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How Far We Have Come in Teaching Communications

Karen Freberg

Jan 1, 2020

In the span of ten years, technology and social changes have influenced how public relations students have been taught courses. Social media began to come of age in 2007, and now we see it ubiquitously applied, analyzed, and discussed among businesses, agencies, and professionals in a variety of contexts. Influencer marketing, social media analytics, and personal branding are now common areas of focus for PR pros and students, but this was not always the case. Students today are in the middle of this evolving and dynamic field as they apply for internships while keeping current on the latest trends and campaigns. Educators, as well as the public relations programs they teach, have had to adapt to these expectations and changes to teaching communications.

While some things have remained the same, there are significant differences on how we teach communication today versus ten years ago. Some of these changes are based on the cohort’s expectations when it comes to learning, communicating, and engaging with technology. Millennials, for example, prefer the active learning process and being able to apply what they are learning instead of receiving the information via books and lectures. Each cohort and generation that comes into play have different experiences, expectations, and views that make them unique, which makes sense.

Here are some of the things that have evolved over the past several years for students when it comes to teaching communications.

  • Many, MANY more channels to consider. Ten years ago, MySpace was still a platform that was covered in class. Now, it is part of the history of social media that is briefly mentioned. Students have to be taught not only how the channels have evolved over time, but the actions that are necessary to take in order to keep up with these channels is even more important. This evolution and keeping up with all of the different channels and outlets has become more challenging with each year, and for students who want to major and work in communications, this has become almost a full-time job for them in addition to going to school, getting experience in internships, and network with future employers. This can be displayed in the table below with the evolution of the Conversation Prism 1.0 (created by Brian Solis and JESS3) and their recent version Conversation Prism 5.0 (created by Brian Solis, Ross Quintana, and JESS3). Educators have a responsibility to prepare students for the growing expectations they will face and what needs to be emphasized in their assignments and internships.
Conversation prisim
  • Application crucial towards understanding. Most PR courses need to be structured to provide opportunities for students to apply what they are learning outside of the classroom. Modern day students are accustomed to searching for information online with a few taps to a screen. With that being said, students are now looking for more assignments, classes, and activities that will prepare them for the real world.
  • Investing in education beyond the classroom. Certifications, like the Meltwater program, have increased in numbers substantially over the years, and students are looking for these software certifications to stand out from others when applying for jobs and internships. Matt Kushin from Shephard University provides examples of this on his website of some of the assignments he has done with Microsoft and Hootsuite in his social media and StratComm classes, and Emily Kinsky (West Texas A&M), Julia Fraustino (West Virginia University) and Carolyn Kim (Biola University) are incorporating Meltwater in the classroom to prepare students for real world PR.
  • Real-time access outside of the classroom. Access is especially relevant to how students and professors interact with each other. Students have consistently preferred immediate feedback or results from their work, but expectations of wait time waiting have decreased significantly. They want a response, and they want it now. Students have multiple ways to engage with a professor from email to DMs on Twitter to texting to Facebook posting or Messenger. A few years ago, this wasn’t a common practice. Educators still set forth boundaries and expectations for how they communicate and engage with students in their classes, but we are seeing mass adoption of multi-platform communication for courses. Some host Twitter chats to engage conversations (like Melissa Janoske and Stephanie Madden from the University of Memphis) or live stream using Facebook or Instagram or use Snapchat for lectures (like Ai Zhang from Stockton University).
  • Emphasis on having a global perspective. As more students realize we are working in a global society they’re looking at study abroad programs, in addition to international internships. They now are pursuing options that include working for PR firms in Cape Town or taking courses at Semester at Sea, or even taking a year to live and work remotely like with Remote Year. Students, along with the credentials these overseas experiences provide, are pursuing opportunities that will help them grow and flourish as PR professionals. Bill Ward took students to Cannes Lions to give them a comprehensive networking experience while exploring a global event. Cannes Lions offers the opportunity for students and educators to learn more about international award-winning campaigns and meet the people behind the campaigns featured on the awards stage.
  • Understanding the importance of a personal brand. A few years ago, people were only talking about personal branding. Now, it’s a core part of what students are aware of. Who you know and who knows you are important elements to keep in mind when applying for jobs. Many PR courses cover personal branding in the curriculum, and there are even programs that specialize on the importance of this practice. In many cases, students have to venture outside of the classroom to get additional professional opportunities. This can come in the form of internships and job opportunities, like the ones MEOjobs post on a regular basis. Plus, they can network with other students and professionals by engaging in Twitter chat sessions (ex. #SMSports if you want to work in sports and social media, or Deirdre Breakenridge and Valerie Simon’s #PRStudChat), or join professional groups like Social Media Club, or PRSA.
  • Informal learning environment. Students today want to be part of the engaged and dynamic learning environment, not only as a number on a classroom grade book. They want to collaborate and contribute to the overall discussion, to make a difference with their own perspective, while helping their fellow classmates at the same time. We’re seeing the use of certain trends to facilitate an environment of constant learning, these include group activities, class discussions, and the use of multimedia platforms that incorporate coursework into real-life use.

With all of these changes, there are still a lot of elements that have remained consistent.

  • Students still need to understand the fundamental skills for PR. Research and writing are still important, and some may argue even more so now since everyone is using text lingo in their correspondences. These are first impression metrics, and students need to know how to approach an employer about a potential internship, or what it means to be professional on and offline, and the importance of applying the findings collected in research.
  • Networking and professional etiquette. Presenting yourself and making the best first impression is still important. Understanding how to use technology is one thing, but professionals want to work with students who also have the passion, enthusiasm, and commitment to be a great contributor to their team.
  • Being a lifelong learner. This has not changed for students. Learning does not stop after the class is over and finals are complete–it is often the beginning. Students, especially those in communications, are accustomed to the evolution and changes in the industry for the most part. They only need to understand what to do in order to sustain their efforts, continue building their knowledge base, and skill set for the PR field.

In summary, we have to keep in mind that software and social channels, tools, and programs will continue to evolve. What students need to stay ahead is an understanding of the skills they need to enter the workplace, and what steps they will take to become lifelong learners.