PR in Education: Staying Ahead of the Learning Curve


Despite its history of being an outcast in the business world, the PR field has undergone an evolution in recent years that any Darwinist communicator would celebrate: the weak, inept and distrustful PR practitioners have largely been weeded out of the proverbial gene pool, leaving the strong to prosper. But, in spite of the continuing integration of communications into overall organizational portfolios, one nagging question still remains: What must happen to elevate the credibility of the communications function once and for all? Surely a dissonant chorus would reply with a number of answers, but one could make the argument that the problem - and solution - lie in the oft-disingenuous attempts at incorporating public relations and communications into collegiate education. True, a number of institutions have established credible programs that school students in PR(see sidebar), but there is still a disconnect between theory and practice. Where should it fit into curricula? The crux of the current challenges in PR and communications educations hinges on the following industry trends, as defined by those within academia: Succession Planning 101 "Communications [including journalism and marketing] and public relations education programs tend to be built around individual people rather than institutions," according to Donald K. Wright, professor of public relations at Boston University's School of Communication. It is a challenge that rivals the issue of succession planning at large corporations - that is, what happens when the leaders that spearhead much of their institutions' thought leadership and education momentum leave their administrative posts? The credibility of the programs should hinge on more than a single individual. This is not to say that academic heads are not peerless within their institutions; instead, it is a impetus that PR education should operate as a business does, with succession plans for head professors and a means for continuing to evolve the curriculum to meet changing industry needs. Location, Location, Location It may be the holy grail of real estate, but the same can apply to PR education: Location matters. The problem is that, in the current state of PR and corpcomm education, the location of programs is not the same across the board - programs exist within journalism, business and communications departments, depending on the institution - and thus has sparked its fair share of controversy. Case in point: When Bob Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism program, gave notice of his impending departure from the post in the spring of 2006, he spiced up the usual resignation letter with contentious side commentary. "The two should be raised as adversaries," he wrote, referring to journalism and its PR, advertising and marketing relatives. He continued, "Had I remained in the chairmanship position, I would have begun urging that thought be given to divorcing Journalism from Mass COM [the umbrella term for BU's communications school]." This statement embodies the debate surrounding PR's place in graduate education. If it resides within journalism, members of Zelnick's camp are up in arms that it is a conflict of interest and doesn't reflect real-world relationships. If it is housed within business schools, as is the case with Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, there is often more attention given to corporate communications classes and less to public relations. Depending on the student's area of interest, that can be beneficial: "More CEOs want to give their communication executives a seat at the table," Tuck Professor Paul Argenti has said. "But to have that seat, they need to speak the same language and have a deep understanding of all areas of the business. That means having an M.B.A." So should PR degree programs operate as independent entities? "Once we establish the fact that we can measure and that we are strategic, we can stand on our own," says Don Stacks, professor and director of public relations at the University of Miami School of Communication. No matter which side of the debate you land on, Wright emphasizes that one thing remains of utmost importance. "There is a huge need for public relations educators to communicate with each other regardless of which academic area they are housed in," he says. Hello, My Name Is ______ Which leads to another point: Communication often fails in more than one context, both between students and practitioners, and among professors of marketing, PR and business. Commenting on the latter communications foible, Wright says, "Business professors go to conferences where only a very small part of the meeting deals with corporate communication. I just returned from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication [AEJMC] conference, and that meeting was 90 percent journalism and broadcasting. We need to stop this foolishness." As for the former communications disconnect, Northwestern University's school of Integrated Marketing Communications is making moves to align its students with practitioners throughout the entire learning process. The programs offers: Advanced courses in advertising, public relations, direct marketing and e-commerce marketing In-class client projects where students solve real-world problems for participating companies. Recent client projects include AOL, Kraft Foods, General Motors and Mercedes Benz A residency program for full-time students that provides actual work experience, typically on location with corporate sponsors (The characteristics of Medill's IMC programs were commented on by Adam Berkowitz, a student in New York University's Master's program for public relations and corporate communications, in his blog http://nyuprprogram.blogspot.com/.) Perhaps it's a small step in the grand scheme of getting PR education up to speed with its business and journalism counterparts, but it's something. "There is a group of enthusiastically concerned academics and PR professionals who want to move ahead," Stacks says. "If our core message is strategy, we must focus on getting the appropriate message to the appropriate audience. We have to prove that we can move the ball." Contact: Don Stacks, 305.284.2358, don.stacks@miami.edu; Paul Argenti, paul.argenti@dartmouth.edu, Don Wright, 617.670.1983, donaldkwright@aol.com Sample Of PR Education Programs Alabama Ball State University Boston University Brigham Young University California State - Fullerton Colorado State University Eastern Kentucky University University of Florida Florida International University of Georgia Howard University Indiana State University University of Louisana (Lafayette) University of Memphis University of Miami New York University Northern Iowa Northwestern University University of Oregon Rice University University of Southern California Syracuse University San Deigo State San Jose State University of South Alabama University of South Carolina University of Texas at Austin Texas Christian University Source: The majority of this list was compiled by Professors Don Stacks (University of Miami) and Don Wright (Boston University) and was presented at the Arthur W. Page Society/Tuck School of Business Academic Symposium in May 2006.)

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