Schools must step up to produce better PR hires

What does your ideal hire look like? At a recent event at the Arthur W. Page Society, the most common answer was, "We want critical thinking skill." This prompts a re-examination of whether PR educators are focusing enough on analytical ability.

What does your ideal hire look like? What are that candidate's experiences, qualifications, degree, and course focus? I was recently speaking at a Future Leaders Experience event at the Arthur W. Page Society where I posed those questions. The answers were surprising, insightful, though a bit disheartening.

This query is certainly an interesting one because it drives the future of PR education and, indeed, the future of the PR industry. The most common answer among the Future Leaders group was, “We want critical thinking skill.” Strategy, analytical thinking, independent thought, and other synonyms were used, but it always came back to that sentiment. In addition, one Future Leader – with agreement from several others – offered this eye-opening assessment:

I want analytical thinking, so I don't look for PR majors. I look for a degree in economics, history, or philosophy because those people can write a cohesive argument. The PR stuff, I can teach them, but I can't teach them to think.

That's a blow to PR education, but perhaps it is a fair one. I found it to be a disheartening sentiment, though it certainly prompts a re-examination of whether or not PR educators are focusing enough on analytical ability. My conclusion: though it is a difficult challenge, analytical thinking ability can be taught.

The Commission of Public Relations Education addresses such problems and publishes a report about what comprises the ideal PR major for our undergraduates. In 1999, the commission released an undergraduate report entitled A port of entry: Public relations education for the 21st century. It gave us a structure for a desirable PR major in terms of five “minimum” courses: principles, writing, research, campaigns, and management. The field has significantly changed since then, of course. We know that we need more, including, perhaps most importantly, a class in PR ethics, which requires advanced analytical skill.

Even as the commission's members struggle to keep up with these changes, it seems that more demands are being placed upon PR educators. As one Future Leaders participant explained, “We are expected to do everything these days. We master social media, strategy, research, and branding. You have to know it all.”

These areas are all properly discussed in the management class of the PR major, but do those in hiring positions know that? Indeed, our major is sometimes taught in a business school under the corporate communications moniker. I wonder if those students fare any better in the job market than those with journalism or communication-based PR degrees? Or is it better to hire that economics major after all and just teach them basic PR skills?

I hope not, but I'd like to hear your thoughts about what makes an ideal hire in PR. What would he or she have studied to get there? What types of experiences are best for college students' summers? Should students go the broad liberal arts route of studying abroad or volunteering? Should they be using the time to intern at various PR agencies or is corporate experience along a certain industry preferred? What knowledge, skills, and abilities does your ideal hire have?

I'm co-chairing a special task force on academics for the Page Society's Professional Development group and your input on any of above questions could help influence the future focus of the Society, PR education, and what initiatives get support. I'd love to hear your two cents.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at

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