PR Education – time for change?

Posted on: November 23, 2008

One of the early speeches at IPRA Congress in Beijing was from industry doyen, Harold Burson, President of Burson Marsteller, who called for changes in PR education, away from a highly industry focused model to a more generalised education. Here are some of key paragraphs from his call for a deeper and more focused educational preparation for young people entering careers in public relations.


“My starting point would be to recognize public relations as an applied social science with a vast body of behavioural, cultural and motivational knowledge on which to draw. The curriculum should include basic courses in behavioural psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, history, economics and politics. There should be greater emphasis on writing than is now the case. Graduates should have a sense of the role of public relations in society and some historical underpinning on the evolution of public relations as a management function.


“In addition to adding courses in social sciences, I would devote a full year to one of four to five years of employment specialisation. In fact, one large American university has done just that for 10 years or more. Students choose among business, technology, health care and government (public affairs) as part of their public relations curriculum, devoting a full school year to that one area of specialisation.


“Increasingly, I find that employers (including our own company) are seeking from job applicants a knowledge base that is in addition to public relations experience. Increasingly corporate employers want its public relations people to know what business is all about. Information technology employers and agencies want their public relations people to know what’s in the back box. Health care companies seek employees with hospital experience or who know how pharmaceuticals are marketed or what the regulatory agencies which oversee their business are all about.”


What Harold Burson says is at variance from industry feedback in the UK which has a strong emphasis on employability skills. Indeed, I have had at least one international consultancy CEO (from one of BM’s main competitors) say to me that PR graduates need ‘de-programming’ on theory and ethics when they start their first jobs. There are also important differences between the structure of US programmes and PR degrees in other countries. In the US, students study for four years with a predominantly liberal arts framework at the outset of their studies with PR coming later. In the UK (and many other countries), PR degree programmes are usually of three year duration with PR taught from the first weeks, although business and political units accompany them.


I’d be interested in your comments.


2 Responses to "PR Education – time for change?"

I earned my ABJ, MS, and PhD studying at 3 of the top public relations programs in the US (Georgia, Syracuse and Florida). At each school, I was in a skills-oriented College of Journalism. I’m currently teaching in a Dept. of Communication at NC State and have to say that I’m enjoying the broader curriculum. Although my students have the same public relations coursework, they’re exposed to more diverse complementary courses–interpersonal, organizational, conflict mgmt–rather than the standard intro to advertising, telecommunications, etc.

I don’t agree that we should totally abandon the traditional format of public relations education for a liberal studies degree, but I definitely like the idea that classwork outside the curricula (Intro, PR Writing, PR Strategy, Research Methods, Campaigns) should come from disciplines outside the mainstream of most US public relations programs.

Now that we’re entering a new focus of relationship cultivation and management in public relations, the breadth of knowledge my students are bringing into discussions after having coursework in interpersonal communication is wonderful.

In the end, I could not resist.
The real problem we face is that there are so many domains of public relations.

There is, of course trade specialism. Phama versus consumer etc. But also the role specialists. Reputation versus relationship management or individual social responsibility versus corporate social responsibility (what ever that is) and then there are the communications specialist like press relations, events management and online.

What we don’t teach is that so many domains exist and then synthesise the common elements of relationship management (the basis for reputation and trust), communication platforms and channels and at least some understanding of The Greats, politics and economics.

Some of these activities are trades, some professional and some are spin, bling and a poor excuse for propaganda.

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