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The next generation of public relations practitioners: are they ready? And are we ready for them?

are they ready? and are we ready for them?

* Employees have micro-chips embedded in their skins so we can communicate to them instantaneously and en masse.

* There are no newspapers. You get your news - of course, only the news you want to hear - from a hologram programmed to appear when and where you want to see it.

* There is no such thing as permanent leadership in organizations: No CEOs, managers, supervisors. Responsibility moves through large organizations as, and when, required.

* Most "business" is done through virtual satellite offices. Suppliers, customers, employees are located everywhere from tree tops to underwater research stations, from Dubai to Yellowknife.

* Paper money no longer exists.

* Issues of diversity and gender are non-existent.

Sound like a perfect world? Or something too scary to comprehend? I have no scientific evidence to prove this is how the world will evolve; however, no one has any evidence that it won't. That's the weird, frightening, exciting fact about predicting the future. Particularly, the time beyond the year 2000 - it's an every-person's land of creation, speculation and surprise.

If that is true, how then do we prepare for it? More particularly, how do we prepare the next generation of public relations practitioners for a world in which there may be no reporters on the telephone, company newsletters to churn out, intimidating policy manuals to follow, static job descriptions - perhaps not even a permanent work place?

As academics and practitioners, how are we preparing the next generation for a very different world? And a very different profession? What are we teaching public relations students at the close of the millennium?

Are they ready?

And are we ready for them?

"Public relations education has improved tremendously for the undergraduate student in the past decade. Students now leave programs with an understanding of strategic planning and have a basic knowledge of research. In addition, the development of entry-level communication skills are ahead of those developed by graduates of undergraduate programs only a few years ago," says Melvin Sharpe, chair of the Public Relations Society's Educators' Academy.

The International Public Relations Association (IPRA), in a Gold Paper issued in 1990, pictured the ideal curriculum for public relations graduates as a series of three concentric circles. The middle, and smallest, circle includes subjects like those noted by Sharpe (visualize a chart): public relations writing, planning and basic research. The next circle includes subjects in the general field of communication: writing for mass media, media law and ethics, and theories of communication. The third and outer circle represents general liberal arts and humanities courses, in areas such as political science, languages and management.

A review of the curriculum of the top five public relations programs in the United States as ranked by a 1996 U.S. News & World Report article of the top eight programs listed in a Marquette University study, shows that most public relations programs cover the basics. Whether housed within schools of journalism or communication, it is safe to say that based on our existing standards, current public relations programs are providing an adequate education for the next generation of public relations practitioners.

But is adequate good enough?

What about preparing students for the next millennium? What evidence is there in school curricula that we are preparing public relations students for a fluid, boundaryless, hyper-real, chaotic, post-modern world; where knowledge is the only competitive advantage; where reputation, whether belonging to a transnational, community not-for-profit, or government agency is what all strategy is aligned toward; where the definition of stakeholder goes far beyond employee, shareholder or media; where communication is the fundamental process that links all parts of an organization?

There are those who would argue that dealing with this chaotic world is not public relations work, therefore, it is irrelevant whether academic programs are preparing public relations students to prosper in this environment. They would probably go on to say that this is the concern of the corporate planning division, the organizational effectiveness office, integrated marketing or shareholder relations departments - but not public relations.

But there are others, myself included, who believe that when we talk about things like reputation, knowledge, stakeholders and communication - we are talking about public relations. In fact, David Phillips, managing director of U.K.-based Phillips & Company, and an IPRA Fellow, believes that we in public relations have allowed "a huge proportion of our work to be usurped by others." Phillips maintains that although "it will be a painful process...most of what is lost can be brought back, and much of what is new...we do not have to give away."

To take back, or hold on to, our future work requires, however, that the new generation of practitioners are capable of doing more than we've ever done before. They must do more than interview the president, they must also counsel her; they must do more than write about the organisation's new work design, they must participate in it; and they must do more than choose the appropriate gift for visiting customers, they must speak to them in their own languages, take part in international business discussions, and intimately understand the global, cultural context to socio-economic negotiations.

To take back what we have surrendered, and keep hold of new advances in communication technology, processes and theory, requires that new public relations graduates are prepared for a very different world. And that, in fact, they have the ability to life-long learn, unlearn, reinvent themselves, embrace change, build partnerships, live with chaos, think critically.

Some have said that part of the reason why this kind of learning has not been fundamentally integrated into public relations curricula is because public relations is often under the umbrella of journalism or communication. Journalism, while nurturing strong writing and editing skills, may not be the best place to learn about team-building, interpersonal skills, advocacy, reputation management and sophisticated research techniques.

And while departments of communication provide a strong theoretical base, their focus on mass communication may not be the place to learn about niche marketing, entrepreneurship, global business issues, investor relations and organizational design.

"Too many educators still see public relations as a part of journalism or of a communication academic discipline, rather than as a profession in its own right with its own educational needs," says Sharpe. "Public relations, as a social behaviour application - and as a profession - is extremely complex."

Ronald Smith, associate professor of public communication at Buffalo State University (N.Y.), agrees, although he doesn't worry as much about what he calls the "turf issues." "I guess I accept as a given that structure varies greatly from school to school and a lot depends on where the public relations program began." He does acknowledge however, that "we need to keep reminding our communication colleagues that we are not really about mass media and that our focus is both the audience/public and the client/organization."

Smith also believes that public relations graduates need to be leaders in understanding and promoting more strategic and integrated communication. "More strategic in that they [graduates] will help transform the profession from a series of tactics - writing news releases, preparing PowerPoint presentations, drafting speeches - toward a strategic program that will address the fundamental mission of an organization."

Many academic institutions are beginning to recognize this.

The goal of the University of Florida's Institute for Public Relations Research and Education, the only independent research organization of its kind in the world, is to help make public relations a profession by building a credible body of knowledge. To this end, according to the Institute's web site, "there is a critical need to explore what public relations practitioners should study today and who should teach them."

A review of college and university calendars shows some promising "third millennia courses" edging their way into public relations curricula.

At the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), public relations students can take courses in transcultural communication, communication and leadership, and environmental advocacy. At San Jose State University (Calif.), students take: critical decision making; communication, self and society; and the fundamentals of interpersonal communication as presented in [the TV show] Star Trek.

Professor John Schulz, acting chair, department of mass communication, advertising and public relations at Boston University says the B.U. program aims to train generalists who are "able to use all forms of media; strategists and thinkers who can plan, research, and apply problem-solving techniques, and who can understand the theories of communication and apply them with meaning to the chaos of the day's events and tasks."

Students at B.U. not only take the traditional public relations courses in research, planning and writing, but also study organizational structure and behaviour, new communication technologies, community relations, and communication strategies in negotiation and conflict resolution.

In Canada, Seneca College offers a post-degree certificate in corporate communication with courses such as understanding post-industrial societies, and stakeholder influence on corporate management. At Mount St. Vincent's University, one of only two public relations degree-granting institutions in Canada, students take courses in economics, business administration and government policy. Students also are required to have a second language before entering the program.

At Mount Royal College (MRC) in Calgary, Alta., the other degree-granting institution in Canada, students take courses in entrepreneurship, strategic communication planning, investor relations, fund development and corporate philanthropy, and international public relations.

As the chair of the public relations program at MRC, I know first-hand the challenges of trying to design a public relations curriculum that will prepare students for the next millennium. Mount Royal's program is probably one of the newest in North America, and this year will have its first graduates. As I evaluate their readiness to take on a constantly changing world and re-invent the profession I care about so deeply, I am amazed at their breadth of knowledge, critical thinking abilities and unshakable belief that they will change the world.

What makes them so special?

Because they are the first generation of practitioners who will be able to do a marketing plan, write a mission statement, run a focus group, do a content analysis, design an intranet, use experiential games for team-building, create their own consulting company, speak comfortably of Chomsky's manufactured and Bernay's engineered consent, write the president's speech for the annual shareholder meeting, integrate the elements of rhetoric into the design of an interactive CD-ROM, manage an environmental consultation process, talk about the practice of public relations in Norway and South Africa, and debate the relevance of Maturana and Varela's concept of autopoeisis to the practice of community relations.

Impressive, huh? And, maybe, just a little scary.

Which brings me to the second question posed at the beginning of the article. Are we ready, as practitioners who most probably fell, leapt, or drifted into public relations, for this new breed of practitioner? Are we prepared to change our public relations curricula not just because the next millennium will require it, but because our "Generation X" students will demand it?

Lynne Sallot, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Georgia, says she is lucky to teach the students who get into the U. of G. program. "They are bright and eager to learn...and come to us very well equipped for our rigorous program. I am very fortunate to be here."

These are students who are hungry for knowledge, decent, determined and impatient. They want to make a difference in the world in a way that is reminiscent of student hopes in the '60s; yet, they are different from the '60s student. They are focused, a touch cynical - after all they have seen their parents down-sized, right-sized and re-engineered, they're respectful but unafraid of authority, think critically, and "get" the big picture. And I can't help but wonder, as I watch them, how they will change our profession.

They are more international or global in their thinking than any group of students I've ever worked with. In the group who entered the Mount Royal program in 1997, for example, at least 75 percent speak another language, almost a third of them speak more than two. Suzanne spent a year working with UNICEF in London, Paul has just returned to Canada from managing his uncle's hostel in northern Ireland, Patricia came to the program after working on a hospital ship off east Africa.

They are also more political, not content to sit back and complain about the collapse of the democratic process, but determined to be part of making it work. Tim has joined the program after a number of years spent with the federal government in Ottawa. Before that he was with the Canadian military. Wendy works part-time in the Premier's office, while attending school using her education to help First Nation's people be heard.

They are an amazing group, and I believe their destiny is to revitalise our profession.

They will be sitting "at the table" because they know that's where you make a difference. They embrace technology because they know it's a powerful tool amongst many others in their kit-bag. They will partner with organization effectiveness and training departments because they understand, on a deep, fundamental level that organizations are built on communication processes. They will be comfortable in coaching management in leadership skills, because they know that leadership is all about communication. They will build honourable relationships with the media because they understand that we invest journalists with power as protectors of democracy. They know about building bridges across cultures and nations because they play "hearts" every night on the Internet with someone from Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Tel Aviv. They will raise our practice to a new level of professionalism because they are authentic, impatient and not afraid to step off the edge of what they know.

We stand in their way, with out-dated, stagnant, tactician-centred curricula - at our peril.

Someone has said that all the easy problems have been solved, the next millennia will be about addressing the tough issues. As academics and as practitioners, we have to enable the next generation of public relations practitioners to do just that. We have to prepare them for a world that will be vastly different from the one we grew up in.

That is our destiny.

Sheila Foster, chair of the Public Relations Advisory Committee, a group of senior practitioners who oversee the program at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada, is amazed at the questions students ask each time she meets with them. "They absolutely keep me on my toes; recently I came in to one of their classes to talk about my recent trips to China, Europe and Central America and all the wonderful opportunities I saw there for public relations consultation. Right after the session I had calls from the students, asking if I had contact names they could get in touch with. They are so sharp and quick. I believe the moment they graduate, the bar in our profession will be instantly raised."

She adds, "I'm so proud to have been part of the process that moulded this new breed of PR professionals. What they have endured is what has made them so strong. All I can say is - look out, world!"

The effective communicator is proactive, not reactive. S/He is an originator, not an implementer; a strategist, not a technician or tactician; and a relationship builder, not an information disseminator. Today's communicators must encompass a wide variety of skills:

strategic planning skills of a chess master business perspective of an MBA human-behavioural understanding of a psychologist diagnostic skills of a doctor probing skills of a researcher interrogative abilities of a lawyer analytical skills of a sociologist persuasion of an orator tact and finesse of a diplomat selling skills of a salesman

Add to these leadership, team building and time management, plus the traditional core skills associated with public relations and communication like writing, public speaking, listening, presenting and facilitating.

- Gary F. Grates, president and CEO, Boxembaum Grates, Inc., Strategic Communications Council (as appeared in Livewire, University of Texas public relations students' newsletter)

Mavis Walmsley, APR, is chair of the public relations program at Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alta.
COPYRIGHT 1998 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Walmsley, Mavis
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 15, 1998
Previous Article:Redefining the profession.
Next Article:Strategic communication: dead or in demand as never before?

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