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College of Information and Communications

What's wrong with PR education? Students speak out

Posted Nov. 21, 2014
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, associate professor, Journalism and Mass Communications
Reprinted with permission from PRWeek, Nov. 14, 2014

Dr. Bruce Berger, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and a former PRWeek columnist, recently wrote an article in which he noted how many organizations have weak PR/communications functions. He offered reasons why those in business do not implement the research we generate in PR. Berger elaborated on why we don’t focus enough on internal relations. On that specific subject, Berger argued that levels of trust, engagement, and retention "remain distressingly low."

Based on 2014 research by David Therkelsen, who recently served as interim program director at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota, shortcomings in employee engagement partially stem from PR education programs’ failure to focus on such important matters.

Berger’s piece included some critiques that truly hit home for PR education. We don’t focus enough on business in the PR major, but what else are we doing wrong?

For the answer to that question, who better to ask than current students? These individuals are in the current stream of PR education. I sought input from seniors in my elective course Ethics in Public Relations and Public Policy at the University of South Carolina, which offers a PR major within an accredited journalism school.

They were asked to respond to four specific critiques that appeared in Berger’s article. All students participated on a volunteer basis and willingly offered their names to be included in this column.

1. PR education programs focus on hard or technical skills development and don’t arm practitioners to sell their ideas to management or understand organizational politics.

Students were fairly evenly split on this question. PR major LaShae Brown said the program "gives students the basic tools. Anything beyond that would have to come from internships or work experience." Several students lamented a heavy focus on technical skills and competencies.

However, PR major Will Robertson wrote, "Throughout my time in the PR program, I have been given training, specifically in management and ethics classes, on how to interact with organizational politics and get your ideas through when dealing with a company’s executives."

Two other students offered the following thoughts: "We’ve discussed the chain of command, the importance of autonomy," noted Ashley Gallin, while Jaclyn Davis added, "We are learning ethical decisions, organizational politics, and cases involving corrupted elements."

2. Employee communication is not recognized in MBA and other management training programs.

Student response to this criticism seemed to depend on the expertise of the professor teaching their major courses or that the topic only arises in a senior-level "capstone" course such as PR management. PR student Megan Guilfoyle explained, "I have briefly learned about employee communications in my PR management class, but other than that I have not learned about it."

Gallin, who replied to the first critique, disagreed: "I’m taking a PR management class and we have discussed employee communication. We have gone over different practices and the pros and cons of using them. We have gone over positive reinforcement, reprimanding, and when and how to use both. It provided a general understanding about how to handle employee relations communication."

3. Development of so-called soft skills – listening, conflict resolution, and change-management capabilities – are absent in most educational and professional structures.

This point elicited an extremely wide range of responses. Davis, who responded to the first critique, disagreed based on a business writing class in which she is "being taught all these skills, not only in detail but also in our textbook." Other students, in agreement with Haley Bourne, noted, "Courses in crisis management or ethics in PR discuss issues management and how to resolve issues at all levels of a corporation."

Several students agreed that soft skills were lacking in their PR courses, which seemed to focus predominately on writing and press conferences. Carolyn Walden, a PR major, said," In classes, we rarely focus on soft skills, but they are some of the most important skills for students to have."

4. Professional and educational programs place more attention and value on external constituents than employees or members.

There was a resounding level of agreement that employees are little discussed in the PR major. Alysha Duff agreed, saying. "This statement is true. Attention and value should be placed equally on employees in educational programs because they are key factors to success."

Other PR majors commented that internal publics are "touched upon in almost every class," in the words of Guilfoyle, who responded to the second critique earlier. Others said it was "rare" or that many discussions were "centered around funding," resulting in a focus on external publics, members, or donors.

These students, for the most part, will emerge with a degree from an accredited journalism school specializing in PR. As their comments illustrate, we are not doing nearly enough to teach management skills, business acumen, internal relations, and the soft skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s competitive environment.

Gone are the days of technical-skill domination, endlessly churning out news releases and pitches. We are currently living in an era where PR is integrated in a competitive business environment. Skills such as understanding strategy, leadership, ethics, conflict resolution, and effective competition are paramount. Professors and schools are achieving varying levels of success with preparing our current students for these responsibilities. There’s much work to do, however. We must change the core competencies within the PR major to meet the challenges of our dynamic field. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.