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Are PR Schools Disconnected from PR in Practice?

Mar 1 2017

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Before I get into the thick of this one, I want to make it clear that on the whole, Canadian PR schools produce better-trained PR specialists than ever before. I have immense respect and admiration for what the talented professors and administrators do to train the next generation of PR professionals. We’re able to plug PR grads directly into internships and coordinator roles, confident that they aren’t likely to break anything (although I’m sure we can all tell a few funny stories about junior staff gone awry).

PR schools teach PR students to do the things (write a media friendly news release, event management, measure results using the Media Relations Ratings Points system and more) that I, and so many like me who never went to PR school, had to learn on the job. Armed with this know-how, there is no reason why any PR student should find it impossible to find gainful employment within a year of graduation. From this very important perspective, there is no doubt these programs are fulfilling their purpose by preparing students to work in PR.

From my point of view, however, there’s a disconnect between what’s being taught and the reality of practicing PR today. There are specific skill sets, having worked with dozens of grads over the past four years, that most, if not all, lack and are limited by in the nascent days of their careers. While they may have what it takes to get the job, the holes left in their training relating to Shared, Owned and Paid communications channels mean that newly-minted PR pros aren’t able to fully contribute to integrated (A)ESOP communications programs that depends on strategy that delivers measurable ROI. If that’s where the industry is heading, and there is general agreement that it has to in order to remain viable, the fact that grads are missing essential tools is at once slowing the growth of the industry and their own professional progress.

Now, I’m acutely aware that no professional program is perfect and that on-the-job learning is required in every industry. PR is no different and Strategic Objectives, where I work, has always been recognized as a training ground for some of the best PR pros in the country. My expectation isn’t that grads are fully formed, ready to jump into senior management roles. I’m not crazy. My hope is simply to receive PR graduates who, in addition to traditional PR/earned media skills, have a cursory grasp of how digital and social media work so they’re not scared of using these tools in a professional capacity, can contribute significantly to strategy development and understand why consumers make purchase decisions.

So how do we get there? With such a big, lofty goal, what’s most important isn’t necessarily getting there but setting forth in the first place! To that end, I am calling on PR schools across Canada to support the transformation of the industry by first and immediately offering classes in three key areas:

Consumer Sales Cycles – For brands to invest in PR, we have to do more than grow awareness and generate impressions. We have to directly contribute to boosting the bottom line. Unfortunately, knowing the steps that need to be taken to transform a consumer into a customer and how to communicate with Canadians at each point along a typical sales cycle, doesn’t jive with what we typically think of as PR. And that’s too bad. If we did think in these terms – if PR grads were trained to think in business terms – we would deliver strategies that reach target audiences at the right time, through the right channel and with the right message. That’s ROI. That’s the future of PR.

Statistics and Analytics – Far too many of the PR grads I meet suffer from anxiety at the mere mention of working in Microsoft Excel (or, gulp, using formulas!). The common refrain is that “we’re word, not numbers people.” The harsh truth is that it’s exactly this type of thinking that causes marketers to turn away from investing in PR. Marketers use big data to inform strategic direction and, if we are going to be competitive going forward, PR pros must possess the requisite knowledge to understand and synthesize complex data as well. It’s essential to everything we do – from strategy development through measurement – across all channels. A new PR pro who can make media calls is the norm. A new PR pro who can conduct a comprehensive conversation audit and pull out relevant insights is a rock star!

Web development (but not coding) – There is no question that more and more brands are earmarking more and more budget for digital marketing channels. The strategies that those of us practicing PR present must, therefore, reflect this trend. If PR pros don’t understand how a website is structured, how information is pulled from one back end database or another, or how to create a functional brand ecosystem that compels consumers through a sales funnel, how can we create effective strategies that integrate digital elements? Today, understanding how a website works, differentiating that knowledge from actual coding, is important for PR. Tomorrow (and not a distant “tomorrow”) it’s going to be absolutely essential.

Easy as 1-2-3, right? In truth, I know that adding even one of these subjects to the PR curriculum is no easy task, requiring teachers and funding and a thousand other elements I’m not thinking of. But we have to try. PR schools are in the unique position to prepare the entire industry to succeed today and tomorrow. For this reason, I am reluctantly and with the utmost respect, asking for even more.

We would love to help you continue your learning, perfect your skills and become the best PR pro you can be. Please check out our careers page for information on current openings at Canada's leading PR agency, Strategic Objectives.

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