Coffee Talk with the Winners of #PRStudChat Challenge

On October 21st over 409 participants joined in the #PRStudChat Challenge. This challenge was organized by Deidre Breakenridge and Valerie Simon. The conversation consisted of students, professors, and PR pros with Christine Perkett as a special guest. Over 40 schools participated but the winning school, with the most contributors, was the University of Maryland.  After the challenge, I got the chance to chat with Assistant Professor Brooke Fisher Liu and Lecturer Susan Whyte Simon about UMD’s communication program and how they integrate social media into their students’ education.  There will also be a part two of this interview with two public relations students from UMD.

The Department of Communication at UMD is ranked by PR Week as part of the “PR Ivy League.” What aspects of the program do you feel sets it apart from others?

Brooke Liu: I think there are three primary aspects of Maryland’s PR program that set it apart from others: our rich history of PR education, our dedication to producing cutting-edge research relevant to the profession, and a commitment to develop tomorrow’s PR leaders.

First, our faculty quite literally pioneered the development of PR as an academic field and a professional practice. For example, Professors Emeriti James and Larissa Grunig co-authored the Excellence in Public Relations Study, which first defined PR as a management function.

Second, Maryland PR faculty address significant industry trends in their research and then bring their findings to the classroom. For example, Assistant Professor Sahar Khamis is an expert on international PR and recently co-authored a book on contemporary Islamic discourses online. This semester, Sahar is sponsoring an exchange program that uses the Internet to connect our students with students in the Middle East twice a week in her Arab Media course.

Finally, Maryland PR faculty take full advantage of our Capital City location to better educate our students. Associate Professor Linda Aldoory founded the Center for Risk Communication Research through working closely with federal agencies. The Center provides opportunities for students to work with some of the nation’s top risk communication experts. Also, Professor Elizabeth Toth and Lecturer Susan Whyte Simon organize the annual Grunig Lecture series, which brings together professionals, students, and educators. This year’s Lecture featured public affairs and PR industry leaders including Michael Fernandez, the VP of Public Affairs for State Farm Insurance, and Margery Kraus, the President and CEO of APCO Worldwide.

So, it really is the incredibly rich tradition of excellent PR education, the drive to continually produce innovative research of meaning to the profession, and a shared commitment to train the field’s future leaders that sets Maryland apart.

How has the program evolved in recent years?

Susan Whyte Simon: Elizabeth Toth came to the University of Maryland five years ago and now chairs the Communication Department.  The transition from the Grunigs was exceptionally smooth.  Since then, Elizabeth has encouraged PR faculty to incorporate social media issues into our classes and added some new classes, like online design and crisis communication.  The introductory writing and editing courses have been completely revamped under the direction of Lecturer Richard Toth.

The Communication Department is a limited-enrollment program at the University. To meet the growing demand, we are now offering the degree at the Universities of Shady Grove campus in Rockville, MD.   Communication is one of several in-demand majors that the University of Maryland and 8 other state universities offer at the Shady Grove campus.  While it is a general Comm. major, we offer some public relations classes like PR Theory, event planning, health communication and crisis communication.

At Maryland, we want our students to be well-schooled in theory, research, program planning as well as executing public relations plans.  Each public relations student is required to take an internship for credit.  In recent years, we have also placed an emphasis on our PRSSA Bateman Case Competition team.  Our students have received honorable mentions and/or made it to the final round of three during each of the last five years.

Professor Toth created the annual Grunig Lecture in 2008, which brings leading professionals to talk about trends and topics that are shaping the future of public relations.  Richard Edelman spoke about public engagement at the first lecture while a panel of public affairs experts shared views on integrated public affairs at the 2009 lecture.

Has the rise of social media changed or altered the program? If so, how is it being implemented in classes? Or are specific teachers choosing to put it into their own curriculum?

BL: For me, the rise of social media makes teaching PR much more exciting. It opens up so many doors for educators to easily and meaningfully connect students with professionals. At Maryland, it really hasn’t changed our curriculum, but rather expanded the skill set and opportunities we are able to provide students within our core PR curriculum.

Our required curriculum is a bit unique in that our students take four mandatory PR-focused writing courses, and it is in these courses that I believe we have most integrated social media. So, traditionally we would teach how to write a media release or how pitch a reporter in our PR Techniques course, but now we are more likely to focus on writing social media releases and pitching bloggers as well reporters.

In addition, some instructors have made using social media a requirement for certain courses. For example, Ph.D. student and instructor Katie Place uses Twitter in her News Editing for PR class to communicate with students outside the classroom, offering AP style tips and PR industry insights.

We also integrate social media into our assignments. So, for example, the #PRStudChat Challenge was an optional assignment for students in my PR Theory course. Before social media became widespread, I required students to interview a PR professional to learn more about how theories are applied to practice. Now, with social media, students easily can interact with multiple professionals simultaneously.

So again, social media haven’t changed the way we approach teaching core PR knowledge areas, but have expanded the tools we teach students and the opportunities we can provide students to directly interact with professionals.

Brooke informed me that UMD’s PRSSA Chapter won 3rd place in last year’s Bateman competition.  What’s the student involvement like? How many members does it have? What do you do throughout the school year that other schools could learn from in order to become a more active chapter?

SWS: The University of Maryland chapter of PRSSA was one of the “alpha” chapters and just celebrated our 40th anniversary in 2008.  Under the leadership from faculty advisor Rich Toth, the chapter has become quite active.  Three years ago, he worked with PRSA National Capital Chapter to create field trips for our and other PRSSA chapters to public relations firms around the city.  Last year, our PRSSA leaders were joined by others chapters for a program at the Newseum and brought professionals to speak to students on topics not covered in classes.  This year, our chapter is doing workshops and leading a program to increase the number of organ donors on campus.  They also joined forces with the chapters at American and Howard universities to write a bid to host the national PRSSA conference in 2010.

Assistant Professor Brooke Fisher Liu, Ph.D. Photo By Anne McDonough / University of Maryland
Assistant Professor Brooke Fisher Liu, Ph.D. Photo By Anne McDonough / University of Maryland

Brooke Fisher Liu: Brooke Liu’s research primarily examines how government organizations manage communication during crisis and non-crisis situations. Her research has been published in the Handbook of Crisis Communication, Journal of Communication Management, Journal of Public Relations Research, and Public Relations Review. Since 2005, she has been an active public affairs volunteer for the American Red Cross. At the University of Maryland, she teaches communication courses including Advanced Qualitative Methods, Crisis Communication Management, and Public Relations Theory. She can be reached on Twitter (@bfliu) or via email (bfliu@umd.edu).

Susan Whyte Simon: Susan Whyte-Simon is a public relations professional who owns and operates her own consulting business. An active member of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, Ms. Whyte-Simon has been involved in public relations accreditation activities and has worked previously for Kaiser Permanente.

As always I urge you to join our coffee talk and add to the questions/comments. If you have any additional questions for either Brooke or Susan please post them below and we’ll see if they can spare a few more minutes for some answers.

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