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Advancing Public Relations Education

Published At: October 6, 2013 8:30 p.m.
by Jacquie McMahon

Public relations is “practically as old as society” according to industry forefather Edward Bernays, but the education for the profession is still relatively new. Public relations only became a widely accepted college major in the late twentieth century. Now, our Intro to Public Relations classes teach us about a spectrum of case studies, from Ivy Lee lobbying for railroad companies to Paula Deen’s scandal this year.

As we work in the “golden age of public relations,” it’s important to be familiar with the industry’s past, present and future. In recent years, public relations education has expanded in response to changes in technology and new methods of building relationships. The industry and its network of pre-professionals continue to grow, from the formation of the Public Relations Student Society of America in 1968 to the present society of more than 11,000 students.

Curricula vary at the 300 schools with extensive PR programs, but many of the courses and requirements are the same. As these courses continue to develop, educators across the country discuss the transformation.Industry Education

The changing landscape

As the world delves deeper into the digital era, public relations continues to adapt to new methods of communication and ways to build relationships. The buzz about this digital revolution has sparked conversations in classes and offices globally.

Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor in public relations at The University of Georgia, reflected on the changes that have occurred during her time at UGA. “I’ve definitely seen more emphasis on digital than we had before,” Acosta-Alzuru said. “Social media changes every day and in the way it’s used every day.”

Acosta-Alzuru also pointed out that many UGA public relations students have pursued new media certificates through an interdisciplinary program that guarantees the candidate’s proficiency with technological applications within a particular profession.

The industry and technology have become so intertwined that students need to demonstrate this understanding of new media. Pat Curtin, a University of Oregon professor, shared her perspective on the developing relationship between the industry and social media.

“Obviously, technology has made a huge change,” Curtin said. “I don’t want to sound like a technological determinist, but I think that what has happened is social media has allowed us to develop the aspect of building relationships. I think PR has managed to own social media.”

Curtin emphasized that public relations practitioners have to leverage the latest technological innovations. She described this development as one of the biggest changes and the reason for a surge in the industry. “In the economic downturn, marketing and advertising budgets fell but public relations continued to hold its own – and even grow,” Curtin said.

Glenn Griffin, an associate professor at The University of Alabama, revealed how his approach as an educator has changed to better prepare students for the modern industry.

“Education has become more sensitized to the need of employers, which is different from 20 years ago,” Dr. Griffin said. “Back then, we taught more of a liberal arts view and broad perspective, but we don’t have that luxury anymore. We have to think carefully about what is most important.”

Back to basics

“There’s always been technological change, even when Ivy Lee was practicing PR,” Curtin pointed out.

Every educator agreed that these changes only increase the need for teaching the basics.

“The fact remains that the basics of what we do don’t change; the tools we use do,” Curtin said. “At the core of what we do, it’s still building relationships. Technology has certainly picked up the pace of what we do, but public relations has not fundamentally changed.”

Acosta-Alzuru also emphasized the importance of basic skills, particularly writing, planning and research. “It’s a tightrope we have to walk between never forgetting the basics and incorporating aspects from the changing digital world,” she said.

Griffin leads the curriculum committee discussing potential changes in UA’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. “It’s just broad strokes right now,” he explained. “We want to improve writing skills and hold students accountable to be good writers.”

Griffin wants to see these basic skills taught early in one’s education, so corresponding courses can continue building and strengthening the student’s professional development. He expressed the urgent need to update education programs — and not just “every once in a while.”

In a world that refreshes every minute, it seems to be more important than ever to refresh curricula.

Looking forward

The general consensus reveals that as the public relations industry changes, education continually adapts.

When asked about the future of PR instruction, Acosta-Alzuru referred back to her previous point. “I would like us to perfect how we walk the tightrope,” she said. “We should never forget how to teach the basics and never forget the service aspect of public relations. We need to teach our students how to be professional, polished and skilled but never arrogant.”

Public relations education is becoming more standardized as programs continue to stress the basics. Proficiency in research, writing and organization proved to be the most commonly discussed skills, as professors provide the bridge between students and the competitive job market they hope to enter.

Clearly, preparation for a career in public relations is not just about being “a people person.” Students, educators and professionals alike should keep in mind Griffin’s advice: “It’s an ongoing battle to stay current.”

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