If you’re listening to conversations online or in your social circles, then you’re most likely hearing an active discussion regarding public relations and higher education. It’s a three-part discussion involving students, educators and PR professionals that deserves attention. PR education is at the heart of our industry. The education of today and what lies ahead for our students is what will produce the communications leaders of the future. Education should not be an optional investment.
What are the most prominent discussions? They include the following: How today’s students prefer to learn and how technology is a big part of their world, how educators have or have not embraced social media both personally and in the classroom, and how PR professionals realize that organizations today need young professionals with a new set of skills and competencies.
Starting with the discussion regarding student education, should students be exposed to more new media and collaborative learning opportunities in the classroom? In my experience as a professor, the more my students experiment with technology and social collaboration in the classroom, the more they can apply the experience to their careers post graduation. Social media is a big part of their world. These students are independent and highly informed with information at their fingertips. We know they are motivated by connectedness with their peers and interactive experiences, with 70% of consumers age 18-24 owning smartphones and spending more than 15 hours per month watching online videos. Social TV is also a part of their world combining a Twitter and TV experience together, as a means to be a part of a larger community. What is familiar to our student population today is foreign to previous generations.
At the same time, educators are getting up to speed with social media at a varying pace. According to a survey in October 2013, by the Babson Survey Research Group in collaboration with Pearson, approximately 70% of professors use social media personally. However, only 41% of the professors surveyed use social media in the classroom. The PR and the media landscape continue to change; where change is the only constant. Building relationships and understanding the dynamics of communications through new media channels requires a deeper understanding.
The question becomes, can an understanding be gained without hands on experience and / or adopting new technologies in the classroom? And, how much should social media be a part of the curriculum for students to understand the connection between communications and business, as social technologies increasingly affect businesses globally today? The more educators marry technology to their approach, and to the communications lessons in the classroom, the more they are able to meet the expectations of the their students, as well as the needs of corporations looking for specific skills and competencies of young professionals.
Lastly, corporations have high expectations for young professionals entering into the workforce. Organizations are seeking communications professionals with solid skills that include competencies in IT and social media. Although more research is required, one interesting study in 2012 clearly shows the connections between the needs of the global corporation and new competencies in PR. In the age of globalization and social media, there is an increased demand for a new type of communication practitioners who are capable of adapting to rapid organizational change and constantly emerging online communities.
A research study in Kazakhstan utilized a multi-method survey. The researchers used qualitative and quantitative components, which were distributed to over a hundred chief communication officers or those holding upper management positions in public relations. The survey dealt with professionals’ expectations regarding crucial communication competencies that university graduates with a degree in public relations should possess in order to be successful in their organizations. Part of the study results revealed that potential employers identified using new information technologies, along with relationship building and the ability to initiate dialogue, self-control, persuasion, and negotiation, as the most important skills criteria for young professionals.
There appears to be a gap between the needs of students, PR education and what corporations expect in young professionals entering into the workforce. Through more studies and industry discussions, we can close the gap. There are universities with their faculty diligently working on this now, changing older PR curriculum and incorporating social media into the classroom to reduce the gap and to satisfy the needs of all constituencies.
As many are focusing on technology, it’s time to ask the question about PR education. Does PR education need a simple adjustment or does it need a complete overhaul? I’ve been teaching for just over 10 years. I started at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) and now I’m at New York University (NYU) and also online at UMASS at Amherst. Working closely with students, educators and PR professionals, the latter is looking to be more of a reality everyday.
Deirdre Breakenridge (@dbreakenridge) is CEO of Pure Performance Communications based in New York. She is an adjunct professor at NYU and an online instructor at UMASS. Her most recent book published by FT PRESS is Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR Professional.