Jack O'Dwyer reported this week about comments made by Dr. Donald Wright, a professor of public relations at Boston University. Dr. Wright said, in accepting the Arthur W. Page Society's Distinguished Service Award, that the p.r. industry hasn't done enough to support public relations education. He cited a survey that showed p.r. firms rarely hire graduates with freshly-minted degrees in public relations. PR graduates account for only 10 - 15% of recent hires at the large p.r. agencies.
Prof. Wright says some 35,000 young people are currently studying public relations at nearly 700 colleges and universities. Most, he said, will not find work in the p.r. profession.
Amanda Chappel, writing at Strumpette, posted an interview with Dr. Wright that's worth a read. A key reason for the apparent failure of p.r. education is that it tends to focus more on the theoretical rather than practical. And too many schools, he said, have failed to revise and update course materials "to accommodate the reality that public relations is in the midst of a revolution that evolves new audiences, new channels, new kinds of content and new measurements."
Wright said in the interview that both the educators and practitioners have failed to keep public relations up to date.
Although I scoffed at it when it came out a few weeks ago, I can now see how the Princeton Review said a p.r. education is not needed to succeed in the field.
Yesterday I spoke with Emilie Schaum, Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer at Manning, Selvage & Lee, one of the biggest and most-respected public relations agencies. (I worked at MS&L nearly 20 years ago, where I headed the corporate-financial practice group.) I was surprised to learn that MS&L does not look for recent grads with a p.r. degree. "It's not just the p.r. degree," she said. "We look for the best overall candidate; well-rounded individuals who can think beyond the confines of a narrowly-focused education."
Deborah Levy, Vice President of Talent Recruitment at MS&L, said it would be short-sighted to only consider p.r. majors. "I've hired excellent candidates with p.r. degrees," she said, "as well as excellent candidates with degrees in psychology, communications, English, journalism, finance, government relations and business. The degree is not the only consideration. Personality, writing ability and internships are among factors we consider when hiring an entry-level candidate."
Emilie Schaum echoed a criticism raised by Dr. Wright: P.R. theory doesn't necessarily translate well into practice. She added that it's the agency's responsibility, with which I heartily agree, to train its people, teaching them the practical along with the nuances of thinking and doing that make it "your agency's way." Recruit good people and train them well, I'd add, and they'll in turn train others to do a solid, professional and ethical job, providing real value for clients.
I believe, and Jack O'Dwyer and Emilie Schaub agree, that PR would be helped if we had a strong and effective trade association (which we seem to unfortunately lack in PRSA) that would work to elevate understanding and respect for the profession. Collaboration between universities and agencies is needed to determine what should be taught in school so graduates come out with knowledge that will be practical in the workplace.
I continue to advocate for p.r. courses to be included in broader business curricula in colleges, so people in various areas of business -- and especially marketing -- have some idea of what public relations does and how it works.
Emilie put it beautifully when she told me, "This is, essentially, a new industry, especially as digital media continue to grow. We're writing in practice now the textbooks for what public relations will be in the future."