Enhancing reputation of PR itself makes the defence of PR degrees vital

On 12th March 2009, the PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) revealed the findings of a poll of its “Leaders’ Panel” of the public relations agencies it represents.  Picked up by PR Week, the trade paper for the sector, although the press release was headlined by Degrees Vital for PR Career, it was always inevitable that the journalists would lead with a more sensational angle, that a third of the agency heads who responded actually felt that a PR degree made somebody less attractive for a PR position (Agency heads unconvinced by PR degrees’).

I cannot blame the agency heads for the flippant responses they might have given to the poll questions, but I will.  Surely anyone should be interviewing candidates for vacant positions based on merit?  To be swayed by blinkered or subjective impressions of individual universities or courses without concrete evidence to go on is to be as guilty of  slack methodology or lacking in practical insights as they are accusing those universities of being?  It is just plain short-sighted.

I cannot blame PR Week for not more ruthlessly interrorgating the contents of the PRCA press release and poll before publishing the story, but I will.  Exactly how representative of the PR industry is the Leaders’ Panel?  How many of them responded to the poll?  Are those people interviewed in the poll actually the people within an agency responsible for HR, or interviewing candidates for entry-level positions on a regular basis?

And I will not even raise the spectre of the story being released possibly having more to do with the PRCA having reputation issues itself amongst the wider body of the PR industry, and needing to demonstrate its worth by generating column inches in the trade press to help boost recruitment.  No, that would be cheap.  The video (above) of final year BA Public Relations student, Leah Kirby accepting her Media Foundry-sponsored ‘LCC PR Student of the Year Award‘ remind us that we are talking here about real individuals, with a range of real and different skills.

Julia Hobsbawm (see below)

Julia Hobsbawm (see below)

After 15 years or thereabouts in public relations, I decided that something needed to be done to help improve the skills and opportunities for a new generation of PR, and had a career change of sorts from PR practice into what some people call academia.  I wanted to do something about entry-level standards into the profession, so that people got the full grounding that I never got from day one.  Something also needed to be done to change the face of the PR industry, to make it more representative of the UK at large – not because it’s a ‘PC’ thing to do, but because unless it does so, it will fail to communicate with the wider public.  I’d also recognised that we needed to professionalise PR.  Whilst it is fantastic that a wide range of graduates from degrees like politics (I plead guilty!), linguistics, law and psychology come into PR at the start of their career, they tend to disappear straight back out again after a couple of years.  In addition, PR needs to develop a body of work to justify the better position it has been getting in the boardroom in recent years.  Public relations is as entitled to a degree as any other profession, and indeed, needs serious academic grounding if it is to justify that status.

It wasn’t all altruistic, ‘for the children’ as it were.  I was also a little tired of being told that ‘this’ was how it was done.  I realised that academia, and interaction with a range of disciplinary spaces such as psychology, strategic management, advertising, marketing, philosophy, politics, business, and more creative enterprises might provide the space I’d been looking for, and new prisms through which to challenge established practice, and provide new solutions to age old problems (maybe we could kill the use of surveys in media relations once and for all?).

Sarah Roberts-Bowman

Sarah Roberts-Bowman

I’ve been at the University of the Arts London for 18 months now, building up their BA (Hons) Public Relations at the London College of Communication, and have been lucky enough to be joined by another practitioner-turned-academic, Sarah Roberts-Bowman who is the course director on the MA Public Relations.  Sarah was a long time corporate PR at BT, and in more recent times freelancing, saw responsibilities including the acting head of communications role for homelessness charity, Centrepoint.  Perhaps her background will be more persuasive to the PRCA than my ‘fluffier’ credentials at BBC Radio 1, the Liberal Democrats, or more ‘questionable’ ones such as the then Department for Education and Skills, or clients such as Nicky Campbell when freelancing as Dutch.

Over the last 18 months, we have built a programme called ‘PRfutures’ to support the degrees, which has seen a stellar roll call from across the world of PR getting involved.

Leading the field is our visiting professor, Editorial Intelligence CEO, Julia Hobsbawm.  Julia needs no introduction.  Her position as quite possibly the best networker in the communications business has been invaluable, and she has provided huge encouragement, and helped us with additional connections where necessary.

Colin Byrne

Colin Byrne

Then we have our advisory panel.  While we get our degrees in shape, we have not met as often as we would have liked, but the individual members in their own ways continue to provide valuable counsel.  People like the BBC‘s head of press, Donald Steel.  BT’s former head of corporate PR, Peter Willmott who has become an associate lecturer, delivering teaching on the course – a model we want.  Weber Shandwick‘s Europe CEO Colin Byrne has delivered one of the best received guest lectures, and returned the favour by hosting an ‘open doors’ at the agency’s HQ.  That relationship continues to grow, and Colin continues to be one of the keenest advocates for the role of PR degrees in helping to professionalise and diversify PR’s ranks.  The Media Foundry‘s MD Peter Law is a former student of our forerunner institution (London College of Printing), and his agency sponsor the annual PR Student of the Year award, and have taken on a number of placements in the last two years.

And then there are the monthly guest lectures. I readily tell enquirers that Bournemouth University and Leeds Metropolitan University probably have had the best reputation for undergraduate PR degrees in recent years, but LCC easily has the best guest speaker programme.  It has included Mark BorkowskiMike Lee, Carter-Ruck’s Magnus Boyd and Radio 2’s Janice Long and Jeff Smith (head of music) as well as members of our own advisory panel that include Sao Bui-Van (MTV’s Vice-President Communications, UK & Ireland), Colleen Harris (former PR roles for HRH Prince of Wales, and the Commission for Racial Equality, and member of the Press Complaints Commission), Bernard Donoghue (VisitBritain’s Head of Public and Parliamentary Affairs).

Rather than take the easy option of yet another survey that helps deliver an easy headline, bashing another degree on the head, it is in everyone’s interests in the PR industry that we work together to build a suite of PR degrees we can be proud of.  This is not just for the students who will be graduating from them (and more about the success stories of individual PR students in future blogs), but for the professional status of public relations itself.  There is work to be done deepening our understanding in a range of areas, and we need to collaborate more, not less between academia and industry to identify these.

Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski

Colleen Harris

Colleen Harris

Radio 2's Janice Long

Radio 2's Janice Long

Mike Lee OBE

Mike Lee OBE

   
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, there are other bigger issues to be addressed in higher education more broadly (such as whether the target of 50% of all school-leavers going to university is too high).  There may also be questions about on-the-job training, and the development of more vocational, apprentice-type opportunities.  And we must ensure that if they are to be of direct benefit to the profession, graduates of PR degrees are able to ‘hit the ground running’, otherwise such degrees will be seen to be of little worth.  However, we must also recognise that they are more than just vocational entities. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have been so forthcoming in being part of this mission – and hope that the PRCA might take as proactive a lead as the other industry professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in being part of helping to continue the professionalisation of our industry in this respect in the coming months and years.  Believe me, it would be a much easier option for people like Sarah and me to return to the world of PR – but the ultimate prize for us all is too big, and we all have a greater responsibility!

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