COVID on campus: A look into the pandemic’s effect on future PR pros

Comms educators discuss the impact on teaching plans, students and faculty members.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Over the past 18 months the role of comms has been elevated within the C-suite, with shell-shocked organizations turning to the function to help them through the pandemic as well as to address social and racial justice issues.

It stands to reason the PR sector will grow in the years to come.

But institutions of higher education – a critical source of talent – have been walloped by the pandemic. Reduced income from enrolment and other sources, like residence fees, have led to budget shortfalls. Layoffs hit faculty, hiring was suspended and updates to curriculum curtailed.

Campus shutdowns forced universities into the business of remote learning, with administrators and professors figuring it out as they went along.

As students return to their studies, university educators of PR address cutbacks, the need for classes to be safely back in-person and the unrelenting push to deliver a diverse, well-equipped set of graduates for the changing requirements of PR firms and in-house teams. 

Boston University was among the many top-tier schools hit financially. In June 2020, it laid off or furloughed about 250 employees, and said 200 vacant positions had been eliminated or deferred to help make up for a $96 million budget shortfall. 

BU’s College of Communication, which includes mass comms, advertising and PR students, had “no layoffs or furloughs,” says Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of PR at BU, but “some of our hiring was postponed for the academic year 2020-2021.”

Buoyed by strong applicant numbers to both the undergraduate and graduate programs as well as an “encouraging” showing of applications from international students this fall, Krishna says “things are back to normal.” That includes in hiring, with new staff and faculty having recently been brought on. The College of Communication is also on the search for a professor of the practice of PR and two associate professors of the practice.

Krishna says students and professors alike will benefit by being back in-person for classes, and safely – BU requires all staff, faculty and students on campus to be fully vaccinated, and also to wear masks while in-class. Massachusetts also boasts the second-highest vaccination rate in the U.S., with more than 65% of its population double vaccinated.

“We are taking these precautions as we want operations to remain fully in-person, as in-class learning is extremely important to establishing camaraderie between students and students and professors, and for enabling students to really absorb the content,” says Krishna, who herself is looking forward to being back in front of students.

She adds that teaching is like being on stage, and so without an in-person audience it can be very deflating.

“When you’re teaching, you’re in fact performing in front of the students, and you get a lot of cues from them in terms of the direction of the discussion, and also varied points of view,” Krishna explains. “You don’t get that to the same degree on Zoom.”

In looking at the evolving demands of the PR workplace, Krishna says “one of the things we’re reflecting on is whether we’re doing a good enough job of equipping our students on internal comms and employee engagement.”

The University of Akron in Ohio also had layoffs and furloughs last summer, which coupled with voluntary retirements led to a whopping 23% reduction in full-time faculty.

Akron’s School of Communication -- which includes media studies, PR, and strategic and organizational comms -- lost two faculty members from those layoffs, but not specifically in the PR discipline, says Julie Cajigas, a professor of practice for the PR program.

It launched a professional social media certificate just before the pandemic, and Cajigas notes it retained the three hires made for the certificate.

“That program has grown from 60 to about 80 students this year, and has become a feather in our cap,” says Cajigas.

The student body at the School of Communication numbers about 500, which she says “is down slightly from before COVID.”

HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) seem to have fared better than most over the past 18 months.

The Cathy Hughes Schools of Communication (CHSOC), the third-largest of 13 academic schools at Howard University, has maintained its operating budget throughout the pandemic.

“At a time when many schools froze hiring or took away tenure from faculty, we were actually hiring,” says Tia Tyree, interim associate dean and a professor within Howard University’s department of strategic, legal and management communications.

She credits this in part to a supported student body, buoyed by an influx of corporate and individual donations to HBCUs following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. In July 2020, for instance, novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $40 million to HU, earmarked to, among other ends, a needs-based grant program, retain faculty and develop programs for innovation.

“The donations didn’t necessarily trickle down specifically to PR, but it helped our students in the form of financial support,” says Tyree. “And that really strengthens our program because we attract and also don’t lose as many excellent candidates.”

While unable to break out numbers for the CHSOC, HU saw 30,000 applications for fall 2021, which is up over 2020, confirms Tyree.

As the industry looks for its workforce to better reflect a diverse U.S. population, she notes CHSOC “has also had many top-tier strategic comms firms as well as major companies reach out for partnerships and events more than before the unfortunate death of George Floyd. We also saw them wanting to create internships and fellowships.”

Tyree says that will be a boost to the program moving forward, as well.  

The NYU School of Professional Studies saw a big boost in enrolment to its MS in PR and corporate comms, which was named Outstanding Education Program at the 2021 PRWeek Awards.

It will welcome roughly 100 new students this autumn, which is up significantly from last year given COVID, and also “up 25% on the rate of new students we’ve seen starting with us in prior years,” says Michael Diamond, academic director and clinical assistant professor of the department of integrated marketing and communications at the NYU School of Professional Studies.

It made investments in its faculty last year, with the addition of Jennifer Scott from Ogilvy as clinical assistant professor for PR and corporate communication.

To accommodate international students who couldn’t get to New York and still offer them an in-person experience, last year the school set up an outpost in Shanghai. The Shanghai Go Local program will welcome about 160 students between the MS in PR and corporate comms and a MS in integrated marketing this autumn, with new students accounting for about two-thirds of that number.

Nevertheless, the events of the past 18 months have given the school pause to look at its pedagogy.

“It caused us to go back to basics in a really healthy way, and ask ourselves what really drives a positive student experience and supports them to succeed professionally in the world of PR,” says Diamond. “One thing faculty has done a lot more work around is being more responsive about what is going on around us, and using the real world to examine how different PR leaders or government leaders responded and acted, and what choices companies have made and how they’ve communicated about those choices.”

While welcoming students back in class, some institutions are having to deal with state politics as it relates to mask and vaccine mandates.

The College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida will see 600 students on campus, but without requiring them to be vaccinated or wear masks. An additional 150 students in the college have chosen to do their studies 100% virtually.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned schools from instituting mask or vaccine mandates. If the university was to defy the order, the state could threaten to withhold funding, like it has to some local school districts.

“The president of our school has said to our student body, ‘I’m asking you to get the vaccine and wear your mask,’ but frankly if a student in my class doesn’t want to wear a mask, they don’t have to,” says Marcia DiStaso, associate professor and PR department chair at the University of Florida. “It could get bumpy. As the pandemic and politics continue to intersect, we are expecting to see students with different expectations.”

Nevertheless, like all schools these days, the college is “constantly trying to revaluate who we are and what we do,” says DiStaso.

One initiative has seen professor Natalie Asorey, a former Boden executive, set up shop in New York City. Her mandate is to build an extension for the PR curriculum that will involve sending students to the big city for classes and internship opportunities.

The college is also looking to better support diverse talent, having added a diverse voices class, and starting PR student groups for Hispanics (who make up about 26% of its student body), Blacks and Asians.

“That gives these students a family to grow with, helping them while they are here but also providing them with that connection as they go out into the profession,” says DiStaso.

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