The PR Education Revolution

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The Hat Toss
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The very smart Heather Whaling asked on her blog Wednesday whether social media begets mainstream coverage. Now, for me, that gets my attention, because a) it’s totally up the alley of my passion within the PR business (namely, the integration of traditional PR and social media PR; and b) it’s a question that I think we are going to start asking ourselves a lot more in the coming months.

A quick summary of Heather’s points follow:

  • Despite ample evidence that securing a mention/write-up on a well-read and influential blog (even a small, niche blog) can indeed generate mainstream media coverage, many PR pros still view blogger relations and outreach as an afterthought. In fact, blogger relations should start being viewed as an equal, if not greater, priority than your top-tier outreach.
  • A company’s online and social media presence (or lack thereof) is quickly becoming a precursor to the amount, scope and quality of both traditional and online media coverage that a company receives. The higher quality of an online presence a company has (corporate blog, Wikipedia entry, Twitter feed, comments on other relevant blogs, etc.), the greater likelihood of an overworked reporter/blogger finding that company and using as a source for a piece.

A strong online presence—both from your own corporate site, as well as within other relevant sites and social networks—is certainly going to help businesses be seen and heard by reporters and bloggers who are doing research through various search engines. I think the interesting idea going forward (and one that, personally, I would love to explore more) is to completely throw the whole PR educational system on its head by drastically underscoring the teachings of the traditional outreach methods (which, from my experience, are quite out-dated and out of touch with the current PR/media scene), and instead, focus more on how a company’s online presence affects every part of its media exposure.

What I’m proposing here is an idea of dropping the whole traditional PR education, and creating a more balanced “communicator” education program (Note: that’s not communications, which I think is slightly different in this context). Because to me, that’s really what we are now, and when we start to buy into that and truly understand our role as a communicator of a company’s or brand’s core business and consumer values, I think we will have a much easier time getting over the jitters about blogger outreach and what role online communications plays in the company’s overall media exposure.

Once you accomplish that, a whole new world of media opportunities will open up for you, IMO. Reporters, bloggers and other online media will begin to find you, your comments, services, products and expertise through a constantly growing stream of social sites, and from there, opportunities for continued media outreach will hopefully abound. At least, that’s what I would love to see happen.

What would happen if we threw the traditional PR/comms educational system on its head and maybe created a program more aligned with what I (or you) suggest? Would we accomplish our goal of becoming better 21st Century PR practitioners, or would this actually take us back?

*It should be noted that there are a few universities out there that are already overhauling their PR educational programs to incorporate a more integrated traditional/social media curriculum. See the University of Chicago’s new social media course as an example.

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  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Oh man, I hate to sound like the bratty kid of the PR world, but what the heck is a traditional PR education? How many of us have that? I'm just curious because I thought (and maybe I'm wrong) that PR pros come from all sorts of different educational backgrounds. Maybe it isn't a question of formal education in the end, you know?

  • stephmajercik

    I totally agree. In school social media is sort of mentioned in all PR classes but no real attention is really paid to it. Professors emphasize the importance of the Internet, yet we still write press releases for homework – but there is so much more to it!

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  • http://abschoff.blogspot.com/ Abby

    This sounds like a great idea to me. I graduated in December of 2008 with a degree in communication (with a focus on PR – yes, TJ, there are specific PR tracks) and I learned close to nothing about incorporating social media with traditional PR tactics. As Steph mentioned, there was a lot of talk about how online and social media were gaining popularity, but we didn't learn how to use the new tools.

    Since graduating, I've taken in upon myself to learn more about the social media space and how it pertains to PR (thanks in large part to all the great blogs out there). Like the University of Chicago course you mentioned, I've heard of professors who are blazing new paths and teaching PR students about the world of social media, and I think that's great. Students who graduate with only a traditional PR education are being released into the real world without the necessary knowledge to begin their careers. In this economy, it's especially important for universities to realize this and revamp their PR curriculum.

  • keithtrivitt

    Steph – Thanks for the comment. You make a really good point that in most PR education programs, social media, online communications, and frankly, the very nature of a 21st Century communicator is largely forgotten. Yes, the basics of solid, fundamental writing skills, understanding the business you work for/represent and knowing the media landscape for your industry should still very much be a part of any reputable and strong public relations education program. But at the same time, the media landscape has drastically shifted, as has the very nature of how we communicate with others (online and social) and through the media (blogs, wikis, Twitter, message boards, etc.). To just quickly skim over these realities of a modern-day communicator as those it is just a fad, to me, seems quite unrealistic at the very least, and more than that, is doing an injustice and disservice to students and the entire profession.

  • keithtrivitt

    Abby – I really like what you have to say about students who are taught only the traditional, basic tenets of the profession being released into a real world of the business of public relations without the necessary knowledge to begin their careers. I'm sure some people read what I have written above and think I'm nuts for saying that we should turn the traditional PR education on its head, as though I'm advocating a complete demolition of everything we hold so dear. I'm really not doing that, but what I am suggesting is that we address – and do so very soon – what you so clearly address: that many who earn a traditional PR education are not being given a realistic experience in what they will be doing in today's vastly dynamic and ever-changing PR profession.

    Thanks for your note!

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  • http://www.carriebuchwalter.weebly.com/ Carrie Buchwalter

    Great post. I just received my MA in International Public Relations and my university combined traditional teaching with lectures and courses given “off the cuff” by PR practitioners so that we obtained a deeper understanding of modern PR as opposed to traditional.

    Part of the problem, I think, was touched on by TJ: it's fairly recent that students were able to get a degree in PR at all (whether undergrad or postgrad). My undergrad degree was also in communications, and it seems as though a traditional education – textbook based, I mean – doesn't seem to work so well. By the time textbooks have been written, published, and sold, new ways of communications and performing media outreach have become almost the norm. In many of my classes during undergrad, the students in fact had to teach the teachers about the application of certain forms of social media.

    I had a class during undergrad which I felt was the best example of a good PR education. My lecturer communicated with the students to figure out new and upcoming forms of communication, and used his experience to discuss with us the practical applications. Because so much of PR is reliant on technology, it is constantly changing and a textbook education doesn't fit. It has to become a give and take conversation between student and teacher to be applicable in today's world.

  • http://www.carriebuchwalter.weebly.com/ Carrie Buchwalter

    Great post. I just received my MA in International Public Relations and my university combined traditional teaching with lectures and courses given “off the cuff” by PR practitioners so that we obtained a deeper understanding of modern PR as opposed to traditional.

    Part of the problem, I think, was touched on by TJ: it's fairly recent that students were able to get a degree in PR at all (whether undergrad or postgrad). My undergrad degree was also in communications, and it seems as though a traditional education – textbook based, I mean – doesn't seem to work so well. By the time textbooks have been written, published, and sold, new ways of communications and performing media outreach have become almost the norm. In many of my classes during undergrad, the students in fact had to teach the teachers about the application of certain forms of social media.

    I had a class during undergrad which I felt was the best example of a good PR education. My lecturer communicated with the students to figure out new and upcoming forms of communication, and used his experience to discuss with us the practical applications. Because so much of PR is reliant on technology, it is constantly changing and a textbook education doesn't fit. It has to become a give and take conversation between student and teacher to be applicable in today's world.