Don’t Stop Believin’

An alternative shape for delivery of PR education?

Reflecting on what is the best shape for the most effective professional education for public relations seems to take up an ever increasing amount of my pondering time.  The relevance of PR degrees is a topic that has been much discussed before.  I have always been a strong supporter of the need for the profession to have academic degrees (every profession must have academic underpinning), but have begun to consider too whether the current set-up provides the best return for all students, for industry and academia alike.

Role for Coach and Talent Scout

Watching the excellent new series ‘Glee’ on E4 has emphasized the need to me in particular of two popularized roles – that of ‘coach’, preparing students effectively for the PR workplace, and that of ‘talent-scout’ for the industry that a conventional higher education based course director, quite rightly could not provide.  Cue tenuous excuse for a link to an extended trailer:

It could be argued that neither of these two roles is being particularly well fulfilled by the current set-up.  Providing more of an involvement for industry in the delivery of such education would also provide better scope for engaging critical reflection on the more theoretical aspects of the PR discipline, making innovation more likely, and research better informed.

Involving PR practitioners

It may also crack the thorny issue of more effective delivery of ‘Personal & Professional Development’ units, to tackle some of the more general ‘soft skill’ issues of the workplace in a more meaningful way, with the more active involvement of professionals (it could form part of their CPD).  I have heard many students compare their experience of such units to that of ‘Music and Movement’ in school.  Such issues have been explored recently in an excellent report, ‘Effective Education for Employment: A Global Perspective’, commissioned by Edexcel and Pearson, and prepared by White Loop.

Whistle-blowing, dirty washing, or too quiet?

I resigned at the end of November as course director for the BA Public Relations degree at the University of the Arts London, based at the London College of Communication.  I may return to that particular issue in a future blog entry.  It explains my radio silence for so long since my last entry.  While I was still in their employ (and in the immediate aftermath), this was for fear of an institution bigger than I ‘taking it down’ and ‘using it as evidence against me’ of something more malicious on my part.  More recently, I have not been able to decide whether I would be judged to be whistle-blowing, or merely to be washing dirty laundry in public.  Transparency can have its limits – let’s just say much of what I have seen in the HE sector would have relevance to such a discussion.

PR 'guru' Mark Borkowski with LCC Yr 2 PR students Colleen Mcleod & Course Rep Sammy Khan

Championing PR Industry Involvement

While in post for just over two years, one of the first things I did to make the academic content more relevant was to ramp-up the involvement of industry.  High profile guest speakers, specialist insights, real briefs and assistance with placements, which often turned into full-time employment on graduation were a priority.  These included:  Max Borkowski (Borkowski PR);  Sao Bui-Van (then Vice President Communications UK & Ireland, MTV Networks; now at BBC);  Colin Byrne (CEO UK & Europe, Weber Shandwick);  Dan Chung (Staff Photographer, The Guardian);  Max Clifford (Max Clifford Associates);  Bernard Donoghue (Head of Government & Public Affairs, VisitBritain);  Jill Franklin (MD, Franklin Rae PR);  Dan French (Clifford French – sports & entertainment consultancy);  Colleen Harris (former Press Secretary to HRH, Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry);  Julia Hobsbawm (CEO, Editorial Intelligence, & London’s first professor of PR);  Ian Johnson (MD, Ian Johnson Publicity);  Mike Lee (Chairman, Vero; former Director of Communications & Public Affairs, London Olympic 2012 bid);  Janice Long (Music broadcaster, BBC Radio 2); and Donald Steel (BBC Chief Communications Advisor), to name but a few.

However, whether it was on pedagogical grounds, on economic grounds (I doubt this, as the course made a substantial profit, and such an approach would be even more cost effective in the long run) – or as I suspect, simple institutional inertia, getting any of this content (which is what the students quoted as why they were on there) formalised as part of the course, or prioritised was near impossible, beyond the personal commitment of myself and my colleague, former BT corporate PR, Sarah Roberts-Bowman.

BA Public Relations graduates (2008-09) Jemma Arjun & Susan Kellie

Kate Tartsus, Lucy Pond, Cally Sheard, Richard Cain and Triinu Linhein

Wai-Lum Wong

Watching ‘Glee’ has reminded me how much I miss teaching the students on the course, and how proud I was of the recent graduating cohort.  It has also made me re-double my efforts at reflecting on what future directions education in this area might most effectively take.

A social entrepreneurial model for PR education?

Alongside university based provision, rather than seeing the number of such degrees continue to expand, is there scope to look at developing a degree model that has feet placed firmly in the profession, with validation provided by academia (rather than the reverse), built around a social entrepreneurial model of delivery?  Are there other alternative shapes for provision?  Or is the current set-up just fine, and ready for changes that will also present themselves in government HE policy?

BA Creative Advertising graduates (2008-09) Brenda Adoch-Moro & Alfred Malmros. I was lucky enough to be Alfred's supervisor for his dissertation on the role of rhetoric in advertising, for which he secured a first. He has already been snapped up by leading agency Anomaly.

New School PR? An alternative approach?

– Could such a model provide a structure for graduates to continue to deploy their skills in a supportive environment as freelancers, on behalf of the third sector or to widen the availability to PR services to those who find themselves ecluded from them, should these graduates not be lucky enough to secure employment immediately on graduation?

– Are there ways that such a model could encourage greater collaboration between industry and education, providing more scope not only for research and creativity, but for individual practitioners to reflect, and challenge the way the things are done?  It could provide a more informal or social space for practitioners at all levels (and in a range of disciplines) to network, and be joined by the brightest of the new generation of students.  As a social enterprise, the driver for events could be content, rather than prohibitive conference fees.

– Or might it simply be a case of being contracted by universities to provide more relevant work-related learning opportunities, and to coordinate top placement opportunities across the PR profession – you could say a place for the industry to do a bit of CSR on itself?

During the coming term, I’m doing some visiting lecturing for the PR Academy (which delivers the teaching of CIPR qualifications for practitioners) and the University of Greenwich (where I was part of the team that wrote the BA degree programme), but am determined to spend time reflecting on this, and talking to potential collaborators.  Do let me know what your thoughts, even if you think I’m barking up the wrong tree.  I’ve already stumbled across a similar model that is being put together in the advertising world – the School of Communication Arts – so have not been completely put off.

Photo credits:  Thom Will, Susan Kellie, Lucy Pond, Wai-Lum Wong and Brenda Adoch-Moro.


2 responses to “Don’t Stop Believin’

  1. Welcome to entrepreneurial education! For my own different reasons, I’ve also been resigning from university work and taking on more professional teaching (we’re now PR Academy colleagues, I see) and commercial training.

    When I questioned my motives for leaving a full-time job in the depths of a recession, I looked around for role models. Here’s the list of PR educators I named as inspiration (they teach, they train, they write books, but they don’t need professorships or offices in universities):

    Paul Noble (also on PR Academy’s books); David Phillips; Heather Yaxley; Michael Bland.

    Without washing any dirty linen in public, let’s acknowledge the problems facing higher education institutions. But let’s not be defeated: students and practitioner will still want training; the PR industry will still demand good candidates.

    I’m convinced there are entrepreneurial, non-institutional approaches that can and will work.

    I look forward to discussing this with you further – and perhaps collaborating on projects.

  2. As a PR MA student myself, I’ve recently completed a month long placement in-house, and I have also been wondering to what extent does theory help with practice?

    While on my placement, I did use many of the skills I’ve learnt over the past 5-6 months, but a surprisingly large amount of it went unused. It seemed to be that a personal ability to network and other social skills were the primary staple of the job. I’m not saying I didn’t use my other skills, in fact I’d have been at a disadvantage without them, but the level of practical application for parts of my course was surprising.

    Having restarted my studies, the main criticism I can make is that one month is not nearly enough. Just finding a place within the office community takes time, and with such a social industry, I am still trying to discover the line between education and experience.

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