Let’s raise the bar for PR education, and let’s raise it really, really, really, really, really, really high

bombI probably shouldn’t say this, but someone has to.

We’re producing too may PR graduates in the U.S.A., and a good many of them can’t find jobs in the field. It’ll only get worse as we plunge deeper into recession. So it seems like the perfect time to shrink the number of students studying public relations by raising our standards really, really high. Students will benefit and so will the profession and public relations education.

A good many PR grads are outstanding performers, but just as many are under-prepared as writers and strategists. I hear frequent complaints from professionals in my region (and elsewhere) about PR grads who can neither write clearly nor think critically. I also hear from grads themselves, some who feel betrayed by institutions that awarded them degrees without assuring their readiness or competence.

According to last year’s AEJMC survey, about 75% of PR grads landed full-time work, highest among the disciplines that AEJMC tracks. But if you review the schools in the sample (83 of them), you’ll find about half are AEMJC accredited, including a number of A-list programs, e.g, Georgia, Florida, Syracuse, Northwestern, Ohio, and more. These aren’t the schools turning out ill-prepared grads, which is why I believe the “real” placement rate for PR may be closer to 50%. AEJMC isn’t measuring schools that offer PR classes in English or Speech  departments, and plenty do.

I wouldn’t be throwing this bomb if Kent State were among the guilty. Kent PR grads get jobs — 92% of them within 6 months of graduation.  And they aren’t just ANY jobs. Our grads work in PR and closely related fields like marcom, events management and advertising.

Every PR program on every campus should know where its grads are working. No excuses.

9 ways Kent State produces job-placement ROI.

1. Never compromise standards. At Kent State, we’ve raised the bar really high. Some 30-40% of our PR students take an early exit, most of them because of weak writing skills. I teach the “knock out” course, PR Case Studies. Last fall, the class began with 24 students, but only 16 finished the course. At least 2 of those have left the major. My class last spring saw 90% make the grade, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

2. Make writing the core skill. We all know the importance of writing in PR, but do we practice it? At Kent State, sophomores take the same newswriting and reporting sequence as journalism majors. They learn to gather, organize and present information on tight of deadlines. They lose points for errors in grammar, usage and punctuation, and they learn to recite AP Style in their sleep. If you don’t write well, you don’t belong in public relations.

3. Select faculty with professional savvy. We’ve redefined the concept of “terminal degree” when it comes to hiring. To teach in our school, you must have substantial professional experience, and we accept that experience in lieu of the PhD. We haven’t devalued the doctorate, we simply treat professional accomplishment on par with it. We produce PR practitioners here at Kent State, and believe real-world experience makes a better teacher.

4. Stress hands-on learning in every class. I nearly used the word “training,” but it offends my academic colleagues. Training, they say, is for trade schools. But you know something? A lot of PR requires the skills of a tradesman. The craft of writing, the art of presentation, the skill of listening.  All can be taught and all must be practiced. At Kent State students learn by doing, and doing, and doing. It’s a training regimen.

5. Make internships mandatory and help students find them. At least 1 internship should be mandatory, 2 preferred, 3 even better. Though we teach real-world skills in the classroom, you don’t polish those skills until you work in the real world, aka, the intern’s cubicle. Maintaining connections with 50+ internship employers takes a lot of faculty time, but it’s not an option. BTW, some 95% of Kent State’s internships are paid positions ranging from $8 to $18 an hour. About 20% of interns earn full-time jobs with their employers.

6. Stay on the cutting edge. Staying current with the profession is tougher for academics than for practitioners (and tougher today than it’s ever been). Few of us get financial support for professional development courses or to fund the cost of  professional organizations like PRSA. My colleagues and I pay these costs out of pocket.

7. Adopt a business focus, but don’t sell out. If you want students to get jobs, it’s important to serve the needs of the profession, and that involves translating theory into a practical skill set. Don’t be afraid to criticize the profession, but also recognize that your students must fit in once they get there. Always put ethics first. The best practitioners do.

8. Track your data. Like Dizzy Dean said, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it. At Kent State, we’ve been tracking job placement data since the mid-90s and will continue to do so at 5-year intervals. The task is easy, because we stay in touch with grads. We maintain an alumni listserv along with a PRKent group on Facebook. We invite up to 40 alumni to participate in our classes and programs each year. You can’t track success if you can’t find your grads. A good many of mine are friends on Facebook or connections on LinkedIn.

9. Eliminate students who don’t meet the standards. This could mean failing 30, 40, maybe even 50% 0f your students, unless you have an extremely high admission standard. Not fun, but prudent. Raise the performance bar and student success will follow. When students succeed, your program’s reputation grows. As the reputation grows, more top-performing students want to be part of it.

There’s lots more to talk about on this topic. For example, how can the profession help PR educator’s raise the bar? What’s the role for PRSA or IABC? But I’m nearing 1,000 words on this post.

Why don’t you take it from here?

24 Responses to Let’s raise the bar for PR education, and let’s raise it really, really, really, really, really, really high

  1. Brave and challenging words – though I think your PR for your own institution is too blatant. (‘The industry has a problem with standards, but we’ve fixed it at Kent State’.)

    But I do agree with your prognosis – that PR courses should be challenging, practical and based on a solid foundation.

    The problem I find is that many students expect simple answers – and some teaching in ‘higher’ education gives them this. Preparing graduates for the chaos and uncertainty of the 21st century requires us to pose complex problems and be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

  2. Tracie says:

    Preach it, brother! Amen, especially, to your second point. I teach an intro PR course. My students are shocked — SHOCKED! — that I take off points for spelling, grammar and style. They’re offended when I tell them that they’ll get no credit for turning in press releases containing factual errors.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Hi, Richard. Honored you stopped in. I’m aware my post isn’t at all humble, but I also think we’ve built a solid case study here at Kent State and wanted to share it. This post lingered in the queue for nearly a year because of my concerns about boastful tone. Seems that concern was well placed — thus the “Dizzy Dean” defense.

    You are spot on about students wanting simple answers, which is why we place the Case Studies class early in the curriculum. The class enables students to explore the complexity of public relations and learn that there is no single “right” answer. I would love to write a killer essay on this topic, but Les Potter has already done that. Every PR educator should read that post. Les is exactly the kind of PR professional Kent State would love to hire! (You listening, Les?)

    Tracie, I’m happy you agree with Kent State’s position regarding the precise use of language. That precision is being lost in the Web 2.0 culture, and it’s troubling. No, our tweets don’t have to be perfect, or even our blog posts, but our Web copy, news releases, proposals and brochures do. I see public relations as the final defenders of the realm when it comes to language. No one else in the corporate culture seems to care. I mean, have you read their memos? Sheeesh.

  4. Bill — as a corporate guy who led the internship program at a previous job, and one who hired Kent PR students for internships, I can attest to the renewal of your program. Kent students are simply more prepared than others in our area. That’s due to many factors, including the scale of the university, but also the practical nature of your faculty.

    I agree that the bar needs to be raised — the issue always is one of perception and reality: for some reason, many students think they should not have to work very hard in school (or, for that matter, at work…). Writing, editing, being creative — that’s not (to butcher the simile) as much inspiration as perspiration. Too many simply don’t want to sweat.

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    As an undergraduate, I didn’t care much for sweat, either. Then I met a few professors who demanded of me what I demand of my students today: a complete effort. My choice was to sweat or get out, so I went to work. Today, much as it was in the 70s, discipline must sometimes be imposed on those who cannot draw it from within.

    A notable exception is veterans returning to the classroom. Most are highly motivated.

  6. Being someone who is finishing the Kent State sequence at this very moment, I can attest to both the program’s difficulty and success in preparing students. As a freshman and sophomore I scolded myself for picking such a ridiculously hard major. I was watching a lot of my friends go through a communication major with an emphasis in PR at other schools and was jealous of the light work load. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of knowing perfect AP, grammar, etc. but as I complete internships and enter the professional world I am grateful for the many red marks on my school projects.

    I have shocked my bosses when I come in with my AP book in my bag and can sit down and edit pieces for style. They also are shocked when they see the amount of work I can produce from my classes. Professionals love to see and hear about the work done in Campaigns! I have been successful in finding three internships (will point out that I did do nonpaid internships along with paid) within the field and have a job in PR at graduation — and that in Cleveland’s economy!

  7. The university I received my undergraduate from had fairly high admission standards and didn’t produce students nearly as prepared as the graduates of the PRKent program. While most of the students I knew in my undergrad could write and would likely have made it through the filter classes at Kent, they were still missing major elements you’ve hit on here: a business focused curriculum, professionally savvy instructors and cutting edge technology. Most of all though, PRKent grads have dealt with the rigor and toil of classes like Case Studies and PR Campaigns (which you didn’t even mention in this post).

    And I see no shame in the word “training,” because that’s exactly what I came to Kent for (be it in the form of a graduate degree). PRKent teaches the specific skills needed to survive in PR in an atmosphere that allows you to practice what you’ll be doing in the real world.

    The bar is high for a reason; it’s acting as a rung for PRKent grads to climb to the top. With any luck, I’ll join them someday.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    A disclaimer is probably in order here. The previous comment comes from my younger son, who spent his first four years at a school that Richard Moll lists among the “Public Ivy.” He’s now taking advantage of that wonderful benefit called the “tuition waiver” and studying PR in our graduate track at Kent State.

  9. Bob Conrad says:

    A fitting object lesson would be Jack Welch’s book, “Straight From The Gut.” If instructors are viewed as uncaring for insisting upon quality work, real life can be far more cruel. Put another way: Who’s more marketable — someone who can write (to pick one skill) well or someone who cannot?

  10. Lisa Darnell says:

    I teach at a small regional school. My mantra for the last three or four years has been learn critical thinking strategies. We do exercises and assignments to teach and encourage critical thinking. We teach technology to a point, and stress writing. The issue/complaint we have from our internship supervisors is that our students are naive. Most of our students are first generation and come from small towns. How do I address the naive nature of our students? Do I have a right to do so?

  11. Bill Huey says:

    Is Kent State AEJMC accredited? They are very queer for the Ph.D, so your admirable stance on professional achievement and practical skills is at odds with theirs.
    I’ve always thought the bar could be raised much higher if these so=called schools of communication weren’t using advertising and PR as cash cows to support lightly enrolled journalism sequences. It’s scandalous, really.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Lisa: I think to some extent all students are naive, especially on that first internship. We try to offset this by loading our classes from start to finish with a real-world focus. We stir in guest speakers who come to class prepared to demonstrate PR process, not just tell war stories. In addition, many of our students get their first professional job experience working for Flash Communications, a student PR firm that serves Kent State Communications & Marketing (though on-campus internships don’t satisfy the internship requirement).

    To Bill: Kent State is among the 112 AEJMC-accredited programs, but we’ve felt no particular pressure to hire PhDs as a result. That said, AEJMC does expect a certain level of research production, and having PhDs who can crunch the numbers helps you do that. Those with doctorate also are critical to the graduate program. About 1/3 of our faculty have PhDs.

    As for PR being a “cash cow,” I’m not prepared to call it a scandal in American education, but administrators do feel a lot of pressure to put “butts in seats.” Glamorous majors (and PR is seen as one) that are short on classroom rigor have been known to boost student retention. Hmmm. Maybe that is a scandal.

  13. Lisa Darnell says:

    Hhmm…we strongly encourage our students to belong to the student organization, which brings in speakers. Our senior class is required to join and attend the meetings. We also utilize clients in all of our courses except intro (which may or may not depending on the teacher). I also have students critique my public relations work. I send them “looking” for problems. I don’t mind showing students through my errors how to handle Murphy’s Law. I think we should perhaps continue to work on incorporating more diverse clients.

    It is nice to know that our students may not be the only ones who are naive. I appreciate your thoughts and will be sharing them with our students.

  14. Laura says:

    Bill I am salivating over your stats quoted in point #5. That is a great rate of paid internships, especially for PR!

  15. Katie Greenwald says:

    With the flood of journalists being laid off due to the state of newspapers today it’s going to be tougher and tougher for under-prepared PR grads to get jobs in the field. I’ve heard from very qualified news pros who are happy to start at entry level PR positions because they can’t find jobs in their fields. And these are people who know how to talk to the press and generally know how to write.

    Aspiring PR pros need to look for institutions which will provide them with quality educations and they have to take it upon themselves to continue their educations (through industry publications, etc.) after receiving their degrees.

  16. Bill Sledzik says:

    Hey, Katie. You are right about the flood of laid-off journalists seeking PR jobs. But I’m not convinced most of them are qualified to work in PR. Yes, they write well. Yes, they know how to deal with the mainstream media. But many former journalists are too eager to reach for “media” solutions vs. “relationship” solutions, and that can make the one-dimensional practitioners. However, a smart person figures this out quickly, and I know a lot of smart journalists who are out of work. Too many!

    When students come to me for advice regarding a journalism career vs. a PR career, I point out a simple difference in the two disciplines. Journalists are storytellers; PR professionals are problem-solvers. Sometimes PR people use stories to solve problems, but it’s not our primary task.

    When the challenge involves media relations, a former journalist can be the perfect fit. But let’s remember that MSM’s influence is waning. Otherwise these fine journalists wouldn’t be unemployed!

  17. Bravo! I agree completely. One other note: these PR grads aren’t just competing with displaced journalists for PR jobs. I wasn’t a PR major–I don’t even know if my school offered it as a major, it wasn’t on my radar screen at the time. I majored in Poli Sci at a school that was rigorous about writing skills and critical thinking, and that’s how I entered PR (in public affairs)–combination of skills and background.

    Competition can be a good thing, especially if it weeds out lousy writers. While I love social media and blogs, the catch-all excuse that it is informal writing so errors are expected and accepted bothers me–mostly because it seems to spill over into the more formal examples you have listed above.

  18. Dave O'Brien says:

    Bill, I agree with you saying that some former journalists can make one-dimensional PR folk. I know that as a journalist, I am a malcontent with an embittered, sarcastic nature on my best days with absolutely no ability to solve problems involving the same people who caused them in the first place. That said, I would trample a dozen just-graduated PR majors to get a PR job with a university or non-profit (I have to keep myself in coffee and cigarettes, after all …).

    And speaking as a journalist on a PR blog: Nothing pains me more than those occasional press releases prominently featuring a glaring spelling error. Be warned that when that happens, and the information isn’t absolutely necessary to my job, it ends up filed under “landfill.”

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Dave. As a journalist, you see PR people in the media-relations role. And when they screw up, you see that, too. Honestly, the best media-relations folks I’ve ever known are those who came from newspapers and TV newsrooms. Of course, they had to learn the PR biz, but that only takes about a week, er, 4 years. Yeah it takes 4 years.

  20. Greg Smith says:

    Gadzooks. Another information-packed discourse. Unfortunately, for universities these days the pressure is financial: hence the need to put bums on seats. And yes, in Australia, PR is seen as an “easy” option. But, Bill, I’m with you. I failed a few at my old uni, but the pressure went on to “review” their cases. I needed a break and went back to practice (UK spelling, people) but next year will go back to a uni where PR is scaled back, both as a course, and numbers, and taught in a school of business as part of a marketing/PR degree. It seems ideal, but time will tell. I’m just hoping the students will read something … even a news report would be nice.

  21. Les Potter says:

    Bill, I just posted fall semester grades for my four PR Track classes here at Towson University, and now I can catch up on reading your wonderful blog. This post is remarkable. if I could stand up, I’d be up shouting YES!!!!! What you outlined here is to me the highest and best a program can be. I am going to make sure our department leadership and my colleagues read this post.

    Thank you, Bill, for showing us the way.

    Les

  22. Laura Dahle says:

    Bill,

    As a PRKent graduate working in corporate America, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of PR and Kent’s fantastic program; however, there are a few things that are “outside” of PRKent program from an alum:

    Kent’s Flash Communications (or FlashCom) was absolutely invaluable to my development as a practitioner. For those of you who don’t know, FlashCom is a student public relations firm that operates under University Communications and Marketing and serves clients within Kent State. I spent just one semester working at FlashCom before my internship and I believe it made all the difference. It was a welcomed stepping stone to the real world – it taught me how to work deadlines and was my first taste of how to [tactfully] provide counsel. I’m not sure what happened to the program after Rob’s retirement, but hopefully it’s still going strong.

    Another thing to share: While attending a dinner party hosted by fellow PRKent alum and dear friend Kait (Swanson) Tisler, we discussed the fact that half the attendees were PRKent alumni. Now I understand we may be a unique bunch, but our friendship stemmed from hours upon hours of studying the foundation and principles of public relations and making sure that every document was proofed for AP style by at least three people. Learning the value of peer collaboration and peer networking is essential for any young practitioner trying to succeed in PR, and I was lucky enough to learn it while still in the safety of the program. We still collaborate and bounce ideas off each other to this day, and I’m not sure if I would have that network if it weren’t for PRKent’s high classroom standards.

    Just a few things from an (old) alum’s view.

    Laura

  23. MScott says:

    I agree. I feel completely underprepared with my undergraduate major in PR. When I think of the time and money I spent, it makes me angry. I wish my professors had the integrity that those at Kent State do.

  24. ckarol10 says:

    Yes, unfortunately the degree is not all. It is all experience, experience, experience. It’s difficult to find a job without.

    http://ckarol10.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/educating-for-pr/

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