Molding the PR pro of the future

A common refrain from agency leaders is that the quality of candidates coming out of university programs does not meet the needs of the modern PR firm.

A common refrain from communications agency leaders is that the quality of candidates coming out of university programs does not meet the needs of the modern PR firm.

Ketchum's Rob Flaherty recently addressed this issue in a blog post on the PRWeek website and outlined the course modules he would like to see on university curriculums. It was a very useful insight into the skills young people need if they are to make it in the real world of modern communications.

Education programs tend to lag behind the “real world” almost by definition, in that they are scoped and planned at least 18 months to two years in advance of the actual course starting. Courses are also often taught by people who are coming toward the end of their careers and want to give something back and keep busy in their later years.

This is no bad thing. They are people who have years of experience to share and practical lessons to impart to their students. That is the nature of education and there are lots of benefits built in to this structure.

But the nature of modern business, and especially PR, marketing, and communications, is that it moves with such incredible pace it is difficult for the education community to keep up. Also, the boundaries between the different marketing disciplines are increasingly blurring and can't easily be defined in the nice neat boxes that typically make up a university curriculum.

After I read Flaherty's piece I looked at the curriculum of Georgetown University, PRWeek's Education Program of the Year for 2013. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this Master's in Public Relations and Corporate Communications program contained lots of the elements the Ketchum CEO wants to see.

As well as a required course on ethics (essential), students choose eight courses from six standard tracks covering topics including corporate comms, writing, media relations, public affairs and government relations, crisis, and social impact. There are also modules in areas such as integrated marketing, content creation, social media, and SEO. Then there are electives in a long list of areas including brand and creative strategy, branded storytelling, digital analytics and measurement, visual storytelling, web development, even “building your creative muscle.”

So Georgetown ticks a lot of Flaherty's boxes. It focuses on a multidisciplinary curriculum and applying knowledge to real-world projects in a very flexible, personalized environment. It teaches students to think strategically, globally, and digitally – and makes high-level internships and paid fellowships available. Hence it's no surprise upwards of 94% of its recent alumni are employed in PR or related fields.

But Georgetown is a master's program and is clearly top of the tree when it comes to best practice. At undergraduate level it's fair to say the story is different. Courses contain some of the elements above, but certainly not all. And PR leaders remain dismayed by the general quality of candidates coming out of universities.

It's important for the industry to have an ongoing dialogue with the education community and for there to be continual interaction and knowledge sharing, as well as practical internship opportunities. Nothing equips students better for their work life ahead than the opportunity to put the academic disciplines they learn in the classroom into practice in a real-world environment.

Professors don't lack the will to make things better. The fact is that, just as agencies and their holding company networks are wrestling with the new integrated world of marketing communications and how they should now structure themselves, so are the universities.

If this will on both sides can be successfully harnessed through courses such as PRWeek's Education Program of the Year, the universities will pump out more individuals of the quality of our annual Student of the Year winners and the industry will have the raw materials - in a people business - to meet the strict demands of their clients and C-suites.

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