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The PR classroom of the future: 5 educators share advice on teaching the Millennial generation


October 3, 2012

For this month’s issue, focusing on education, we spoke to five PR professionals in the realm of higher education. These professors, instructors and advisers work at universities of varying sizes throughout the country but face the same challenges of teaching Millennials.

Here, they sound off about staying up-to-date with ever-changing technology, deciding how to utilize social media in the classroom and preparing the next generation of communications professionals for careers in the real world.

Dr. Mary-Angie Salvá-Ramírez
Associate Professor/PRSSA Adviser
Communication Program
Florida Memorial University

How do you keep up with the changing face of technology and decide what to teach your students — what are the challenges of keeping up-to-date with e-books, social media, etc.?

It’s a challenge — we get so many new things right after the other. I was used to WebCT and the university changed to Blackboard. Now, books are available electronically, but I still love to hold a book between my hands.  The kids are getting used to electronic books, plus it’s more affordable to “rent” a book for a semester than to buy it.

 That’s a shame because I have all my books from college. I can see how the profession has evolved/transformed through the decades just by looking at my books. My students will not have such a “memories library.” But I do love Smartboards. There’s nothing like having the world in front of the kids, just a few clicks away.

I read PR trade magazines and journals to keep up-to-date — but if you want to learn about social media or related technology, then ask a student — he or she will teach it to you in less than 10 minutes. 

How are you incorporating social media into the classroom?

Keeping it real.  We are not just talking about it; we are doing it. Last year, the Public Relations Campaign class and the PRSSA Chapter worked on the QEP Awareness Campaign prior to the SACS visit. It was a great experience for the kids because they saw their work pan out.

As part of the campaign developed, the students utilized Facebook and Twitter, among other more traditional-type events, to spread the word about the topic of the QEP: Critical Thinking.

This year, the students will work on Project PROTECT — a joint project between UM/FMU and Switchboard of Miami. They will develop a social media campaign to help prevent and reduce the onset of substance abuse and transmission of HIV/AIDS among at-risk racial/ethnic minority college students, ages 18-24, in Miami Gardens — the largest predominantly African-American municipality in Florida.

This campaign will follow the Positive Community Norms process developed by Jeffrey W. Linkenbach, Ed.D., who trained the staff and students and will be involved.

Do students have a better overall awareness of the PR profession now than in years past?

I believe they do. Students today are aware of the fact that a great image equals money. Kids are interested in sports and entertainment and keep up with people like Kobe Bryant, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, etc.

This infatuation with these  industries has made them aware of the power of communication and image, much more so than students I had 10 years ago.

They even admit that you don’t have to have talent to “make it” — that’s when Kim Kardashian comes up.  They know, though, that the Kardashian matron had the vision and skills to create an empire out of nothing — scary but true.

What is most important for students to learn right now and what tools do they need to be fluent in, in order to succeed?

The No. 1 skill will always be writing. The rest is just sprinkles on top of the ice cream.

What’s top of mind in higher education right now — what are you discussing with your peers and other academics?

How the industry is evolving — how the economy is requiring that our graduates be Jacks-of-all-trades. The downsizing — a euphemism — means that only those who can do the most survive.

My graduates must be able to write a news release, grab a camera and film a commercial. It’s come to that! And, if they are not bilingual, especially here in Miami, then they’d better start praying for a job.

Robert Scott Pritchard, APR, Fellow PRSA
Instructor and Faculty Adviser, University of Oklahoma

How do you keep up with the changing face of technology and decide what to teach your students — what are the challenges of keeping up-to-date with e-books, social media, etc?

I’m not sure it’s possible to “keep up” with the changing face of technology.  As a professor, you have to make every effort to at least stay abreast of changes.

I do that in a number of ways, including subscribing to email newsletters, RSS feeds, Listservs, reading industry journals and blogs, attending conferences and having discussions with industry and academic leaders. My students often introduce me to the latest and greatest.

Finally, our client work in Lindsey + Asp, the advertising and PR agency in the Gaylord College at the University of Oklahoma, keeps us current.

How are you incorporating social media into the classroom?

I concentrate on incorporating social media into our work in the agency. One of the core competencies of Lindsey + Asp is the strategic use of social media. We’ve become good at fleshing out a social media strategy for most of our clients.

During weekly status meetings, we look at case studies on social media topics, such as the appropriate use of Pinterest for a client. Perhaps our biggest focus is social media measurement and analysis. 

We got our first big break last year when American Airlines hired us to monitor and analyze their social media use and how their competition — domestic and international — utilized their social media. We provided recommendations for improvement and captured several areas of concern for the client.

Our latest accomplishment was developing a social media playbook for the Office of Strategic Communication for the Fires Center of Excellence at Ft. Sill, Lawton, Okla., home to the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery and Air Defense Artillery. We provided recommendations for how they could improve their use of social media and how they could increase their engagement by adding additional tools.

Do students have a better overall awareness of the PR profession now than in years past?

In my experience, most definitely! While many are still finding their way into identifying the functional area in which they’ll enter the business world, almost every student with whom I’ve dealt in the last three years has a solid, fundamental understanding of our profession.

More important, perhaps, is the passion with which they approach the art and science of public relations.  This is especially true in Lindsey + Asp. Students realize the tremendous opportunity the Agency presents them and are embracing it eagerly.

What is most important for students to learn right now and what tools do they need to be fluent in, in order to succeed?

It’s less about the tools and more about their strategic thinking. Being able to see the big picture can be learned if students are willing to put in the effort to do so and if we coach them correctly.

Developing a leadership mentality is also of prime importance. One of the myths of leadership is that you have to have the title to be a leader.

We concentrate a great deal of time and energy on developing the mindset that will allow our students to lead from anywhere in the organization.

Finally, understanding how to build and maintain a highly functioning team is vital to success. Students typically don’t like working on group projects, but that’s because they haven’t been taught the essential skills. We also spend a lot of time on this area, particularly in the agency.

What’s top of mind in higher education right now — what are you discussing with your peers and other academics?

The Commission on Public Relations Education will release its Report on Graduate Education so that will be top-of-mind for the near term. More programs are interested in the experiential learning piece of advertising and PR agencies, within the program, and I see that continuing to be a topic of discussion.

I’m also hearing more discussion on student leadership development. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that there is continuing discussion and scholarship on measurement and evaluation, which mirrors the profession’s interest in the topic. Higher Education has a tremendous role to play in helping define how we measure and evaluate the outcomes of PR efforts.

Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Appalachian State University

How do you keep up with the changing face of technology and decide what to teach your students — what are the challenges of keeping up-to-date with e-books, social media, etc?

It can be difficult because the tools change, and there is so much information out there about social media. Regardless of the tools, the fundamentals of public relations still need to be taught. I’m always searching for guest speakers either in-person or through video conferencing to share their stories with the students.

Biennially, Edelman hosts a two-day New Media Academic Summit for educators to learn about case studies and how clients are incorporating new media into strategy. Going to conferences and reading case studies as well as academic and trade publications help. 

We talk about social media in classes because many of our students are recruited for these positions after they graduate. I stay active on Twitter, and both current and former students send me interesting articles. Teaching the students how to strategically integrate social media into an organization, and whether social media is necessary for a particular client, is important.

Also, my research is focused on social media. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I presented research about how Millennials interact with organizations on Facebook.

How are you incorporating social media into the classroom?

When I asked students less than five years ago how many of them were on Twitter, only one or two raised their hands.

Now, I ask how many students are not on Facebook or Twitter, and only one or two raise their hands. Students seem to understand the tools, but getting them to think about them strategically is important.

Last semester, I taught a social media strategies class, and my students were tweeting, blogging and producing videos. All of my PR students have social media assignments during the semester. We discuss theories that pertain to social media. While we focus on the benefits of social media, we also discuss the negatives and challenges, including developing policies and issues with internal and external audiences.

We talk about measuring social media and collecting data. We learn about monitoring and listening to conversations.

Do students have a better overall awareness of the PR profession now than in years past?

Generally, yes. However, some students still don’t know what public relations is, including a small number of those who have declared public relations as a major. Others have a distorted perception of public relations based on what they see on the news or television. One of the first things we do in the introductory class is flesh out their understanding and get them to think critically about the profession.

It is important that we serve as advocates for our profession. My colleagues and I are going to hold information sessions for potential majors or anyone interested in knowing more. Through internships and class projects, students are visible in the community, which bolsters a general understanding of the profession.

What is most important for students to learn right now and what tools do they need to be fluent in, in order to succeed?

Even though social media has influenced the profession, the same basics are important: research (drawing insights from data), writing, ethics, critical thinking skills, business acumen and strategic thinking.

Also, thinking about public relations from a global perspective is important. Students have to be able to look at the big picture and be self-starters.

What’s top of mind in higher education right now — what are you discussing with your peers and other academics?

Developing a curriculum that ensures well-prepared students graduate seems to be an ongoing discussion.  Also, one hot topic is how public relations fits in the big picture and whether it should be part of an integrated communications or strategic communication program.

The Edelman New Media Academic Summit emphasized the importance of storytelling, and developing video content for their clients. With the abundance of research about the Millennial generation, we discuss how to get students to be more self-sufficient and better critical thinkers.

On an educational level, budgets are a challenge for many universities with professors having to do more with less. And, of course, we are all talking about social media and its impact on the profession.

Peter M. Smudde, Ph.D., APR
Associate Professor of Communication/Public Relations Program Coordinator
Illinois State University

How do you keep up with the changing face of technology and decide what to teach your students — what are the challenges of keeping up to date with e-books, social media, etc.?

Technology does not drive public relations or the teaching of it — strategy does. It’s like the old saying, “Think before you speak.” Nevertheless, it’s important to stay abreast of technological, social, practical and other changes affecting the PR field, because those changes direct professionals’ attention to things that matter (least of all resource allocations) in the planning, execution and measurement of communication efforts.

In ISU’s PR program, my colleagues and I integrate technological and other changes in our courses whenever possible, as soon as possible, and in the context of real-world problem-solving situations.

Fortunately, for all of us, there is ample media coverage of and conversation among PR people about emerging and proliferating technology tools that could benefit professionals and their organizations’ publics.

The biggest challenge is obtaining training and competence in new technological tools so that their value can be understood and their usefulness can be sufficiently accounted for in PR courses.

How are you incorporating social media into the classroom?

It’s important to explain to students that social media platforms are not one medium but multiple media channels that make up the category, “social media.” Each medium has its own idiosyncrasies and limitations that must be explored and understood.

My colleagues and I, consequently, address social media in our classes as tactical options that may or may not be appropriate within the context of planned and unplanned communication opportunities.  We can and do cover the nature of — and pros and cons for — social media used for PR purposes and link that information to audience and project-related research that is the basis of effective strategic planning, program execution and program evaluation.

Do students have a better overall awareness of the PR profession now than in years past?

I would say, yes! The profession has established a robust and growing body of knowledge, unique theory, ethics code, performance standards and certification (APR), social legitimacy, and specialized educational programs that span theory and practice.

Couple these facts with many practitioners with credentials who turn to teaching public relations at colleges and universities; professional advisers for PRSSA chapters; practitioners’ (especially alumni) guest presentations in classes; PRSSA activities that feature professionals as guest speakers, plus tours of agency, corporate and nonprofit PR operations; and internships with organizations in the public and private sectors.

What is most important for students to learn right now and what tools do they need to be fluent in, in order to succeed?

Public relations is, has been and always shall be writing intensive — from internal memos, reports and social-media posts to feature articles, speeches and press releases. As I tell my students, they will be paid to be the best communicators in their organizations, and people from executives to staffers will expect excellent written products, oral presentations, strategic communication counsel, business decision-making and interpersonal relationship skills.

Students must think analytically and know how to effectively and ethically use language and symbols to meet the variety of business and relationship demands that command attention daily. Useful tools include mentors,  The Associated Press Stylebook, project management books and software, basic management and budgeting resources, and knowledge about measuring effectiveness and ROI.
 
What’s top of mind in higher education right now — what are you discussing with your peers and other academics?

The most top-of-mind issue in higher education generally, and in public relations specifically, is assessment. This topic concerns the measurement of teaching and learning, making it a matter of performance management for faculty and students, programs and institutions.

The field of academic assessment covers a full range of micro- and macro-level methods to evaluate teaching and learning, which extends beyond the classroom experience to include students’ post-graduation career achievements. Those methods can be tailored so that the most meaningful and relevant measurements are taken and used to make improvements to — frequently including professionals’ counsel as members of program advisory boards.

ISU requires all programs to have and follow an assessment plan. Our PR program measures teaching and learning using a variety of metrics — from teaching evaluations in each class and pre/post measurements of student knowledge about essential material to portfolio evaluation and alumni relations.

Dean C. Kazoleas, Ph.D., APR
Professor, PR Department – Communications
California State University, Fullerton

How do you keep up with the changing face of technology and decide what to teach your students — what are the challenges of keeping up to date with e-books, social media, etc.?

First, the core of what we teach is good public relations. We teach students to research and analyze the needs for a given project, to set goals and objectives, to plan to put strategies into action, to implement their strategies and tactics, and then, to evaluate their efforts.

As professors, we strive to keep technology in perspective, in that it’s an effective tool to reach, connect with, and monitor certain audiences — on certain topics or issues — and with carefully crafted and/or adapted messages.

Last, it’s hard to keep up on the quickly changing technologies and tools, but we teach students that the key is to identify the technologies and information streams used by target audiences and use those tools as part of a planned and executed effort. We stress the importance of not jumping to use the latest trends in technology and/or media solely because it’s new — rather the key is to use the technologies and media that are known to reach target publics.

How are you incorporating social media into the classroom?

We incorporate social media in a number of ways. First, it’s useful in connecting and staying connected with students both professionally and/or personally. Second, we teach students how social media has been used to effectively reach and impact target publics, and then how they can use it to achieve similar goals.

Do students have a better overall awareness of the PR profession now than in years past?

That is a definite yes. In part, that is due to better-developed curriculum that features a greater focus on the ever-changing landscape of the PR profession. Second, it’s due to the increased size and visibility of PRSSA and PRSA. 

The programming offered by PRSA and PRSSA does a great job of making the students more aware of the profession and the challenges faced on the job. PRSA’s advocacy efforts and a greater focus on public relations in the media have meant greater coverage and discussion.

What is most important for students to learn right now and what tools do they need to be fluent in, in order to succeed?

Today’s PR students need a balanced set of strategic and tactical skills to be successful. From a strategic perspective, students need to be able to systematically analyze problems, conduct research, set goals and objectives, and create effective and ethical strategies to achieve those. They need to have a firm grasp on what it takes to put those strategies and tactics into action.

Tactically, they need to be able to create and craft the messages and materials that are part of those plans, and to manage the communication technologies that are used to reach and impact target publics. If this sounds like a tall order, it is — but given the state of PR education, most programs are up to the task.

What’s top of mind in higher education right now — what are you discussing with your peers and other academics?

It’s the budgetary challenges we are all facing.  Almost all colleges and universities have seen large budget cuts. In California, we are operating at funding levels last seen in 1996, but we have a significantly larger number of students, and are facing even further cuts.

Faculty and students have borne the brunt of most of these reductions. Faculty have seen their salaries cut or have been told of upcoming cuts.  And in many states, there have been discussions about cutting faculty benefits such as health care and modifying pension plans. Faculty have seen increased class sizes as universities cut classes.

Most of all, we worry about our students, who have seen their tuition and fees increase and have a harder time finding open classes to fulfill degree requirements.

Amy Jacques Amy Jacques is the managing editor of Tactics. She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Email: amy.jacques at prsa.org



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