I’ve tried them all. I’ve succeeded sometimes, but failed mostly. But here are the four ways to teach public relations:
You can teach the craft of public relations as a set of skills, for example:
- Writing news releases
- Writing and editing blog posts
- Presentation skills
This approach has the advantage of making for an interesting classroom experience – but it has serious limitations. There’s the ‘performing monkey’ danger – that you’re teaching people to do things without knowing why they are doing them. And if you’re teaching at university, what you’ve taught in the first year might be forgotten (or redundant) by the time a student graduates years later.
Guest lecturers bring great energy and insight to the lecture theatre and illuminate the practice of public relations based on their experience. There are dangers, though, in the anecdotal approach. I’ve often caught myself telling a story from the 1980s only to realise that no one else in the classroom had been born then and that the fax machine was current communications technology.
As a teaching experience, it’s limited too. I might be fascinated listening to Stirling Moss talking, but it would not make a motor racing driver out of me.
This approach views public relations as a legitimate subject to be studied. So the classroom becomes a place to explore different perspectives on the subject (many highly critital). Credit is given for citing reputatable authors and understanding their arguments, so the approach tends to be backward-looking and constrained by what has gone before. It’s the best approach for a group of sophisticated postgraduates, but risks boring undergraduate classes.
I should explain my distinction between the academic and the intellectual approaches. It’s perfectly possible for a student to produce an academically sound dissertation but not have shown much intellectual mastery. So the dissertation would contain an adequate literature review of what has been published on this topic, an essay on research methodology and some analysis of research findings. The academic approach favours the process without encouraging original thought.
An intellectual approach views public relations as applied problem-solving. So you first have to identify the problem. How to get publicity is not often a challenging problem, but most questions relating to reputation management or consensus building are complex. They’re also highly contextualised, so other factors have to be considered requiring a breadth of knowledge and insight.
Understanding the problem, applying suitable strategies and tactics and considering the implications of your actions (or inactions) makes for a complex web. It mixes the theoretical with the practical and makes public relations a worthy subject for study in higher education.
The benefits of the academic and, above all, the intellectual approach are that they provide a framework or approach for solving future problem (the skills and anecdotal approaches are limited to doing what’s been done in the past).