I need your help this semester, so chime in

The new semester begins tomorrow, and with it comes a new assignment for me. I’m taking over the “Public Relations Online Tactics” course from Michele Ewing, who has created and shaped it over the past 24 months. Michele’s will be a hard act to follow, but follow it I must.


Because the class comes with a huge grading load and a steep learning curve (on the tech side), I’ll have less time for ToughSledding over the next 4 months. But maybe I can use this space to share the lessons that come from coaching a group of digital natives on the use of digital media.

This challenge might worry some folks my age, but I’ve been experimenting with online media, 1.0 and 2.0, as long as any of these students. While they were chatting on IM and stealing music with Napster, I was studying and observing the whole phenomenon. I think I can hold my own with these kids, but we’ll know for sure come May 2, won’t we?

You can help me with the class, and I trust you will. While the syllabus is in place, the course is in constant motion. So please let me hear your ideas on what a course covering online strategies and tactics should include. Keep in mind that Kent State is a professional program that prepares students for jobs as PR professionals. Everything we do is based on strategic analysis and measurable results.

“Audience-Objective-Strategy-Outcome” is our mantra. And while we love to play with the new digital toys, we aren’t distracted by them.

Here’s a list of the core elements of this course, followed by a list of the hands-on projects that later become part of the students’ portfolios.

What’s missing?

The course examines/dissects…

  • Analyzing and writing for online publics
  • Monitoring and tracking online media, including blogs and social networks
  • Integrating online and traditional strategies & tactics
  • RSS feeds and aggregators
  • Responsible search engine optimization
  • Tagging and bookmarking
  • Blogging as a strategic communication and research tool
  • Social networks as strategic communication tools
  • E-newsletters to serve vertical audiences
  • Intranets and wikis and where they fit
  • Website navigation and usability variables
  • Online media relations/blogger relations
  • Online newsroom planning and content
  • Podcasting

The course includes hands-on experience with:

RSS Feeds. Students set up an aggregator to monitor blogs and websites related to strategic public relations and report useful content to the class via online discussions.

Blogging. Students create blogs focused on specific areas of PR and post 10 times over 12 weeks. They create and implement a plan to build readership, but without resorting to trickery such as blog memes and selfish link-baiting.

E-newsletters. Students use content management software to write and design a newsletter for a student organization.

Podcasts. Student teams take on a real-world client and create a 5- or 6-minute podcast to support the client’s objective. The experience goes from research and concept to final production and presentation to the client. (We don’t yet have a video component here, and that’s a weakness we must address.)

Newsroom critique. This segment calls on students to analyze and dissect the online newsroom of a large corporation or organization and produce a report that points to strengths and weakness while making recommendations for improvement.

Since grad students make up half the class, I’ll ask them to research and report on case studies in the strategic use of social media in public relations practice, with a special emphasis on measured outcomes. I have a vested interest in this assignment, as it’s the focus of my sabbatical research next fall. Grad students also will read “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and participate in online discussions about this seminal work.

I know. I know. It’s too much for one course — way too much. But that’s the digital world. It’s overwhelming. We’re in the process of migrating segments of this class to other skills classes within the program. E-newsletters will end up in “PR Publications”; online newsrooms and blogger relations will go to “Media Relations & Publicity.”

Our challenge is to integrate emerging NEW-media content without sacrificing important OLD-media content, as much of it remains relevant to PR practice. We’re blessed in that our new, $21-million facility here at Kent State — the envy of PR and journalism educators everywhere (blatant plug) — has the tools to support us.

Yep, since Tim Berners-Lee empowered us with his World Wide Web, we’ve all been working longer and harder. That’s not going to end. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never catch up — never, never, never. But we must stay in the race, even if it means losing some sleep.

Ten years ago, I didn’t have a wireless laptop. If I had, I would never have envisioned writing blog posts like this one on a Sunday morning. Instead, I’d be having coffee with the beautiful lady in the kitchen and talking about our favs in the NFL playoff games. She’s watching them now. I’m editing this post.

So maybe this class should start with a segment on how to avoid compulsive online behavior, you know, digital addiction. Sadly, I’m not qualified to teach that part.


Update: Rob Jewell offers an excellent perspective today for PR professionals thinking about moving from the business to the classroom.  If you’re one of those, check it out.  1/14/08. 


13 Responses to I need your help this semester, so chime in

  1. Stacy Wessels says:

    How do the students identify audiences for different e-techniques? What about the broad differences between tech skills, educational levels, physical age, etc? I find myself reminding the poli sci students (and instructors) at UA that the Web is just a tool in the much larger scheme of advertising, marketing and forming public opinion.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    You pose one of the first questions I hope they all ask, Stacy. And the answer, of course, lies in research. How do you get your information? Who influences you? And yes, online communication is just another tool, but one that has oh-so many offshoots, from a static Web site to a viral campaign on Twitter Makes your head swim, but it sure is fun. Hope my students think so, anyway.

  3. […] conduct, and a growing emphasis on digital media and online communication. Bill Sledzik in his ToughSledding blog made this part easy for me by writing about the Public Relations Online […]

  4. Sounds like a great class! Your list of course topics looks like you’re covering way more than the basics. What about metrics and measuring ROI in social media? It seems like the problem with measuring ROI is what’s keeping quite a few organizations from embracing social media as a strategic PR tool.

    Do you have any textbooks you use for this class? I use Citizen Marketers and the New Influencers and therefore have a course segment where we discuss how to identify new influencers/citizen marketers. I guess that would fit under blogger/social media relations in your curriculum.

    I’ve had the same hesitations about including web video in a class that already seemed overwhelming and that didn’t require video editing as a pre-requisite. That’s why I introduced it as an extra-credit assignment last semester. I used iMovie to teach my students the basics of video editing and to make the learning curve less steep. It worked out really well. So well, I’ve turned it into a graded assignment this semester.

    Good luck with your class!

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Hi, Corinne. And thanks for your thoughts.

    As to ROI, we do address evaluation and measurement in this course, but we don’t provide any real answers. As you point out, absence of solid metrics may be what is holding back social media efforts. But even gurus like Katie Paine are cautioning us not to be too “bottom line” in our view of SM. It’s about relationships, and the metrics to gauge something so intangible are pretty soft. I’m still trying to get to Katie’s book, but I’m swamped.

    We use Shel Holtz’s “Blogging for Business” as our text, since it’s a great how-to for the students and addresses key items. I like “Citizen Marketers,” but if you read this blog you know my concern about defining PR as a “marketing” function. It troubles me deeply.

    I also think we can draw a lot of the content and themes of “Citizen Marketing” and “New Influencers” by linking students to blog posts by the authors and others. We recommend Scoble & Israel’s “Naked Conversations,” but once again, much of that content can be introduced by linking students to online content.

    Not sure where to go with the video component. We have tons of expertise in broadcast production in our school, and I will find a way to tap it.

  6. Tim Shisler says:

    Hey Bill,

    Great class you have there. As for thinking it’s too much—don’t. Entry-level jobs don’t know the phrase “too much,” and the Internet world changes so fast, that if you can’t comprehend it once, you most likely aren’t going to get it at all.

    One exercises that might help, is to bring in a group of senior citizens that have little to no experience with computers and the web. Pair them up with your students and have them get a hands on tutorial of blogs, Google and social networking sites. If the students can explain them quickly and simply they are sure to be able to pitch the idea to CEO’s and Account Managers.

    I would also stress, and this sounds doomsday but seems to be the case, that kids in high school know more then them and if they don’t adapt soon the jobs won’t be there in five years.

    I know you only have a semester, but after working in the entry-level PR world for 20 months I learned quickly clients listen to new media ideas first and then traditional ideas second. (Even if the traditional ideas were better)

    Anyhow, good luck and hope all goes well.

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    You are right, Tim. We must cover all this material and more. Our challenge is to spread the content across all four of our “skills” related PR classes. And we must do it quickly — a language our our mega-university bureaucracies don’t speak.

    Love the idea of demonstrating social media to senior citizens. Just last week I tried to explain Facebook to my father, who will turn 80 this year. It is, as John Sebastian put it, “…like tryin’ to tell a stranger about the rock n roll.” Dad’s a very smart guy, but social media simply are not in his frame of reference.

    Each year the students do seem more savvy when it comes to social media. They don’t view it as a strategic tool, but, rather, a strictly “social” one, since that’s all it’s ever been to them. I also have noted a divide among the millenials — those who were in high school or college when Facebook launched and those who were not. My 25-year-old son never had a Facebook page. My 22-year-old has over 600 friends in his network. What a difference 3 years makes.

  8. Randi Mason says:

    I’m sure you’ve been through the UGAConnect resources (http://ugaconnect.blogspot.com/); but you might not have seen a few of the Slide Share presentations on the topic: Brett Atwood’s “Dangers of Blogging for PR Professionals” (http://www.slideshare.net/Brett509/pr-475-dangers-of-blogging-for-pr-professionals/) and Karen Russell’s “Social Media for PR Students” (http://www.slideshare.net/KarenRussell/social-media-for-pr-students/“).

    Hope these are useful!

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Randi. I had signed on to “Slide Share” back when it first began, but don’t go back often. I’ll link from UGAConnect. Rest assured, however, that we will offer a balanced view of social media. Great tool, but it can be dangerous.

  10. richkyoung says:

    Hi Bill,

    Really interesting post. A couple of things to consider over the course of the next few months:
    – reporter compensation being turned on its head in the Web 2.0 world – the more emailed, or comments, the better they’re compensated. it’s all about entertainment in both the online and offline media world
    – a subset to the blogger relations should discuss the infamous Chris Anderson whack a flak post from Oct: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2007/10/sorry-pr-people.html
    – ironic that you’re putting quite a bit of emphasis on the online newsroom and planning topic as it’s an area we’re working on with all of our clients – large and small.


  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    That’s useful insight, Rich, and I plan to follow up on that one point. I’m not much a student of media relations, as it ranked among my least favorite tasks when I was in the business (special events was at the bottom of that list). But I was not aware of the practice of compensating reporters based on reader reaction to stories. That’s a horrible idea, as it opens the door to fraud and unethical behavior. It would be like rewarding bloggers for their Technorati ratings (which we essentially do). It leads to all sorts of shenanigans to attract links in a shameless ploy to build the authority number. It’s why I don’t do memes, but then again, no one ever invites me to, since my numbers are so low!

    As for the Chris Anderson case, I — along with half the blogosphere — weighed in on that one. While I consider Chris’s reaction to crappy news releases a bit extreme, it got the message across very, very clearly. As an aside, I just wish he’d redesign “Wired” so I could tell the difference between a story and an ad. It drives me nuts.

  12. Rich says:


    Yes, agreed. I’m also suspicious of the WSJ publishing on the inside page of the Marketplace section the “most emailed stories.”

    I, too, reacted to Chris’ post. My point was probably similar to your reaction. While it was harsh in practice, it’s up to us as PR leaders to educate the junior level staff. If we don’t do our jobs on that front, we’ll be just as guilty as the staffer who hits the send button.


  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    I can see value in knowing about the “most emailed” stories, as it tells editors which stories were strong enough to prompt us to share with friends and colleagues. It tells editors about what readers want, and that’s useful information, and posting the stats could lead readers to “popular” stories they might not otherwise notice. That’s smart marketing.

    With a publication as large as WSJ, it would be hard to perpetrate fraud. But if I’m a reporter at, say, the Louisville Courier-Journal, I might try to establish a broad network of friends and supporters who would post comments and email stories just to help me get a raise. If it works, beer — or in the case of Kentucky, bourbon — is on me.

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