Rethinking Public Relations Education

How should social media be incorporated into a PR degree?

How should social media be incorporated into a PR degree?

I was speaking to a group of college students the other day about SMCEDU, and I asked them, “how many of you are learning about social media in your communications classes?”  About a third of them raised their hands and said that they’ve discussed the impact of social media on traditional news, about how Twitter and citizen journalists are breaking the news. Some were in media relations classes where they were learning about the differences between pitching reporters and bloggers.  But, for the most part, social media had yet to become a substantial part of their communications curriculum.  I asked them if they thought that was a problem, if they thought they should be learning more about social media in their communications courses?”  Their response ranged from the dismissive – “why would we have a class on learning to Twitter – only old people use it anyway?” – to the inquisitive  – “it’d be great if we could learn more about how these tools are being used by companies so we’d know before we got hired.”

Social media education curricula was the topic for the first #smcedu chat held a couple of weeks ago, and has been a consistent topic of discussion among all of the members of SMCEDU – teachers, students, and professional sponsors. This got me thinking…left to my own devices, how would I integrate social media into the communications curriculum at the university level?  (*admittedly, I don’t have any education training, nor have I ever taught a communications class)

I thought I’d start by looking at the current course listing for Communication majors at my alma mater, Bethany College. You may first notice that there is no “Social Media 101” or “Principles of Social Media” course listed, and I’d never advocate for that either.  That’d be like adding a class for “Business Email 101.” Social media shouldn’t get it’s own special class – social media IS media. What I would like to see though, are the principles and terms of social media interwoven throughout all of these classes.

In “Introduction to Mass Communication,” I’d like to see more discussions about how personal communications can easily become mass communication because the Web has hyperlinked everything.  Students should explore the changing models of mass communications – how int he past, content used to be broadcast to the masses, and would then be shared person-to-person.  Today, content is often shared person-to-person first, to be followed by dissemination to the masses.  Why?  How?

In “Human Communication,” I want to see the students dive down into the intricacies of how relationships created and maintained using social media are different than those that are solely face-to-face.  How does social media enhance or degrade these relationships?

In “Visual Communication,” the students should understand the visual impact of content on the Web.  How did we go from fancy, tricked out websites being a best practice to something as plain and boring as Twitter?  How and why did the banner ad die?  Why, when asked if there were ads on Google, did one teenager at the Web 2.0 Summit say, “no – are there supposed to be?”

In “Digital Skills and Information Gathering,” how do you differentiate between what’s fact and fiction online any more?  How many sources are need to verify?  What’s the definition of a source?  How do you use tools like Wikipedia and other social media as breadcrumbs to find more credible sources?

When I took “Media Writing,” I learned the AP Stylebook and how to write press releases.  Students should absolutely still learn these skills.  But, they should also learn how to write like a human being, in a conversational tone, not as a public relations machine.  They should learn what a good blog post looks and sounds like.  They should learn how to take a key message and put it into their own words, into their own writing style instead of conforming to a style guide.

Media Law” should still involve a LOT of discussion of past cases and legal precedents, an exploration of the First Amendment, thorough reviews of the Pentagon Papers trial and other landmark cases.  But, there should also be a lot of “what if?” questions that tackle today’s social media landscape that hasn’t, in a lot of cases, gone through the legal rigor that other media has.  Let’s study Cybersquatting cases like LaRussa vs. Twitter, Inc. – let’s discuss the impacts of cases like that that don’t have a long legal history, but will surely help define the environment in which these students are going to be working.

I’d rename “International Communication” to be “Global Communication,” and I’d focus not just on the differences in communication styles between Western and Eastern countries, Asian cultures and Hispanic cultures, but on how it’s just as easy to communicate with someone 10,000 miles away as it is with your next door neighbor.  I’d have my students study the differences in how Americans communicate with each other online vs. how Eastern countries do it.  Do the basic communications differences that apply in face-to-face communication apply online too?  If not, why?

In “Communication Ethics,” this class would bring up discussions about attribution in an online, shareable communications environment.  How do the old rules of copyright and intellectual property apply?  Do they apply?  What about basic human interactions – if you ignore someone who sends a DM on Twitter, is that akin to ignoring someone who reaches out to shake your hand?  Where’s the line between criticizing the service your receive from a company on Twitter and attacking the person?  If I say,”I think @comcastcares is an idiot who doesn’t know which way is up, am I attacking Comcast or am I attacking Frank Eliason? Note: Frank is awesome 🙂

I would also add a class on “Principles of Customer Service” and make “Creative Writing” a prerequisite as well.  You see, social media shouldn’t be a class – it’s interwoven throughout a lot of classes.  And this isn’t just for communication classes, this would apply to political science majors (Barack Obama’s campaign anyone?), economics majors (how has the ability to share data globally and instantaneously impacted the speed at which the market changes?), sociology (how has social media changed the way families and friends communicate with one another?).

I don’t want to hire a social media guru or ninja – I want to hire an innovative, entrepreneurial communications professional who understands how to use social media.

*In a future post, I’ll do a deeper dive into the PR 101 class, and give you my thoughts on how I’d structure an entire class.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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  • A sociology major, you’re talking my kind of talk: questioning authority and exploring social strata.

    There are several colleges around the world that are already offering courses — and majors — that are precisely what you outline above. Do some googling; and not just schools in the U.S. at that.

    I have one question: Why do you write a college student’s perception of Twitter as for old people as “dismissive?” How can a perception be dismissing anything? That’s Sociology 101. More like society which is dismissive. 😉

  • A sociology major, you’re talking my kind of talk: questioning authority and exploring social strata.

    There are several colleges around the world that are already offering courses — and majors — that are precisely what you outline above. Do some googling; and not just schools in the U.S. at that.

    I have one question: Why do you write a college student’s perception of Twitter as for old people as “dismissive?” How can a perception be dismissing anything? That’s Sociology 101. More like society which is dismissive. 😉

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  • I counted that commented as dismissive more because of the way it was said. It was almost as if, he already dismissed Twitter using the faulty assumption that “it was just for old people.” The point is that I wouldn’t expect a communications major to so readily dismiss a tool like Twitter like that.

  • I counted that commented as dismissive more because of the way it was said. It was almost as if, he already dismissed Twitter using the faulty assumption that “it was just for old people.” The point is that I wouldn’t expect a communications major to so readily dismiss a tool like Twitter like that.

  • If his teachers don’t use Twitter, if his friends don’t use Twitter, if his family doesn’t use Twitter, explain again why he wouldn’t dismiss it as a communications tool?

  • If his teachers don’t use Twitter, if his friends don’t use Twitter, if his family doesn’t use Twitter, explain again why he wouldn’t dismiss it as a communications tool?

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  • How about some independent thought? I would hope that today’s students are capable of learning about things outside of the classroom or the home. I didn’t learn about change management from my college teachers or my family yet I understood and appreciated the need for it. I don’t expect a student to just parrot back what their teachers are telling them – I expect them to learn from a bunch of different sources.

  • How about some independent thought? I would hope that today’s students are capable of learning about things outside of the classroom or the home. I didn’t learn about change management from my college teachers or my family yet I understood and appreciated the need for it. I don’t expect a student to just parrot back what their teachers are telling them – I expect them to learn from a bunch of different sources.

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  • I agree with your thoughts on this point. I am a social media person that doesn’t force the use of social media. I explain there are tools out there and the uses and what that could mean. But for some people, I just tell them, I don’t think twitter is for you.

    I think if they did a “Social Media 101” or some variant, it should be an elective class of sorts for any curriculum, but it doesn’t need to be required. Yes these tools are becoming more main stream, but they are not a required part of living a life or doing probably 70% or more of the work Americans, nay Globals Citizens do. A knowledge of what these things are should be an option, but not a feeling you must join.

  • I agree with your thoughts on this point. I am a social media person that doesn’t force the use of social media. I explain there are tools out there and the uses and what that could mean. But for some people, I just tell them, I don’t think twitter is for you.

    I think if they did a “Social Media 101” or some variant, it should be an elective class of sorts for any curriculum, but it doesn’t need to be required. Yes these tools are becoming more main stream, but they are not a required part of living a life or doing probably 70% or more of the work Americans, nay Globals Citizens do. A knowledge of what these things are should be an option, but not a feeling you must join.

  • Thanks Andrea – I like that approach as well, and that’s what’s frustrated me about some of the entry level people I’ve spoken to recently. I could care less if they’re using Twitter themselves, but they should at least have an understanding of what it is. If I’m interviewing someone for a job, and they can’t even tell me what Twitter is and why it impacts the PR industry, they might as well be telling me that they don’t use email because they prefer meeting face to face. That’s great for your personal life buddy, but that attitude isn’t going to do you much good in our line of work.

  • Thanks Andrea – I like that approach as well, and that’s what’s frustrated me about some of the entry level people I’ve spoken to recently. I could care less if they’re using Twitter themselves, but they should at least have an understanding of what it is. If I’m interviewing someone for a job, and they can’t even tell me what Twitter is and why it impacts the PR industry, they might as well be telling me that they don’t use email because they prefer meeting face to face. That’s great for your personal life buddy, but that attitude isn’t going to do you much good in our line of work.

  • Sheri

    Steve – you may be planning this for later posts, but I’m interested in what recommended reads would be for “Principles of Customer Service” and “Creative Writing.”
    Thanks in advance for any suggestions. Enjoyed the article.
    -Sheri

  • Sheri

    Steve – you may be planning this for later posts, but I’m interested in what recommended reads would be for “Principles of Customer Service” and “Creative Writing.”
    Thanks in advance for any suggestions. Enjoyed the article.
    -Sheri

  • I actually hadn’t planned on writing separate posts on those two classes. I think these are two principles permeate everything we do in PR today – we have to be able to write, and we have to understand the interconnectedness of PR to everything else in the organization, especially in customer service. You’ve given me a good idea though – maybe I will do a future post on the need for cross-disciplinary classes for PR students…

  • I actually hadn’t planned on writing separate posts on those two classes. I think these are two principles permeate everything we do in PR today – we have to be able to write, and we have to understand the interconnectedness of PR to everything else in the organization, especially in customer service. You’ve given me a good idea though – maybe I will do a future post on the need for cross-disciplinary classes for PR students…