The changing face of PR education

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When Nicole Stipp was a college student back in 2007, Facebook was merely something she and her friends played around with in their spare time. You certainly didn’t get caught in class messing around on it.

Two years after graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s in public affairs, she finds a vastly changed world. “Online media is so prevalent in every American’s life now,” said

The changing face of PR education

The changing face of PR education

Stipp. “I think it’s really been legitimized.” Stipp, an assistant account executive at The Walker Marchant Group, a Washington, D.C. strategic communications firm, said she learned next to nothing about social media as a college student. “A year ago, if I had told one of my higher-ups that I was reaching out to a blogger, they would have said ‘why?’”

It’s no secret that the public relations industry is changing to keep up with a swiftly evolving media world. In response, college PR and communication programs across the country have adapted. While in the past, blogging or playing around on your Facebook page during class might have previously earned you an unhappy look from a professor, these days your prowess with social media is encouraged as well as graded.

Earlier this month, Maeve Atkins, a public relations major and senior at the University of Maryland, had three blog posts due online. “In one of my classes I had to create a Twitter account and post a certain number of updates by a certain time. Everything is very calculated and everything is on the Internet,” she said. “The excuse that your ‘dog ate your homework’ or that ‘your printer isn’t working’ no longer applies.” Assignments are even relayed to students via YouTube video and blogs as opposed to traditional lectures, she said.

The times have certainly changed. Back in 2007, Kyle Reinson taught his introduction to PR class in a regular classroom – chalkboard, desk. Nowadays, classes are taught in a computer lab so that students have online resources at the touch of their fingertips. “It’s almost like operating in the Wild West; a state of disorder,” said Reinson in an e-mail interview. An assistant professor of public relations at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., he explained that the typical classroom has undergone major change. “All the assumptions made in decades of PR textbooks really must be called into question as we exit an age of scarcity that has been controlled by big media and replace that with something I don’t think anyone can predict yet,” he said.

Associate professor and chair of the public relations department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Brenda Wrigley said that her school holds in-depth technology training programs for faculty, who then teach students how to work with social media. PR “used to be a one-to-many model of communications,” she said. “But now, it’s a many-to-many model, with anyone and everyone on an equal plane, sending and receiving messages.”

As students fresh with an extensive knowledge of social media join the workforce, are they better prepared to meet today’s demands than seasoned PR pros? Atkins believes they have an edge, at least where social media is involved. “We have grown up with these newer technologies, and unlike our older counterparts, we have never lived without them,” she said.

In his blog, Communications Catalyst, account supervisor David Mullen argues that young PR grads about to join the job market have been set up for failure because the senior executives hiring them have “unrealistic expectations” of the young twenty-somethings who are expected to be the gurus of social media. “Knowing how to set up a Facebook account isn’t all that’s needed to create and execute successful communications programs – whether online or offline,” he blogged. “You have to know your audience, set measurable goals and objectives, understand how to develop sound strategies, plan for potential negative scenarios, recognize a crisis as it’s unfolding and respond appropriately.”

Stipp admits that she was not taught strategy in school. “When I first came into the industry, I never would have thought to read the climate, I would have just started pitching,” she said.

Regardless of new technology, today’s graduates entering the field are no different than past grads entering the field – experience is the key to becoming a PR industry master. And good communicators are always in demand, said Reinson. “This is the best time to get students thinking about the future of media because they will clearly shape it,” he said.

–Katrina M. Randall

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