In 2010, The University of Alabama had the top-ranked undergraduate public relations program in the nation according to PRWeek Magazine. 2012 marks the fourth consecutive year that the program is competing for the no. 1 spot.
The department is part of the College of Communication and Information Sciences in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at the state’s namesake university. So what makes this PR department in the Deep South so successful?
There are many different components that must be combined to create something like Alabama’s public relations department. While there are other colleges and universities that offer public relations programs, some lack the well roundedness that is available at The University of Alabama’s College of Communication. A school must have experienced teachers, driven students and a thorough curriculum in order to achieve success.
The instructors and professors of public relations at The University of Alabama create what instructor Teri Henley described as a “dream team.” They are all different ages and come from all manner of backgrounds, but upon combining their experience and expertise, a wealth of knowledge is created.
Unity within the professors and instructors in the college helps to create a welcoming atmosphere for learning. “The PR educators in the AD/PR department at UA are top-notch. Each faculty member has his or her own area of PR expertise and everyone genuinely cares about the students in our department,” said Kristen Heflin, assistant professor.
But once a PR professional moves from the working world to inside the classroom, there is still much learning to be done. According to Suzanne Horsley, assistant professor and volunteer Red Cross spokesperson, “… a good PR educator has some professional experience and also works to stay current in the field.”
Disregarding the changing world outside the classroom would be detrimental to the success of the students. There is always something new in the realm of PR, so learning is continual, even for the teacher.
At UA, this perpetual learning looks different for each instructor. Some classes, such as a campaigns class, use real clients for projects. Other classes are set up as service-learning classes; these courses combine education and philanthropy, getting the students active outside of the classroom. And sometimes this component is accounted for through a teacher’s involvement in a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America or the Public Relations Council of Alabama.
In addition to staying up to date on the ever-changing world, “It is vital that PR educators be effective communicators themselves,” Heflin said. Horsley also pointed out that “teaching a professional discipline is so much different than teaching a liberal arts discipline such as history or English. New graduates are expected to have the theoretical foundation and the skill set to go out and perform as soon as they are hired.” Teaching public relations is unique; therefore, well-developed and professional communication skills are a necessity.
A final word of wisdom about success as a PR teacher comes from Meg Lamme, an associate professor in the college. She said that a teacher’s role is “to engage and facilitate” in the classroom but not to entertain. The public relations faculty at The University of Alabama lives by this belief and sets high expectations for classroom performance.
Students are an equally important driving force in the classroom. They are the reason that a school exists, so their participation is incredibly important to classroom success.
Heflin noted, “I am motivated by my students who genuinely enjoy learning.” The students hold a lot of weight in the classroom. They set the mood for the learning environment, and they dictate how the teacher will run the classroom in response to their behavior.
Lamme agrees. “Teaching is a two-way street,” she said.
But that does not mean that the classroom leaders are not there to help. Bruce Berger, Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at UA, shared his teaching philosophy that he adopted from his mother: “Every student who comes into my classroom is a bright promise. My job is to help them make that promise shine, shine, shine.”
At UA, it is the heart given by both the student and the teacher that creates such dynamic results. Neither is looking to the other for complete fulfillment; therefore, they actively complement each other, leaving the college with very desirable results.
A public relations department’s curriculum ties everything together.
According to William Gonzenbach, a public relations professor at The University of Alabama, students receive a comprehensive and consistent PR curriculum at UA.
During the college years, there is so much to be learned, but The University of Alabama’s public relations department has figured out how to successfully fit a complete experience into a short amount of time. Every aspect of the field is covered throughout the years spent in the program, and every student has the opportunity to completely learn the field.
Lamme attributes this to the fact that the classroom is the “real world.” There is opportunity to work with real clients, compete in real competitions and use the real-life skills learned.
It is the combination of all aspects of a public relations program that entitles it to award-winning success. The University of Alabama’s PR program works diligently to achieve this prestige. Its strength lies in the unification of experienced teachers, driven students and thorough curriculum.
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