Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Ideal Education for Public Relations Professionals

What’s the right education for someone who wants to enter public relations?

In my opinion, it would encompass a wide range of disciplines not currently unified in one program at the vast majority of universities offering degrees in communications in the U.S. … or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. What is needed is a School of Public Relations (at key universities) that broadens its curriculum to include more diverse subject matter than the more traditional “vocational courses,” (PR advocacy, writing, PR programs, creativity, media relations) which are of course, important as well.

When I think back on my own long career — and the myriad client problems I’ve had to solve — I’d say the perfect course of study for a public relations practitioner (in no order of importance) would include classes on:

  • Business planning and strategy
  • Project and people management
  • How to negotiate
  • The techniques of persuasion
  • Marketing, sales and word-of-mouth
  • Financial skills (e.g., budgeting, accounting, reporting, billing and forecasting)
  • Economics
  • Human resources
  • The workings of Wall Street
  • Corporate governance
  • Database management
  • Mergers & Acquisitions
Social Sciences
  • The sociocultural and psychological dynamics of group behavior
  • The political science of interest group formation and survival
  • How to craft opinion and product studies
  • The impact of communications on society
  • Ethics
  • Government relations
  • Specialty writing (e.g., memos, speeches, reports, video scripts, blog copy)
  • Journalism (press releases, feature stories, editorials)
  • The art and science of media relations
  • Technology-driven communications (e.g., the internet and the social media)
  • Trend-spotting
  • Issues management
  • Communications and the law
  • The elements of advocacy
  • Understanding and reaching influencers
  • Communicating in a global, multicultural market
  • Event marketing
  • Creativity
  • Internal communications
  • Graphic design and visual identity
  • Understanding the Federal government (e.g. 3 branches, FDA, SEC)

The above is just a stream-of-consciousness sampling of the formidable skill sets required of today’s public relations professionals, and it is far from all-inclusive. This kind of training provides a basic foundation for intellectual agility: the ability to grasp complex information and act on it, quickly and efficiently. This skill is effectively learned in Schools of Arts & Sciences, where students are required to delve in to various subjects, learning and applying the knowledge rapidly. This is a fundamental need in public relations and should be addressed in a School of Public Relations, perhaps through joint programming with Arts & Sciences. In fact, mastering a diversity of subjects is one of the factors that led me into this field. And my intellectual desires have been more than fulfilled through the myriad subjects via clients I have tackled over the years…everything from computer, chemicals and automobiles to finance, hotels, aerosols, prescription drugs and robots.

Training alone in the more “vocationally tilted” communications schools is simply not enough to create a new generation of exceptional practitioners. The essential topics I’ve noted above are being taught in many parts of the University. The students, the profession and the clients are being disserved when the academic world can’t bring these pieces together in one School or develop joint programs with other Schools.

Unlike advertising, public relations not only builds awareness and promotes sales, it opens doors, triggers discussions, connects people, builds support, enhances credibility, changes cultures (and minds!), solves financial problems and creates political victories. The top public relations practitioner has to be more than “just” a communicator. He or she must be able to deploy a vast array of additional skills to master the problems confronting corporations these days and counsel a CEO.

As these proposed Schools of Public Relations become more demanding and stringent about who is admitted, we will gradually raise the level of people entering the field. Attracting top quality people to the field is an ongoing concern.

With more comprehensive and relevant training, more of us will be invited to have a “seat at the CEO table.” Because we will have been “table trained” from early on.

Technorati Tags: public relations professionals, education, School of Public Relations, social sciences, graphics, government, arts and sciences, PR skill sets, media, business, communications, public relations


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very valuable contribution to the ongoing discussions of the ideal curriculum. While I agree with the depth and breadth of your proposed course offerings, there are some in our field/academy -- perhaps from critical cultural studies or speech communications that would suggest that it is too dominated by "business" related course. From my perspective -- 20 years of consulting and now 4 years of teaching in a business school (and having an undergraduate degree in political science and law) -- I see great value to the offerings you propose.

I would recommend that you share your thoughts with the Commission on Public Relations Education and the Global Alliance (who are now in the process of trying to develop a universal curriculum for public relations).

Great work Ken.

Thursday, June 26, 2008 3:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, wonderful post. I don't regret for one minute my PR education at San Jose State. But if I had the chance to experience the curriculum you describe, I'd jump at it today.

I'd underscore the Arts & Sciences point. I've come to appreciate the value not of 'strategic thinking' but of 'critical thinking.' Seeing beyond the surface, recognizing patterns, understanding motives, thinking deeply about what is really happening... this is a rare skill and you don't learn it in traditional business, journalism or communications schools.

So many times in my career we have experienced success or setback because we saw or failed to see the nonobvious -- changes in customer sentiment, competitive moves, disruptive technology, global shifts.

Critical thinkers... I can't get enough of them.

Thursday, June 26, 2008 4:55:00 PM  
Blogger Elliot Schreiber said...


I completely agree with you on this. I have come to believe that corporate communications education must separate itself from the constraints it finds itself in within schools or colleges of communications, journalism and the like. It needs to be established separately, much like business schools, with its own curriculum.

I personally have never liked the term public relations. I have always preferred the term communications. "Words mean what I want them to mean, nothing more, nothing less" said the eminent philosopher Humpty Dumpty. PR has meaning and we will never change that perceived meaning.

Some schools have established programs in Strategic Communications, but most are retooled PR or rhetoric curriculum, not a new educational alternative.

In my experience as a professor in both business and communications schools, I have found that even the best communications majors lack business skills to a far greater degree than the best business majors lack communications skills. If this continues, business majors will assume the good jobs in communications and communications education will devolve into tactical aspects of campaigns and events, much the way advertising education has devolved.

The new Arthur Page Society document: The Authentic Enterprise should be a wake-up call to educators to begin to assess their curriculum and what changes are needed.

I hope they read your blog.

Elliot Schreiber

Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:58:00 PM  

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