How must education evolve to address the PR professional's expanding role?

PR education needs to account for a quartet of important trends that are having a dramatic impact on the profession.

Nick Ashooh, Global VP, corporate affairs, Alcoa

Drew Mailloux, 2012 PRWeek Student of the Year finalist, Georgia State University

Bob Rybarczyk, VP, Weber Shandwick

Jason Schlossberg, President and partner, Kwittken & Company

Elizabeth Toth, Professor and chair, Department of Communication, University of Maryland

Nick Ashooh, global VP, corporate affairs, Alcoa: 
PR education needs to account for a quartet of important trends that are having a dramatic impact on the profession.

Business focus. It is now widely accepted that business orientation must be part of PR education. Whether you practice at a corporation, a nonprofit, or educational institution, it's all about business. You must understand your organization's financial metrics and how they bear on your mission. The PR profession should also be pushing to include communications in business-school curricula. Helping future business leaders understand and appreciate the value of communications is probably the best thing we can do to advance PR.

Versatility. The days of specialization are over. To succeed in PR, you have to understand media relations, marketing, advertising, employee communications, community relations, IR, and government relations and how they relate to each other. PR education should integrate these fields.

Global perspective. When I was in college, a semester abroad was cool and exotic. Today it is a necessity. PR education should make study abroad mandatory, along with a foreign language - preferably two besides English. You don't have to become a native speaker. In truth, you can get by with English almost anywhere. But PR professionals with a working knowledge of a foreign country and its language have an edge in a world that is getting smaller every year.

Digital survival. Staying current on the latest trends is as essential as it is daunting. PR education has to help tomorrow's pros predict and prepare for the relentless evolution of digital and social communications. And then comes the hard part: getting organizations to adapt swiftly by adopting new technologies and adjusting communications policies.

With full recognition of these trends, PR education can prepare tomorrow's practitioners, not as communicators, but as well-rounded communications pros who are full partners in an organization's success.

Drew Mailloux, 2012 PRWeek Student of the Year finalist, Georgia State Univ.:
PR calls for a certain level of ingenuity, but until "Intro to Risk Taking" is offered at universities, it is a skill you will have to learn outside the classroom. No top executive will ever tell you they made their way to the top by playing fair and following all the rules. When no journalist will take your pitch, it's time to set your education aside and get creative. Though I warn you, it won't be easy.

There will be no lecture in your PR research class to prep you for it, but you'll be expected to think on your feet. No notes will be taken. No multiple-choice test assigned. PR is a game of trial and error. It consists of moves and countermoves. It's no longer solely about media lists, press releases, and social media updates. While those skills are key, it's more important that you captivate your audience during a presentation. You need to balance personality and professionalism.

Education must evolve with this in mind.  Course studies must provide tools that can  shape every PR wannabe into a strong, well-articulated professional who knows more than how to formulate a coherent tweet. Our field is already oversaturated with toothy smiles and scented résumés that want to focus on social media. That's not a focus, it's a tool.

Education should weed out the dedicated from the lost, the outstanding from the masses of profoundly ordinary. It needs to abandon its preconceived textbook notions of what PR was in the 1990s and cultivate the creativity of those students who are ready to run with the continually evolving 21st century.

Bob Rybarczyk, VP, Weber Shandwick:
It's no secret that the lines between PR and other marketing professions are becoming more blurred by the day. The advent of social media has indeed helped to speed that process along, but it was happening even before that. We still work with the media on a daily basis, an element of our profession that will never change. But we're increasingly content providers and storytellers. In that regard, we have to add more tools to our arsenal.

A good PR pro must be able to differentiate compelling and on-brand content from a thinly disguised and poorly crafted promotional message. The former generates pass-along and conversation. The latter is a waste of resources that often results in marketers labeling content as a dead end.

I'd like to see more coursework in the area of branded content creation. Not classes about making ads - there are plenty of those - but classes that teach the nuances of telling a story that is genuinely cool and that delivers an effective brand message.

Aside from that, students need to be as well-rounded as possible - not just in PR, but in all the various disciplines of marketing. I work hand in hand with people at ad agencies, promotional agencies, digital agencies, you name it. We're increasingly part of large- scale, multidisciplinary teams, which wasn't the case five years ago. To be invaluable, study every aspect of marketing, not just PR.

Jason Schlossberg, president and partner, Kwittken & Company:
I am generally skeptical of PR education's role in creating superior PR pros. Not surprisingly, that is a reflection of my age and experiences. When I was in college, I don't think PR was even a major. If it was, I never met anyone who majored in it.

Only after several years in the industry did I meet someone who had studied PR at a university. She was a very eager account coordinator. I remember her telling me she had recently completed her senior thesis on how Exxon should have responded to the Exxon Valdez crisis. I recall saying something to her along the lines of, "That will come in handy once you are VP of corporate communications for a major oil company, but how will that help us sell more 'widgets' today?" She didn't have an answer.

If I were to develop a PR curriculum it would be multidisciplinary in nature, incorporating business, marketing, creative writing, technology, critical media theory, and philosophy.

Most current PR programs do not exist within a business school environment and require little to no completed coursework in management, economics, strategy, or finance. But having a solid foundation of business knowledge is integral if PR pros want to be taken seriously by their clients or colleagues.

Today's PR pros must also possess a much better understanding of the other marketing disciplines. Modern idea-based marketing programs are born of multiple influences. There is no such thing as a PR campaign, ad campaign, or digital campaign. Innovative marketers are now taking a channel-agnostic, idea-based approach to their campaigns, implementing whatever tools and tactics they feel will best accomplish the task at hand.

Technology, media theory, and even philosophy are all crucial areas of study for anyone interested in a PR career, but if there's one more thing I would stress it's the importance of creative writing within any PR training program. Regardless of how technology evolves, PR pros need to excel at storytelling, which has become even more important with the increased need for brands and organizations to create their own content.

Elizabeth Toth, professor and chair, Department of Communication, University of Maryland:
PR education, as it addresses the expanding role of the PR pro in the coming years, will have to provide six student outcomes:

  • An appreciation of the importance of globalization, entrepreneurship, and technology in today's business environment;
  • An understanding of the interactions between communications functions in organizations;
  • An understanding of the role of communications in society;
  • An understanding of the ethical challenges of global communications;
  • Language mastery in oral and written form;
  • Characteristics of critical thinking, intellectual capability, and curiosity.

My opinions reflect a year-long study of PR executive and educator perceptions of what should be included in US master's programs in PR/communication management, conducted by the Commission on Public Relations Education, of which I am a member.

A quantitative survey of more than 400 practitioners and educators found they expected graduates to have mastered four areas of knowledge: strategic management, business, theoretical foundations, and globalization. The highest-rated knowledge area by those surveyed was "ethics." Also of significance in the commission's findings was the expectation that a master's in PR/communications management means a mastery of language in oral and written form.

In a second study, top PR corporate and agency employers added that they were hiring PR pros who could think critically about PR problems. These 20 employers wanted PR pros who were intellectually capable and also curious about the world. Their opinions topped any discussion of how much knowledge a prospective employee had gained. They wanted thinkers and problem-solvers.

The commission will present its report on what should be expected of master's level education in PR/communications management at the 2012 PRSA International Conference in San Francisco this October.

The Takeaway

  • Business orientation needs to be a bigger part of PR education going forward.
  • With content creation taking on added significance in PR, good writing remains an essential skill to hone.
  • Ethics and critical thinking are high on the list of traits executives and academics are looking for in up-and-coming PR pros.

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