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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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PRSA Members Shed Light on Future of Public Relations

PRSA Cover

Download the Survey Report

As the line between communication sender and receiver continue to blur, and the concepts of news cycles and gatekeepers become outdated lexicons of an industry that is undergoing a major transformation, public relations professionals find themselves at a cross-roads.  Let’s face it – public relations itself is having a bit of an identity crisis.  Between the decline of the newspaper industry, the personalization of mass media, and the expansion of social media into every segment of the population, the image of the public relations professional of Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee has become barely recognizable.

What is the role of the public relations professional in today’s communication environment?  What does the future hold?

Well, according to a recent survey by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and Booz Allen Hamilton (full disclosure – I work for Booz Allen), the future of public relations will be marked by three topics:

  1. Justifying return on investment (ROI)
  2. Fighting to stay current with the latest technologies and methodologies
  3. Managing the ever-expanding channels of communications

“Social media tools will continue to change and evolve – we should not get stuck on a particular tool but be flexible and put our strategy to work on the appropriate platform.”
–    PRSA member and survey respondent

More than 2,000 PRSA members responded to the survey and provided their thoughts on the challenges they were facing, future trends, and those skills highest in demand now and in the future.

When asked to identify the top challenge they expect to face over the next five years, almost 60% of all respondents said that dealing with limited resources due to economic pressures would be a “great challenge.”  Justifying return on investment and finding the time to engage in online social media communities were the other two top challenges identified by more than half of the respondents.

The major findings are available in the full survey report and you can download that here.

In reviewing the results of the survey, there were a few other interesting points that jumped out at me that didn’t make it into the final report:

  • Almost 70% of respondents were women, matching closely the PRSA membership as a whole.
  • 93% of respondents identified themselves as white or causcasian
  • 29% of respondents were 32 years old or younger, the most popular age group among respondents
  • Compared to more than 40% of respondents who update their website every day, less than 20% comment on, or create content for, blogs on a daily basis
  • The skills identified most often by the respondents as being in highest demand over the next five years are strategic communications, social media, and crisis communications

On Monday, November 9th one of Booz Allen’s Vice President’s, Maria Darby (and one of my friends and mentors), will be briefing the results of this survey and discussing the future of communications and the public relations industry at the PRSA International Conference in San Diego,.  I’ll be joining her for a panel discussion following her presentation so if you’ll be there, make sure you stop by and say hello!

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The Week of Gov 2.0 – Longing for More

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Alex Dunne

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Alex Dunne

We’ve already had the Summer of Gov, but September 7-11 was the Week of Gov.  With the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase on Tuesday and the Gov 2.0 Summit on Wednesday and Thursday, plus a multitude of happy hours and networking receptions, I was immersed in all things Gov 2.0 last week.  There are already plenty of recaps, summaries, and other articles detailing the events of last week – if you’re interested in finding out what you missed, videos from all of the sessions are (or will soon be) posted here.  Watch those, and then read through all of the news coverage here for that.  Now, what I want to explore in this post is one particular topic that came up time and time again among the attendees I spoke with.

There were some very successful, very cool Gov 2.0 initiatives that were highlighted, but while I came away both impressed and inspired by the results that were discussed, I was left asking myself more and more questions about HOW the speakers got to these results.  This isn’t a criticism of these two events – I realize that I wasn’t the target audience for the Summit (that program was geared more toward C-level execs) and the Showcase was more of a teaser for the Gov 2.0 Expo coming up in May.  That’s exactly why I now have more questions than answers – I want to know about the challenges these people faced; I want to know the risks they took and why; I want to know what they’d do differently if they could go back in time – most of all, I want to know how they went from good idea to being highlighted at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase or Gov 2.0 Summit.

As my colleague Brian Drake discussed in this blog post, we both spoke with a number of people who would like to see a  Gov 2.0 Practitioner event that targets the people actually doing the work of Government 2.0.  While it’s great to hear from people like Vivek Kundra and Vint Cerf, it’s difficult for me to relate directly to their experiences or to turn that knowledge into something actionable in my day-to-day job.  A Gov 2.0 Practitioner conference that focuses on the real-life challenges, benefits, and concrete actions would help fill this gap, giving attendees a action plan for moving forward.  So while I left the Gov 2.0 Summit feeling excited about the prospects of OpenID and Government 2.0, I was also left asking myself things like, “that’s great that OpenID is coming to the government, but now what?  How do I help my client’s organization take advantage of this program?  How do I turn this great idea into something actionable for my client?”

I think there’s a very real need for an event that brings together Gov 2.0 practitioners and aspiring practitioners in one place to share war stories, to discuss what really works and what doesn’t, and to learn from each others’ mistakes and successes.  Maybe it’s another Gov 2.0 Barcamp or another event entirely, but I don’t need another event to discover the benefits of opening up my data or by communicating more transparently.  What I need is an event that tells me how I get my manager to sign off on dedicating the resources needed to make that data open and accessible. I need an event that answers these questions  (and more):

  • How do I negotiate with my IT staff to get social media sites unblocked?
  • How do I involve our Legal department when I’m terrified they’re going to shut me down?
  • What’s the best way to get people to contribute to our organizational wiki?
  • What am I missing in my social media policy?
  • How do I best get senior leadership to actively participate in social media?  Should they?
  • We still have Internet Explorer 6 – how am I supposed to get IT to support social media?
  • We have a blog, Twitter account, podcasts, and other social media already, but no one is using them – what’s the best way to build more community?
  • We have a TON of data that I want to open up to the public, but I don’t own any of it – how do I approach the owners of this data and convince them to open it up?

Would you be interested in an event dedicated to sharing these types of war stories and providing actionable next steps that you could use?  If you’ve ever left a Gov 2.0 conference and had any of these questions, then you’re the target audience!

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Tired of All-Hands Meetings? Try an INTERNAL Unconference

On July 9th, 2009, my Strategic Communications team here at Booz Allen held an unconference as an alternative to the traditional All-Hands meeting.  Big thanks go out to Chris Hemrick, who led the planning, development, and execution of this event.  In collaboration with Chris and a few other team members, we pitched the idea to our leadership as a low-cost, low-resource opportunity to network, collaborate on some of the tough issues facing our team, learn from other members of the team, and have an opportunity to get involved with the rest of the team beyond their individual project teams.

So, how did we do it?  And more importantly, was it successful?

Pre-Conference

After receiving approval to move forward, we established our “home base” – a wiki page on our Enterprise 2.0 platform – hello.bah.com.  From here, we coordinated all our planning and outreach efforts.  We established the hashtag that we would use when blogging or Yammering about the Uconference.  We also determined the agenda for the day: 4:30 – 8:30 on a Thursday night with three sets of two concurrent sessions followed by one full wrap-up session and some networking time.  Sessions were to be restricted to one slide, and session leaders were only given 5 minutes to give the topic introduction.

About a month before the Unconference, we sent an email out to the team asking for people to propose potential topics via the wiki.  Sessions were then voted on by the rest of the members of the team.  However, because this was such a new concept to a majority of the team, we didn’t receive as many topic suggestions as we had hoped for.  As such, we had to reduce the number of total sessions from 6 to just 4.

One of the important things for us was also virtual participation.  Our team is spread out all over the DC area, and all over the country.  We needed a way for these folks to participate too.  However, unlike Government 2.0 Camp or South by Southwest, a majority of our participants aren’t used to live-Tweeting.  While tuning in to hashtags like #gov20camp or #sxsw can give virtual attendees a reasonable feel for the content of the conference, that only works when hundreds of people are actively using the service, giving individual perspectives and updates.  However, this doesn’t really work when only a few people are doing it.  To address this, we decided to use both Yammer and Adobe Connect, allowing chatting and live audio/video.  We also created topic-specific wiki pages and blogs and each session was to have a blogger and note-taker who would help continue the conversation after the actual event.

We also decided on a location.  After a pre-conference walk-through, we chose Bailey’s Pub & Grille in Arlington because it was 1) big enough for 100+ people and had space for breakout rooms, 2) metro-accessible and centrally located, 3) had free Wi-Fi and 4) was informal (it’s a bar!) enough to give the vibe that this was something different.

Day of

SC Unconference

Upon arriving at Bailey’s to get all set up, we had the projectors running, chatter had started on both Adobe Connect and Yammer, the first of about 100 people began to file in, and I had a cold draft of Heineken that was calling my name.  Everything was falling into place.  After about 20 minutes of getting settled in, we kicked off with a quick introduction about why we were doing this, what we wanted to accomplish, some expectation setting (people are going to get up and freely walk around, attendees were encouraged to be honest in their discussions, etc.), and some logistics, we were off and running.

However, not all went as smoothly as we had planned (that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?), logistically or strategically.  First, we quickly discovered that the webcam microphones we were using weren’t sufficient enough to capture the full discussion – virtual attendees were only hearing the discussion leader, not necessarily the entire conversation.  Video also proved problematic as the lighting was very dark and the webcams we were using weren’t able to capture everyone around the room who spoke.  This, combined with the fact that Yammer went down right in the middle of the first discussion, really hampered the virtual attendees’ ability to participate.  They were restricted to video/audio of the discussion leader and live chat with person running the Adobe Connect session.  While this wasn’t ideal, all of these problems are easily fixable with higher quality microphones and video equipment.

The other challenge that we experienced was that the sessions themselves didn’t exactly go as we had planned.  As I mentioned earlier, we had to trim the number of sessions to two sets of two concurrent sessions.  But, we didn’t cut the total amount of time, so each session ended up being an hour long – this ended up being about 20-30 minutes too long.  This meant that the discussion ended up going in circles and off-topic a few times during the second half of the sessions.  We also found out that the effectiveness of the sessions depended largely on the topic at hand – there was one session focused on how we use social media with our clients that resulted in a lot of good discussion and learning.  However, the session I led was focused on the best way to divide and utilize our time.  This led to a lot of good discussion as well, but also some bickering, disagreements, not to mention some maybe too-candid comments.

Post-Conference

During the entire Unconference, Tracy Johnson was walking around with a Flip camera asking people for their thoughts on the Unconference.  Here’s what they said:

We sent out a survey asking all attendees what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they’d suggest doing next year.  We also briefed our leadership team the following day with our own post-event report.  Attendees seemed to say that they appreciated something different, that they liked the informal nature of the unconference, and that they would definitely participate again.  The members of the leadership team, suspicious of the idea at first, were excited to hear some of the ideas and discussion to come out of the event and agreed that it was something that should be done again.

Wrap-up

I loved having the unconference – it was a welcome change from the normal stand and talk through slides meeting, and gave us an opportunity to get together with our colleagues AND talk about how to improve our team’s operations.  The concept of an internal unconference, though, isn’t for everyone.  Before you consider an internal unconference at your organization, consider your answers to the following questions:

  1. Will there be a need for virtual participation?
  2. Does your organization have an internal microblogging service (Twitter is most likely too public for most)?
  3. Is your leadership willing to listen to criticism and new ideas, and most importantly, to DO something about the ideas and opinions that are discussed?
  4. How geographically separated is your team?  Can they all gather at one location?
  5. Are new ideas and open discussion typically valued or discouraged?
  6. Are a majority of your team introverts or extroverts?
  7. Do you have a budget to cover A/V equipment, location reservation, food/drinks, nametags, etc.?
  8. Do you have a space from where the conversation can continue after the event (wiki page, forum, blog, etc.)?
  9. Will leadership participate and encourage their staff to do the same?
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