School ties: Career Guide 2010

Top PR professors join Gideon Fidelzeid in New York for an academic roundtable on issues ranging from master's degrees to pros entering the teaching ranks

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The participants

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

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What do you deem to be the greatest value of getting a PR master's degree? Should experienced pros go back to school for one?

Fernando Figueredo (Florida International University [FIU]): It's important to have the strategic element that goes with a master's degree. It raises the way you look at the profession, as well as the different elements that go into communications. 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 parties.

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 it wasn't there until the 1980s. For them, such a degree can be especially important to get that strategic and research element.

Maria Russell (Syracuse University): Over the years, PR 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 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.
Terry Hemeyer (University of Texas-Austin): Public relations is a tough term. How do you define it? It's a broad discipline – 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-Austin): As long as it's a program that has courses beyond standard PR tactics.

Russell (Syracuse): There's something called the National Commission of Public Relations Education. Since 1985, it has spent a tremendous amount of time looking at PR education. Every six years it looks at what they should be teaching undergrads and a lot of schools now subscribe to this model. That has raised the standards at the undergrad level. Master's programs have not been subjected to that same kind of comprehensive look. 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-Austin): 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.

John Doorley (NYU): It's important to have a master's degree today. If you get it in philosophy or history, that's terrific. However, the very question itself is paradoxical and troubling because it reflects what even senior people in the industry think, which is that PR is hard to define. They often don't understand it is a validated social science, which means there is a theory and history that can be taught, things that can be replicated. If PR people can't define what they do or talk about it in rigorous academic and practitioner terms, how can they sell it to senior business leaders? You can't get a seat at the table if you cannot define what you're doing.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): If someone comes back to the master's program after being in the job force, it takes them out of the day-to-day crisis. It gives you time to analyze things. You can better define what you do when you return to school after that experience.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Would you advise a college-aged student just graduating to get their master's in PR right away? Is it better if they go into the field for a few years and then come back for the degree?

Russell (Syracuse): Going into the field first might help you decide what master's 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. 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.

Figueredo (FIU): I agree that it's best if they go work for five years and come back. Unfortunately, the economy is such that some students feel compelled to go straight for the master's program.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How has the PR student changed over the years you've been teaching?

Russell (Syracuse): Students today have decided they want PR before they come to us. That's different from even 10 years ago, when they had to find PR.

Cristina Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Ten years ago, they didn't know what it meant. Today, we have a lot of kids whose parents work in PR.

Figueredo (FIU):
This discussion has to include writing. Grammar skills and the ability to put sentences together is something with which they really struggle. 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): Students today are bright and engaged. They've traveled a lot before college. But they can't 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): Many are still surprised by 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): Writing remains the most critical skill. And remember: if you're speaking, generally, you still have to be able to write first.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): How can you be analytical if you can't write? Writing is a major part of being able to sell ideas. If you can't, you should not be in this field.

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 this isn't punishment by Professor Russell. It's something students must do if they want to get that internship at a major firm.

Figueredo (FIU): Students today question more. They question authority and professors. That's good. You want them to be critical thinkers.

Russell (Syracuse): Today's students are very interested in where they will work. They pay attention to Fortune's “Best Places to Work.” They want to know which companies are the most socially responsible. They want to represent ethical companies.

Doorley (NYU): 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. We are asking students to simulate what they'll be doing in their PR jobs and it is tempting to take something from someone's website or someone else's press release material.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): There is a fine ethical line. If you don't learn from what other people have done, you're making a mistake – but plagiarism is crossing the line.

Toth (Maryland):
Half the students in my university work. They come straight from the job to take classes. That's a huge difference from 10 years ago.

Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): So many more students are paying for their education today. They take it more seriously when they do so.

Russell (Syracuse): Back to the writing. We look at high schools and say, “Look what they're sending us.” The high school teachers will say, “Look what grade schools are sending us.” We're the last stop on the train. Agencies look at us and say, “What happened at Newhouse or NYU? Why aren't you teaching them to write?” Agencies look to us to fix a lifetime of problems that stem from a lack of training.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): 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.

Toth (Maryland): 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 know this will be required.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Many students feel their social media savvy will make their PR careers and, as such, their writing isn't important. How do you bridge that gap?

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 possess the writing skills to go along with social media skills, eventually you will hit a wall.

Russell (Syracuse): You're always going to have white papers, CEO speeches, things of that nature.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): We're now doing more work on social media policies in companies because many don't have them. 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.

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 with 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.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How are you working with agencies and in-house departments to improve the academic experience for your students?

Toth (Maryland): We have an advisory board of alums in the industry that helps shape our program. We also invite them as guest speakers and judges. We also want our students involved in PRSSA professional development meetings so they experience the industry as they're growing themselves.

Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): Shadowing programs are very effective. And the alumni love to be mentors to students and bring them to their firms. We have an “alumni sharing knowledge” program where they come for a few days and go to every class.

Russell (Syracuse): We bring in alums as guest speakers, but have them come as visiting professors, too. They teach, grade papers, comment on students' writing, and really inspire them about the field. We also just did something with the Plank Center at the University of Alabama where we created a faculty fellowship program. We're sending six professors into agencies for two weeks. In turn, agency professionals will then come to the campuses.

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, but the companies are trying to catch up.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): 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 corporate in-house departments, or is it more frequent for them to seek you out?

Toth (Maryland): The industry is coming to us for 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.

Figueredo (FIU): Many in the industry realize that it is to their benefit to have good schools and PR programs because that's where 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.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Most, if not all, PR professors have vast experience in the field. What advice would you give a senior-level pro contemplating a professorship?

Pieraccini (SUNY-Oswego): We've hired people who initially came in as guest lecturers. They do a great job and someone else asks them to come in. Then they come in as a keynote for an evening presentation. They're getting on-the-job training. Then an adjunct professor position opens up and they're the first ones we ask.

Hemeyer (Texas-Austin): Teaching is one of the hardest jobs I've ever had. Keeping things fresh for students is always a 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-Austin): 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 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 will only last about two years. You have all these great experiences to share, but after a while it must have the foundation of theory underneath it.

Figueredo (FIU): Universities are asking a lot more of 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-Austin): The value of a professional in an academic program is that they stay active in the field. I still work a day-and-a-half a week. I want to stay up to date on what's going on. 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. 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 really are 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, 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, and so on.

Toth (Maryland):
There are not enough PR educators to fill the demand. Departments are starting up PR programs, but they don't have the faculty. This also 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.

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