Graduate PR programs adjust to industry changes

From the economy to globalization to the importance of social media, there are many factors affecting graduate PR programs across the country.

From the economy to globalization to the importance of social media, there are many factors affecting graduate PR programs across the country.

George Washington University (GWU) is graduating its first class of master's students from its strategic PR program this July. The 94 students “attended” classes both in person and online.

“With the advent of the technology, we can have interactive classroom sessions, video, guest lecturers can be loaded up on the server, and students transferred in and out of DC can continue their program elsewhere,” says Larry Parnell, director of the master's program in strategic PR.

“It creates a very interesting dynamic,” he adds. “For many... students, this is very routine.”

The use of social media, both as a teaching tool and as part of the curriculum, is just one of a few characteristics that have become common of graduate PR education. Global perspectives and the impact of the recession are other factors that PR educators are taking into account as their graduate programs evolve.

At GWU, the international nature of the student body includes members of the military who take online courses abroad. Chats, bulletin boards, and other social media platforms take the place of in-class discussion. Those students who can make the trip to DC will get the chance to meet faculty and classmates, and take a tour of campus when a week-long residency program is introduced this summer. The program, which begins as a voluntary option, will also allow students to present their thesis projects in person.

Real-world skills
The goal of the GWU program is to give graduates practical skills they can apply immediately to the next level of their career, Parnell says. The economy has driven many to the program who are looking to add to their skill set or delay the job search until the economy is more accommodating.

“As the job market [makes it] more tough to get started, students decide to get an advanced degree while they determine their interests and where the market is going to go,” says Parnell, referring specifically to the increased number of students he sees joining the program directly after their undergraduate studies.

“The profile of the student as little as two years ago [in the classroom setting] was three to five years of experience and already working in PR. The online students tended to be even more experienced, some with even 10 years of experience, and saw an advanced degree as a way to advance their career.”

Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and PR Center, says applications are up about 40%, which he attributes to the recession and an influx of international students, particularly from China.

“[The Chinese students] are so passionate about coming here, learning how we do it, and how it applies in their culture,” Swerling says. “And then going back and being leaders in the profession, essentially creating the profession.”

Swerling attributes the spike in international applications to the greater global understanding of the PR profession. Adding to that understanding is the research that the program undertakes.

“Graduate study is taking on a new significance for the profession,” he notes. “The applied research [we do] plays a really important role in student education and curriculum development, plus it helps the profession.”

A global audience
Rosanna Fiske, graduate coordinator and associate professor in the department of advertising and PR at the school of journalism and mass communication at Florida International University (FIU), pinpoints Russia, Brazil, and China among the countries of origin for the school's student body. Social media has made it possible for students around the world to learn more about the school, she says. So understandably, digital media is also a big part of the curriculum. As of fall 2009, the program is changing its name to the master's in Global Strategic Communications (GSC), which reflects how PR is intended to use “all tools to communicate effectively.”

Fiske, an active Twitter user, says social media offers an enhanced educational experience.

“When they go to my account [and] see my followers, they might click on one and... that gives them a whole different level of teaching that they might not get in the classroom,” she says.

With so many students coming from different cultures with different media rules, getting everyone on the same page can be “challenging.” For example, there are students coming from countries where people aren't yet Tweeting.

And, Fiske says she's noticed applicants coming to the school after inheriting PR responsibilities from those who have been laid off.

“We're trying to deliver a lot of instruction in 36 credit hours,” she says. “Now, in early courses we're doing a lot of leveling because there are so many students coming in without a communications background.”

In the University of Maryland's communication program, which offers both master's and Ph.D degrees, associate professor Linda Aldoory has noticed three recent changes: a slight drop in the usual number of applications this year, which ranges between 200 and 220; applicants with more experience, as many as 10 or 20 years; and a higher base-level knowledge, even among master's students.

“They are expressing to us that they have found [a] greater intellectual curiosity, want to teach, [and have] dabbled in research,” she says. “Now they want to spread out and do more research-oriented projects.”

Taken together, the picture that PR educators paint is one where PR has gained more recognition as a profession in the US and around the world. With the difficulties posed by the economy, graduate PR programs are benefitting and becoming places where the profession is advancing.

“Overall, I'd say the trend is more strategic management of PR, the value of research and the value of culture and diversity,” Aldoory says. “I think those might impact the future of PR.”

New graduate PR courses

GWU

Corporate social responsibility communication strategies

Offered for the first time this semester, the course, which can also be taken online, focuses on the “global CSR movement.” Students in the program will examine case studies and do original research

FIU
Advanced integrated seminar: Cyber communication

This new course focuses on branding and PR in the social media world. The class focuses on “the need to apply new branding paradigms to be competitive in an evolving, new media environment”

University of Maryland
Gender and Diversity in Public Relations

This course focuses on “historical and current perspectives on the impact of gender and diversity” on the PR profession, theory and research, and the messaging and campaigns that PR produces

The title of this story appears in print as "Higher learning."

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