Unfortunately, the old adage of "I'm a good people person" remains a reason for students' interest in PR. What does that really mean these days, though?
With 24/7 news cycles, an ever-more connected world, and increasingly divergent public opinions, PR as an education major has undergone a metamorphosis.
Basics like writing and media relations skills remain vital. However, that's simply a fraction of what PR students are taught today. Professors are preparing tomorrow's business executives to have a strong grasp of global and cultural nuances, while delivering superior skills in writing, technology, and social media.
Yes, we're developing cultural anthropologists who understand P&L statements, don't mind mixing their business and social worlds on Twitter, and know exactly how to communicate with key audiences by writing well and succinctly. Not exactly your basic definition of a regular "people person."
Many professors are teaching "online" at some level because social media has changed how and what we're teaching, and specific instruction on professionalism and ethics given this context has become incredibly important. But audience segmentation and cultural preferences are also adding to the challenge. There is no longer a "general public" in America. In fact, when someone refers to the "mainstream," I often wonder what that really means.
Publics of different ethnic and religious backgrounds are finding common interests or lifestyles as the drivers behind their socialization. Geography no longer limits our communications efforts.
Behavioristics and psychographics are almost more important than demographics, making communications more personalized. The "mass" in communication has become nearly condemned by sophisticated audiences; therefore, new PR pros must understand what makes people behave and believe exactly how they do.
Today a student must leave a PR program with the basics, but also with a clear understanding of social, economic, and lifestyle preferences and how these affect communication, consumer behavior, culture, and technology usage.
It's not just about 140-character messages. It's having the right words at the right time, said to the right people through the right medium, in the right tone and sentiment - all the while keeping in mind the importance of the public interest.
Rosanna Fiske is associate professor of PR and advertising at Florida International University.