What PR courses should teach undergrads

The realities of social media—and of the inevitable grunt work—as well as what distinguishes bloggers from real journalists should be at the core of every public relations curriculum.

In 2005, I took a public relations course at a major state university—PR 101—and remember the lesson plans clearly:

  • The history of PR
  • Writing a “communications brief”
  • Writing a press release
  • Press conferences

Eventually, I moved on to further classes. They mostly covered press conferences and “advance communications,” a vague summary of different techniques that you might want to use in general PR activities.

At no point did the courses actually address the media.

This was nearly a full year before Twitter would launch. Facebook wasn’t available outside colleges. Jon Gruber had been writing for three years, and TechCrunch would launch not too long after. Thus we completely missed a chunk of the “social” aspect that makes up the new world of PR or, indeed, the importance of bloggers.

Regardless, reading over current PR courses and many textbooks used in courses, it’s clear that PR undergrads are being taught to do things that are not part of most PR people’s days. Yes, it’s very exciting to be taught that you’ll be handling big campaigns, or “handling webinars,” or how important AP style is, or how to handle a press conference—one of the most irrelevant skills that you’ll find before a career in high-end corporate PR.

Though it may not be deliberate, this is a horrible misrepresentation of the industry as a whole and is leading students down a dark, dark path. The reason behind the failure at the educational level is simple: Many of these teachers are either not active practitioners, or others are fundamentally not good at major parts of the current world of PR. It’s easy to become obsolete if you’re teaching but not practicing.

After some research, I’ve come up with what I believe are the core elements that should be applied to just about every PR curriculum. They are:

The realities of PR

PR is no longer about event management. It is not press conferences. It is not glitz and glamor and fancy parties. At least, not initially. The world of PR they are entering is cold, overstaffed, overworked drudgery. It takes place mostly behind a computer, and the salaries are lower than ever. It’s potentially immensely lucrative if you become well connected. It does not start that way.

These core lessons should be ingested immediately:

  • The best way to network is to be yourself. It is not to have a personal brand or “love the media.” It’s about being an interesting human being.
  • Read a lot more. Reading and knowing the news and the world around you are more valuable than being popular on Facebook or loving to party.
  • PR is not flashy, and you will probably not deal with flashy clients for a long time. Many PR agencies sell themselves as working with huge clients like P&G, Samsung, and Gucci. This is not what most will do initially. They will probably work in small tech firms or with restaurants or with nonprofits—exceedingly demanding clients that will not educate them.
  • The first years of PR will entail a lot of document-writing, package-stuffing, and document work. This reality is hidden from new PR pros, for some reason.

Media relations

Many PR professionals on many blogs say media relations isn’t the core of PR. It isn’t a thing that you “have” to do. I’m sorry, but it is. It always will be, especially for new PR people.

The core elements of media relations are:

  • Researching an outlet and a reporter. This should focus on how to read properly, how to understand and have a rapport with a reporter, and how to understand the structure of each news outlet.
  • Writing a pitch. This should be taught in such a way as to write a pitch that will work to get a response and what you want, under 150 words. This is a very specific skill that is essentially diametrical to how public relations courses are taught.
  • The distinctions among bloggers, reporters, and producers. The first two parts are somewhat blurred these days-a reporter can blog at a newspaper and a blogger can be called a reporter. However, these roles are fundamentally different and must be approached in different ways, especially TV and radio producers.
  • What things are truly newsworthy, and how to actually get reporters to care about them. If a teacher can’t teach this, and teach the reality that many stories are kind of boring, they are not worth their salt.
  • How to actually talk to a person whom you want to write a story. This is really about not talking to them about anything and getting to know what they want to hear about. Once you know that, you can send it to them—or not, when you don’t have it.

The essentials of social media

Social media is taught in a dishonest manner by the education system. It’s really exciting to talk about social media in a way that suggests it’s the new golden goose—that a single tweet can spread your news faster than anything else, and that, you too, could have thousands or millions of followers who will share your news in the most passive and useful manner.

Social media classes should teach:

  • How to use Twitter or Facebook or Instagram in a real sense. You should not just be tweeting out endless praise for your company, or how great you are. You should be an honest company or an honest person.
  • You don’t need always need Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. There is no actual need to have every company with a social presence. Conversely, for many brick-and-mortar businesses, such as Angie’s List and Houzz for contractors and service businesses, some social media platforms are incredibly important.
  • How a real social media following is built through trust and a reason to actually care. If a company or a restaurant or anyone is just spilling out fatuous nonsense about their lives or how great they are, very few people are going to care.
  • That a social media calendar or strategy can be a waste of time. Mapping out a bunch of tweets or Facebook updates or “special days” for many companies isn’t necessary unless they have an active Facebook or Twitter following.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything they should know, but the core problem with PR education is that a 101 class should give the basics—the groundwork from which a real PR professional should theoretically grow.

In the same way that medical schools exist to give the factual and theoretical ideas that will be used in treating patients, PR courses should provide the theoretical foundation and background knowledge that today’s PR professionals will need in their day-to-day work.

Ed Zitron is the founder of EZ-PR, a PR and media relations company. He is the author of “This Is How You Pitch: How To Kick Ass In Your First Years of PR.” A version of this article first appeared on PR in Your Pajamas.

Topics: PR

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