go back for the best master's degree for you. You might even find a nice employer who will pay for it. But given the current economy, you do see a lot of 21-year-olds straight out of college going for their master's degree because they figure by the time they graduate maybe the economy will turn.
The work experience is really important. With the executive master's program we have, there is a minimum of five years to get into the program. Get the news releases and press conferences behind you. You've learned the tactics. Now you can start learning to manage the function. We've actually modeled it after MBA programs. The best ones require a minimum of five years' experience.
So we have the two programs. One for the 21-year-old who wants to get into PR. We also have the executive one with the business courses for those on the way up.
Figueredo (FIU): I agree that it's best if they can go work for five years and come back. Unfortunately, the economy is such that some students can't get those five years, so they feel compelled to go straight for the master's program.
In our master's program, we're finding about 80% of our students do not come from a background in communications. They have some communications courses in their background, but they come from finance, business, management. We have a couple from nursing.
Hemeyer (Texas): The job market in my view is not that bad right now. I'd say it's pretty good actually. There are 7,000 agencies in this country. There are thousands of companies that have PR staffs. When you look at the jobs out there, our students seem to be doing OK in these beginning-level jobs. For the junior level, it's good. For mid- and senior-level, not so good.
Getting the job
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What role do your programs play in helping graduates get jobs? And from an employer's perspective, what can they expect from your graduates?
Hemeyer (Texas): We have a very aggressive program in career services at our school. We do two job fairs a year. We have more than 90 agencies and companies come to look at our students, we have a website for our advertising and PR program that lists jobs, we give them career data, we have a website that lists more than 200 jobs a week, and we do a weekly e-mail to all of our students that tell them where other job fairs are taking place.
Cristina Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Something new we've done is combine our careers office with our internship office. That has proved really helpful to students, as it's common for an internship to lead to a job.
Doorley (NYU): At NYU, we have student group in the PR master's program called the PR League. They've done a great job from the beginning of our program five years ago. They throw their share of parties, but they've been great in helping our students locate where the jobs are, meeting with perspective employers, and having a showcase event where they can highlight the work of their colleagues.
There is also The Wasserman Center at NYU, which is a career organization. Of course, we hear of jobs from agencies all the time since we're in New York City. They'll ask us if we know of someone who can do this or that and often the person just left the classroom.
We also tell all our students that each of the 14 classes they take to complete a course in a semester is an interview if you think about it that way because most of the people are leaders in the field.
Russell (Syracuse): What I'm noticing is a lot of hiring of young people. These employers come to us and say, “They know social media. Bring them my way.”
Figueredo (FIU): FIU has an aggressive program, too. Since Miami is a center for many agencies dealing with Latin America, we're constantly dealing with firms. We bring in guest speakers. And we have a robust internship program.
Of course, over the past couple of years, social media skills are in high demand. Agencies want students to come in and help them put together their Twitter strategy.
Hemeyer (Texas): An issue we all deal with is that students, by nature, don't like to go to career services. We need to do a better job selling it to them.
Russell (Syracuse): We have a little gimmick. Our students have to go to this series of workshops: Resume writing, networking skills, and interviewing skills. They must attend those three and then they get a code that puts them on NACAN, the Newhouse Alumni Career Advisory Network, which is a database of alums. So if you're looking in the Boston area for an internship, you can get on NACAN for a list of all the alums who are willing to mentor or talk to you. But you can't get the code until you go through the series.
Doorley (NYU): Boston University has that storied internship connection where everyone gets an internship. They have so many affiliations with so many companies.
Toth (Maryland): It's low-hanging fruit. Our students do two or three internships before they graduate in the Washington/Baltimore area. Internship supervisors come to us, so I have a person who coordinates all those contacts.
The other thing we haven't mentioned is the socialization that happens from day one. We're all delivering professional education and that starts in the basic news-writing class. How to write a resume, how to think about the job search and employment, creating problems in class around the employment situation and what you can expect if you have a career in PR. For four years, students are learning how to get a job just from the coursework.
The evolving student
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How has the PR student changed over the years you've been teaching?
Russell (Syracuse): What's so different about our students today is they have decided they want PR before they come in. That's different from even 10 years ago when they had to find PR. These kids are coming in with an interest in PR because many had PR internships in high school.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Do kids of that age really know what PR is?
Russell (Syracuse): Sometimes it tends to be more on the publicity and media relations side. They don't say, “I want to counsel top management,” but they don't like that PR is still portrayed as a less than serious profession.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Ten years ago, they didn't know what it meant. But today we have a lot of kids whose parents work in PR. That's a major change, too.
Toth (Maryland): That's true. We now have second-generation students who are going into the same profession as their parents.
Figueredo (FIU): This discussion has to include writing skills. What I've noticed is that they have gotten lower and lower. Grammar skills and the ability to put sentences together is something they are really struggling with. Maybe these young people have great texting skills, but it's a problem when the word “are” has become “r” for the sake of texting.
Russell (Syracuse): That's the one negative I see. Students today are bright and engaged. They've traveled a lot before college. But grammar, punctuation, and elements such as that have declined. They don't know how to organize an academic paper. They don't do outlines. They just go to the computer and start writing. There's a value in organizing your thoughts.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): What many are still surprised by is how much you still have to write in PR. They figure they'll spend most of their time speaking with clients, but I tell them on day one that 90% of their time will be spent writing.
Doorley (NYU): Our surveys show that writing remains the most critical skill. And remember: If you're speaking, you generally still have to be able to write first.
Hemeyer (Texas): How can you be analytical if you can't write. We will not let our students not write. Writing is a major part of being able to sell your ideas. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be in this field.
I've even told my students that I'm not a natural writer, but I've taught myself to write. I actually start each class of mine by giving students a 5” by 8” card. I give them the crisis of the day and ask them to write down what they would do as a communicator. What ideas would you have? I give them 10 minutes. At this point, I'm not grading their ideas. I'm looking at grammar and how well they put their ideas together. After that, we talk about the tactics.
Russell (Syracuse): One of the best things the agencies have done for us is to have a required writing test. If you want to get a job at a major agency, you have to go through this rigorous writing test. Students have come to realize that this isn't punishment by Professor Russell. It's something they have to do if they want to get that internship at a major firm. They have to be able to write and do so on deadline. We also have alums come and tell them that to emphasize the point.
Figueredo (FIU): I agree these young students coming in are very bright and well travelled, but those writing skills are a major weakness.
Hemeyer (Texas): They're also focused. They don't want to say in programs five or six years anymore.
Figueredo (FIU): And they question more. They question authority. They question professors. That's a good thing because you want them to be critical thinkers and the first area of that is to be able to ask the proper questions.
Russell (Syracuse): Today's students are very interested in where they will work. They pay attention to Fortune's “Bets Places to Work.” They want to know which companies are the most socially responsible. They want to do an ethical job and want to represent ethical companies. There's a commitment to social responsibility, so it's natural if you have an interest in PR for them to be excited about the possibility to help this agency or that health or environmental cause through PR. They like that societal benefit to it.
Hemeyer (Texas): They also like their privacy. We have many heated discussions about Facebook and they just don't understand why they can't have privacy. We have kids in our class who won't let their mothers go on their Facebook pages, yet social media, by definition, is public. In our business, we have to be careful what we say or post because once we do, it's there forever. Some students have trouble understanding that.
Doorley (NYU): I agree with Fernando and his first response about the writing. In addition, studies show that with the increase in social media, verbal skills are on the decline, too.
A recent study also showed that when a student is online during a lecture they don't do as well as someone who is not on their computer.
Overall, I think the kids are great. We have kids running in from the PR agencies at 6:20 with their heads on fire and then running back to the firm at 9. These students are working harder than we ever did – and I worked hard.
Unfortunately, they are poorly trained in so many ways. Again, it's the writing, but it's also ethical matters. Plagiarism is on the increase. Ethics is something we have to teach these kids about.
Toth (Maryland): I agree. Here we are asking students to simulate what they'll be doing in their PR jobs and it is very tempting to take something from someone's website or someone else's press release material.
Hemeyer (Texas): There is a fine ethical line. I've often told my class that I haven't had an original idea in my life. I'm smart enough to see what other people have done. If you don't learn from what other people have done, you're making a mistake, but plagiarism is crossing the line.
Russell (Syracuse): I think students are ethical given their concern for social responsibility, but to them the Internet is free, it's open.
Figueredo (FIU): I was reviewing a thesis just last week and you could tell it was plagiarized. It was really well written in sections and then really poorly written. In the end, 38% of it was plagiarized.
Toth (Maryland): Half of the students in my university work. They come straight from the job to take classes. That's a huge difference from 10 years ago. There isn't that leisurely college experience that we enjoyed.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): So many more students are paying for their education today. They take it more seriously when they do so.
Toth (Maryland): It is really difficult for them to balance work and studies.
Russell (Syracuse): Back to the writing. We look at the high schools and say, “Look what they're sending us.” And the high school teachers will say, “Look at what the grade schools are sending us.” But we're the last stop on the train. We're the ones the agencies are looking at and saying, “What happened at Newhouse or NYU? Why aren't you teaching them to write?” So the agencies look to us to fix a lifetime of problems that stem from a lack of training.
Hemeyer (Texas): We give a writing test to get into our program.
Doorley (NYU): Two of our 14 courses are intensive writing seminars. We also encourage all our professors to incorporate writing into their tests.
All this being said, I wonder if we can truly make an impact in two to four years on someone's ability to write, think clearly, and express themselves.
Toth (Maryland): I think so. We have brought the grammar, spelling, and punctuation tests into our news writing class. You can't pass the class without those dimensions. We then have four more writing classes, plus writing requirements in all our classes. It's sheer repetition and the students knowing from day one that this will be required.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): On the one hand, you are all major proponents of writing. On the other hand, you have students who feel that their social media savvy is what will make their PR careers and, as such, their writing ability isn't important. How do you bridge that gap?
Hemeyer (Texas): Lack of good writing is still the number-one criticism I hear from professional companies. They tell me that these kids can't write, they lack practical experience, they aren't analytical. I tell them they're looking at the wrong programs and that their interviewing skills are lacking. If you don't give a writing test that had four or five components, if you don't give them face-to-face issues to solve right there on the spot to see how they think, and then have them interview four or five people, you're not doing your job.
When I was at Pennzoil, I'd go through 100 resumes when looking to fill a job. HR would give me 20 and I would go through the others and find 10 more that were better. I simply don't agree with the perception that we're not turning out good students.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): When I talk to my students, I refer to the old saying, “Content is king.” I don't care how well you set up a website or how well you tweet, there needs to be content on that website and that's what you write.
Doorley (NYU): The question asked seems to presume that writing isn't important in social media.
Figueredo (FIU): It's crucial. If you don't have the writing skills to go along with social media skills, eventually you'll hit a wall.
Russell (Syracuse): And you're still always going to have white papers, CEO speeches, and things of that nature.
Doorley (NYU): I recall a professor that we were going to hire who said that there are no rules in social media. It's the conversation. That doesn't make any sense to me. It seems writing is more important in social media than ever. If you work for a company, there have to be rules, right?
Hemeyer (Texas): Right now we're doing more work on social media policies in companies because many don't have them. But even without social media, business writing has become briefer. I wouldn't give a four-page white paper to my chairman. I give a one-page point paper that gets the message through quickly.
Figueredo (FIU): In most of our classes now, assignments are getting turned into the student's blog. They build up the assignment in the blog or they create blogs where they do a lot of additional elements, so that's where we go to grade their assignments. This enables them to interface their social media skills with their writing. But in this way, we are still demanding writing skills because we go into the blog to grade them and they have to be written correctly. While we're in the blog, we can look at some of the things they've been adding, which is interesting because this is the environment they live in.
Keeping up with social media
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are academic programs doing to stay current with social media advancements?
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Hiring young people who have those skills to serve as assistant professors. Also, to go get some retraining ourselves, which I did about a year ago. I don't want to sit in a classroom and talk about social media with 25 students and have them know more than I do or have them ask me a question and not be able to answer it. Much like we're advising pros to go back and get their master's, we need to go back and get social media training.
Toth (Maryland): We used to talk about writing across the curriculum. Now we talk about social media across the curriculum. We're revising all of our PR undergraduate classes so that social media is built into each one of them and advances through the curriculum.
Doorley (NYU): Do you have a social media course?
Toth (Maryland): No. We're constrained in two ways. How do you add such a course to an already overstuffed curriculum? And is it a standalone course? We've had younger teachers argue for courses to teach that step-by-step progression, but for now we don't want to overwhelm students by saying they have to learn it all in just one course.
Hemeyer (Texas): We now have three courses in “digital interactive.” It includes media strategies, building, navigating, content management of websites, web PR, metrics measurement, how to analyze consumer behavior. That's all part of these three courses. The kids that take them, they get jobs just like that (snaps fingers).
Consumer social media is much different than b-to-b social media. I have one former student who graduated six years ago who does all the social media for National Instruments. She has 1,200 engineers tweeting with customers with their products. It's the ultimate application of social media. She tells me the hardest part of her job is getting all the policies and procedures in place and getting everything monitored. There's a lot of manpower and hours that go into social media. People think it's quicker, but it isn't. That's why a lot of clients don't buy social media programs. It's too labor-intensive.
Figueredo (FIU): We're starting a new course called Multimedia Production. It will be a core course for everyone in the school for journalism, broadcasting, advertising, and PR. It's a hands-on, lab-type course that goes hand in hand with the visual design course. We're hoping that having students take these two courses simultaneously will put everyone at the same level moving forward. One of the things we're finding is that we have students coming in who are very digital media-savvy and others who don't even have a computer. We're trying to get them at the same level.
Russell (Syracuse): Another problem is practitioners who aren't involved with their alma maters or local colleges don't understand the constraints we have and some of the misperceptions they have. They feel if you're a PR major, you're taking 120 credits in PR. Then they'll say these students need a liberal arts program. We explain to them that they are getting a liberal arts background. There is this perception of, “Why are you studying PR?” Well, there's the liberal arts foundation, the PR major, but then there's the dual majors in finance and marketing, there's languages. These students are very well rounded when they come out. When some people hear “PR major,” they think that's all they study. That would be ridiculous if it were true.
Hemeyer (Texas): One of the major agencies, as of four years ago, only hired liberal arts majors until the principal of that firm came to my school and we showed them what we provide our students. They changed their policies. He thought, “Why do I need a mechanical, tactical, trade-school person to write news releases?” And while a lot of what we teach is still “trade school,” we go way beyond that. He was amazed. He even told me, “The questions I got from your kids were the most intelligent I've ever heard.”
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): It's the same problem broadcasters used to have with their programs. It used to be shoot, edit, and that's it. PR is fighting that same stereotype.
Doorley (NYU): What leaders in the field are asking us to produce is a better world-view from our students. Do you think students have more of a world-view when they come to us than they did, say, 10 years ago?
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Like Maria said before, they are certainly well travelled.
Toth (Maryland): They are also studying abroad.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Plus, the populations are more diverse. We have more international students and the student body, in general, is much more diverse.
Russell (Syracuse): There's almost this sentiment of, “Why are you talking about diversity?” Today's students all have friends of diverse backgrounds.
Hemeyer (Texas): It's our challenge to present them with tough topics to take on as presentations or campaigns. For example, I'll give them “Muslims in America.” I'll give them a scenario where they've been hired by a Muslim-American group to come up with a plan that helps with their identification to the American public. It's a whole new world to these kids and you should see what they come back with. It's incredibly refreshing. If you challenge them with these kinds of subjects, it forces them into another world.
Toth (Maryland): We're still giving current events quizzes.
Figueredo (FIU): Analytical skills are lacking. Kids don't want to be bothered with the facts.
Doorley (NYU): What's really scary to me is how poorly trained some of these students are in basic skills such as math, grammar, etc.
Russell (Syracuse): The whole idea of financial literacy is not there. However, in the past few years it has become easier to get them to read The Wall Street Journal because they see the impact on their parents and their ability to go to school without having to work.
Hemeyer (Texas): My big deal is motivating them and getting them to think. I have never given as assignment in writing in my life. When I give an assignment, I want them to listen and take notes because listening is so important in PR. I give everything verbally, even the final. If they're not smart enough to write it down and ask questions, it's their fault. Think about it. When is the last time your boss gave you something in writing?
Doorley (NYU): I totally agree. During my career, nobody ever walked in and said, “John, we just had an accident in our plant in Texas. Two people were hurt, two others died, and this is what happened.”
Hemeyer (Texas): Exactly. It's the ambiguity. I want to tell them the problem and then they have to be smart enough to ask the questions. If they do that, then they'll get it and it becomes a solid case study. But it's vital that they draw it out of me.
Working with the industry
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How are you working with agencies and in-house departments to improve the academic experience for your students?
Toth (Maryland): We are certainly interested in the industry helping us deliver our program. We have an advisory board of alums in the industry that helps shape our program. We also invite them as guest speakers and guest judges. We also want our students involved in PRSSA professional development meetings so they experience the industry as they're growing themselves as professionals.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Shadowing programs are very effective. And the alumni love to be mentors to students and bring them to their agencies. We have an “alumni sharing knowledge” program where they will come for a few days and go to every class.
Russell (Syracuse): We bring in alums as guest speakers also, but we have them come in as visiting professors, too. Gary Grates from Edelman comes in and teaches a course on employee engagement. Phil Nardone from PAN Communications teaches a course that we developed with the Council of PR Firms on agency management. That came out of the Council's concern that students were coming out of school and gravitating toward the creative side and not the management side of PR.
We want to make sure they can handle these classes as working professionals, so five Tuesday nights is the most we can ask of them. They're teaching, grading papers, commenting on students' writing, and really inspiring them about the field.
We also just did something with the Plank Center at University of Alabama where we created a faculty fellowship program. We're sending six professors into agencies for two weeks to see what's happening there, what struggles they are facing with clients, with managing the firm, with social media. In turn, those professionals will them come to the campuses.
The leadership program GE has created in communications is one I wish more would follow. It's a way for corporate communications departments to basically copy what was happening in finance and other areas of the corporate world. These departments bring juniors in as interns, they watch them work to see which are the best ones. They then keep in touch with them during their senior year, and then they often hire from within that group.
A little variation of that will have the company pick out a few “stars” and have them come into the organization and work in all departments. It's just a fabulous academic-professional connection.
The whole idea for GE was to grow it's own communications department much like it did with its financial department.
Doorley (NYU): There's a big opportunity for education in PR in corporate America. Agencies have always done a much better job training people in communications than we did in corporate. The companies are trying to catch up. In fact, having never worked on the agency side myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see the dedication agencies have to education.
Hemeyer (Texas): We graduate about 200 PR majors in any given year. And we've found that there are 200 of them out in companies and organizations as interns. A lot of them get hired. That's a very positive interface with companies.
Much like many other schools, we have a campaigns course that puts us into anywhere from 20 to 50 agencies or companies a year doing campaigns for them. We've had organizations hire some kids out of the campaigns course.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Are you more proactive in reaching out to agencies and the corporate in-house departments or do they reach out to you more?
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): We have to reach out because we're isolated geographically.
Toth (Maryland): The industry is coming to us for younger and younger people. They're looking at our juniors and hoping to bring them in for internships. From our end, though, it often only takes one phone call to ask someone to come in and speak to your class. I'm very humbled by the fact that is all the reaching out I have to do. The industry really does want to give back in this manner.
Figueredo (FIU): Many in the industry realize that it is to their benefit to have good schools and PR programs because that's where the talent is coming from.
Russell (Syracuse): I find that if you tell people about the need or ask them to come in as a guest speaker, they view it as an honor, especially alums. In addition, Kathleen Kelly (professor in the PR department) at the University of Florida is presently doing another iteration of her study on how the industry is supporting PR programs, whether it's a donation, a lab, shadowing programs.
Joining the academic world
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Most, if not all, PR professors have vast experience in the communications field. What advice would you give a senior-level PR pro who is contemplating a professorship or adjunct professorship?
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): We've hired people who initially came in as guest lecturers. They come in once and do a great job. Then someone else asks them to come in. Then they come in as a keynote for an evening presentation. All of a sudden, they're getting on-the-job training. Then an adjunct professor position opens up and they're the first ones we ask.
Hemeyer (Texas): That's exactly what happened to me 15 years ago. I did a presentation on a program we had at our company. Some professors heard it and asked me if I would come do two or three classes. From there, they asked me if I wanted to do it full-time.
Teaching is one of the toughest things I've ever done. Keeping things fresh for students is a constant challenge.
Russell (Syracuse): It's not a job for retirement.
Doorley (NYU): It could be wonderful and rewarding, but it's not easy.
Hemeyer (Texas): At the mid-level, you'd have a problem with salary. You're probably making more money than you'd make as a professor. Would you step back and do it? Likely not. Someone more senior can do that because they don't have the pressure for the money they had earlier in their career.
Russell (Syracuse): If you go from a practice to academia, as I did, you need to realize your war stories – no matter how good they are – will only last about two years.
Yes, they're wonderful. You just came out of this exciting corporate life and you have all these great experiences to share, but after a while it has to have the foundation of theory underneath it.
Figueredo (FIU): More and more because of the certification process and the accreditation process, universities need to have higher-level professors with master's degrees, vast experience, and even a PhD. And they're asking a lot more of those professors – to do research, to publish. You can't just teach and go home any longer. You have to work very hard at it.
Hemeyer (Texas): The value of a professional person in an academic program is that they stay active in the field. That's why I still work a day-and-a-half a week. I want to stay up-to-date on what's going on. Frankly, I learn more from my students than what I teach them.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): It seems almost impossible to work full-time in the field and do this the right way.
Doorley (NYU): As an adjunct you can.
Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): One of the problems we have with adjuncts is that after about the fifth week, they realize it's tougher than they thought it would be. We have a 12- or 13-week semester and we have gotten complaints that the professors stop coming.
Russell (Syracuse): A very practical recommendation for those who are really interested in doing this is to attend PRSA sessions on learning to teach. They do it at their national conference every year, but now they're trying to go regional. In that session, they have people talk about how the demand now is not just to teach, but to do research, the importance of keeping up on the field through practice, to publish, etc.
Toth (Maryland): We are in serious need of good PR educators. This is still a gap in our field where there are not enough PR educators to fill the demand across the country. So departments are starting up PR programs, but they don't have the faculty.
Figueredo (FIU): We mentioned earlier the strategic thinking that goes into PR. In fact, the PR discipline is a lot more strategic than, say, advertising. PR is a very strategic process of setting up communications that end up helping a client or a campaign. It's not just a slogan or an ad message.
Toth (Maryland): This circles back to our very first question about getting a master's degree. That is a baseline credential to being a teacher. You really can't go in with just 20 years of industry experience, which you could have done 10 years ago. Now you really must have the academic base to be a PR teacher.
Russell (Syracuse): It also goes back to the social media discussion. We're all excited about all these new tools, but at some point, they are going to be tools like a news release in that they are very common to us. People have already begun to question the lifespan of Twitter. It's the strategy and theory behind how you use it. More than that, it's the change in PR from one-way communications to a conversation and the engaging of publics.
Hemeyer (Texas): How do you teach students when to be silent? I spend a lot of time with clients telling them not to say anything. You also need to prepare them for rejection of their ideas.
Doorley (NYU): Good point. I don't think any communicator has walked into a meeting with a big idea that was accepted right away.