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How to be a student

12 Oct
Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

There’s a good piece in today’s Observer newspaper on the marketisation of higher education.

The paradox is that as universities have become more expensive, they have managed to recruit higher numbers of students.

Yet a more expensive does not necessarily mean a better education, in part because of the transactional expectations of paying consumers. ‘I’ve paid. Just give me my degree!’

As a public relations lecturer, I’m comfortable with the expectation that a pricey education should result in above average earnings. There’s a strong story to tell in terms of employability – for the right candidates.

Yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of university simply as a vocational training course. For one thing, it’s an expensive and wasteful way to be trained, since most lessons learned in the first year will be forgotten by the third. More important, do 17 year-olds have an infallible instinct for what they will be doing as 30-year-olds?

I certainly didn’t, and spent part of my 20s doing things I was already aware of (teaching and publishing) before finding my feet in areas I’d not previously known about (technology journalism then public relations).

Training has its place, but you can only train people for existing industries. You cannot train people for the jobs of the future – but you can build this flexibility into a broader education.

So a university course has to provide a greater focus on education than on training. Students have choices: they do not have to go to university and they do not have to study specific courses.

If a school leaver is set on public relations, they have the option of an apprenticeship that will allow them to earn while learning.

University suits the open minded – those who’ve yet to settle on their future career, and those who are willing to learn. It’s about the journey, not just about the destination. It takes time.

Being a student is a full-time activity, even if classes only take up a small proportion of your week. Don’t moan about this – but celebrate your freedom. Look at your parents: I’m sure they have very little free time between the demands of jobs and the commitments of a family. You’ll be busier than you can imagine for decades to come, so do please revel in your new-found freedom.

As a student, you may be cash poor but you’re time rich. Here are some suggestions of how to use your time to invest in your future:

  • Make friends for life
  • Learn to cook
  • Try to manage your finances
  • Travel (lengthy journeys, not just short holidays)
  • Learn additional skills (eg languages, computer programming)
  • Dream up an idea for a new business venture

This overlaps with some more specific things that public relations students should be doing to help them stand out to employers:

  • Develop an online brand (across your blog, website and social media accounts)
  • Follow industry leaders and employers
  • Participate in online chats and attend industry networking events
  • Gain specific work experience
  • Volunteer for a cause, campaign or charity you care about

Not having a degree may exclude you from even applying for some jobs, as might not having achieved a 2:1 or above.

But please don’t become solely focused on your degree classification. Employers don’t hire you for what you’ve learnt at university: they take your good degree as an indication of your future potential. There are more and better ways to demonstrate your potential than your grades.

CIPR Fellows’ lunch

4 Aug
Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Confession: I’m an imperfectionist

24 Apr
Shipwreck, Ireland (John O'Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Shipwreck, Ireland (John O’Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Here’s the problem.

University is a tidy environment that suits tidy minds. Hard work is often rewarded and perfectionists tend to thrive. And if at first you don’t succeed, there’s usually another opportunity to try again.

Yet those same perfectionists with their first class degrees tend to hit the rocks early on in a public relations career. Here’s why.

Most public relations jobs cannot be done perfectly. Some try to do so by extending the working day, but this is not a recipe for success. It adds to emotional exhaustion and in a consultancy environment leads to over-servicing. Our always-on world of mobiles and social media have made ‘office hours’ a redundant concept.

The tidy planning and to-do lists that work so well at university (and also in junior roles) become a problem as your career advances. How do you adequately respond to a crisis if it’s not on your to-do list or in your plan?

So what’s the solution?

Each individual will develop their own approach, but it surely must involve some amount of imperfectionism. If there are no perfect outcomes, you need to stop worrying about them and focus instead on good-enough. Rather than fighting battles you can’t win, put your energies into tasks that are achievable and which contribute to your direction of travel.

There’s another approach; it’s the one I used in my consultancy career. Just as there’s a role for imperfectionists in a team, they should surround themselves with tidy-minded completer-finishers, combining agility with solidity. A flexible approach works best if you want to survive the storms ahead.

Under pressure

6 Mar

I’m busy.

I’m working for two universities in different corners of the country and currently teach first, second and third year undergraduate classes; full-time and part-time postgraduate classes and a professional course. I’m a placement tutor and a dissertation tutor among other student-facing responsibilities. Time in the classroom means less time for emails, paperwork and meetings, though the demands don’t go away.

I’m odd.

In my experience most academics seek to negotiate away classroom commitments in return for more administrative or research responsibility. I’ve only ever met two people who seemed perfectly able to balance the conflicting demands of teaching, administration and research – and they’re both now professors.

I’ve been here before.

This level of busyness reminds me of my peak in corporate and consultancy public relations two decades ago. The work and the demands were relentless: fun in the short term, very hard to sustain over a long period.

I observe.

Back then I used to wonder how the busiest business executives I worked with also managed to have the shiniest shoes. Was it that they could afford many new pairs, or was it that their efficiency extended itself to small matters of personal presentation?

In the past week, I’ve heard from the chairman of a large plc that employs 300,000 people. He appeared calm and considered. I’ve met a former high-flying BBC executive and a former university vice-chancellor and both were charm personified. They made time for additional meetings in the evening and at the weekend.

I’m busy, but my work does not involve life-saving surgery or decisions of national importance. I should put it in perspective.

Busy people are often the most productive. Stephen Waddington is a PR consultant, a family man and this year’s CIPR president. He publishes one of the best PR blogs and has co-written or edited five publications in the past two years (but I may have lost count). He seems to be everywhere. That’s properly busy.

Graduates in a spin

16 Aug

We’re in a recession, with high levels of youth unemployment. And yet the PR industry’s demand for bright young people appears to be insatiable. Each summer I find there are more employers asking me to recommend good candidates than there are graduates desperately seeking opportunities.

I’ve been teaching public relations in universities for ten years, yet even I’ll admit that a degree is not enough (and a PR degree is still not essential). So how are employers to select the right candidates?

A degree indicates something. It should indicate curiosity and an ability to learn, and this is easily assessed at interview by asking about current affairs (or sport or popular culture).

Good candidates should also have gained some experience (many degree courses expect students to spend a year on an industrial placement and there are many other chances to gain short-term work experience). If nothing else, work experience shows a candidate’s dedication and networking skills.

They will also have the right attitude. While I’d warn against hiring perfectionists, good candidates will be doers and triers. They should have something to show for their time outside the classroom and the workplace. Have they written for online magazines? Do they have their own blog? What about their presence on social networks? What about their offline activities (team sports, volunteering and so on)?

For the past two years, I’ve run a national ranking of UK PR students judged by their social media influence metrics (Klout and PeerIndex). While such metrics are a work in progress, this is arguably a better measure of PR potential than a degree classification.

Then there’s the question of change. We’re not educating young people for the PR industry of 20 years ago, but for a different world of 20 years from now. There’s been a shift from traditional media skills (press release writing and AVEs) to broader online engagement (community management and stakeholder relationship management).

Media skills are a PR tactic and these change with time and circumstances. What doesn’t change is the need for public relations advisers to help organisations to communicate, develop relationships, protect reputation and help avoid risks and crises. Risk and issues management – not media relations – is ultimately the distinguishing characteristic and distinct domain of the public relations consultant.

That sounds like a discipline that merits some serious study.

This article was first published on the PRCA blog.

How to teach (step three)

26 Jun

You’ve given a guest lecture. You’ve run one or more classes on an hourly-paid basis.

If you still want more and hanker after greater security (tenure), then the next step is to consider a permanent academic post. It looks very alluring: there are agreed limits to your teaching hours; you’re encouraged to conduct your own research and get it published; and you have the chance to shape the team and faculty through management roles.

Permanent academic roles are still very attractive, but they’re becoming more scarce and competition is increasing. So here’s what you need to know. To prepare your CV and to hone your interview skills, you need to play to your strengths. Which of the following are you strongest in?

  • Teaching and assessment
  • Management and admin
  • Research outputs

A permanent job is a dynamic mix of all three, and it’s a rare individual who’s equally good at all three. So first decide where you’re strongest and develop a narrative around this.

Next, you need to cover the other areas. Academics who are primarily interested in research are often bored and frustrated by classroom teaching. Those who prioritise teaching and scholarly activity have less time for management and admin.

It’s worth considering, too, that there’s no future in only focusing on teaching (it won’t get you promoted). All of the more senior roles (principal lecturer, head of school, associate dean etc) involve taking on more management. Professorial roles are reserved for those with the highest rated research (that brings esteem and funding to the institution).

Finally, it’s a professionalising field. Universities worried about their standing in league table rankings are increasingly expecting candidates for academic posts to have a PhD (completed or nearing completion). Note that this is a research qualification, not a teaching qualification, and there may be problems with academic researchers in the classroom, and there are problems with this stipulation in vocational areas such as public relations. (Some job descriptions allow for extensive professional experience as an alternative to a research qualification.)

So you need to think through your professional development before applying for an academic post. What relevant practice experience do you have? What ambitions do you have to become a research academic? What enthusiasm do you have for the day job (classroom teaching). What contribution will you make to management in an increasingly audited world governed by league tables, external scrutiny and student satisfaction?

If it all sounds too burdensome, then here’s a glimmer of hope. Universities are offering more fractional jobs and are open to job sharing arrangements. So your first academic post could be a part-time role alongside your existing work.

This should be an ideal arrangement. Your work as a practitioner gives you credibility in the classroom; you can offset the steadiness of one role against the commercial ups and downs of the other; and a part-time role shouldn’t mean you’re overburdened with teaching and admin duties. The challenge, though, is that you’ll be juggling ever more roles and responsibilities. The teaching may be timetabled, but the emails are non-stop and clients are always demanding. But if you’ve worked in the public relations field, you’re a natural multitasker, right?

The pattern of life

12 May

Years ending in a three may not sound auspicious; Olympics and world cups happen on even dates in the calendar.

Yet milestone events in my career have happened on the following ten-year pattern (with a keyword to summarise each ten-year phase):

1983: I was completing a Master’s degree (my second History degree) and looking for work. By September I was a history teacher. I did not know it at the time, but this was not a new start, but rather an end point to many years in educational institutions (though I’ve since returned to teaching – see below).

Opportunity (1983-1993)

1993: I tried many things in my twenties. Having been a teacher, I became a writer, publisher, editor and journalist before moving into PR consultancy work. In 1993 a left a consultancy job to become an independent public relations consultant.

Experience (1993-2003)

2003:  The independent role enabled me to take on interim contracts as an in-house PR manager and as a consultancy director, so expanding my experience. It also allowed me to make a transition from being a PR consultant to being a professional trainer in the same field. In 2003 I became a full-time university lecturer.

Education (2003-2013)

2013: I’m certainly feeling restless, and the pattern suggests it’s time for a new direction.

Development (2013-2023)

2023: In another ten years I’ll be approaching normal retirement age, though I won’t be alone in needing to supplement my various occupational pensions with some ongoing paid work.

Extension (2023-?)

As a former roguish teaching colleague put it: ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I don’t claim to be a role model in my career choices, but I do think there’s a lesson for any student in the brevity of a working life: four or five decades is all you get, even if you’re Sir Alex Ferguson.

Young people feel that life is endless – and so their greatest fear is boredom. Older people know how brief it can be, and that the greatest fear is living with regrets.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change any of the major decisions I’ve made. I gained a breadth of experience in my twenties that’s still useful (learning typesetting on an early computer was a good training for the later arrival of the web and HTML). Since my thirties, I’ve gained a depth of experience in public relations (from a practice, professional training and academic teaching perspective).

I recall a friend producing my horoscope back in the 1980s on a primitive Amstrad computer. It predicted among other things that I’d make my living out of ‘writing or teaching’. I may still be sceptical about horoscopes, but it’s proven to be a very accurate prediction of my working life. Whether it’s because of the stars or because of my personality, there certainly has been a pattern to my working life.

My skills (according to you)

30 Apr

LinkedIn skillsI’ve not been a fan of LinkedIn endorsements.

These are the professional network’s equivalent of the Facebook ‘like’ button, taking little time, asking for little engagement and requiring little thought.

(LinkedIn recommendations remain the exact opposite; they are hard won and hard to give, a gold standard.)

And yet, is LinkedIn onto something? Though each individual endorsement means little (though it’s pleasant to know that someone remembers you and thinks highly of you in some way), collectively they add up to something.

They paint a picture of your skills and expertise that’s an honest picture because it’s composed of lots of small votes.

What does this popular vote say about me? That I have expertise in public relations is not surprising as my job title (senior lecturer in public relations) proclaims it, as do my professional experience and memberships.

Next to this, I’m evidently an expert in media relations. If you add press releases to media relations, that’s my main specialism, eclipsing all others including my social media expertise.

How can I be such an expert in a field I’ve not practised for over 15 years? The vote probably comes because of the number of students I’ve taught over the years, and a few may even have read the chapter I wrote on ‘media relations’ in a well-known textbook. I can’t disown my past, and I am proud of the classes and lectures I’ve given in this field.

But is there a problem with crowdsourcing? Does it encourage crowd-like behaviour? Are some endorsing me for skill simply because they’re following the herd and being swayed by the popular vote? In verifying our past, does LinkedIn make it harder for us to reinvent ourselves?

Talent spotting

24 Mar

Studying PRThe pace of the academic year quickens as we approach Easter.

Final year students are nearing the end of their time at university – and some are looking beyond their dissertations and contemplating their next moves.

At the same time, PR consultancies are seeking the best talent for their graduate schemes and to fill existing vacancies.

This means there’s some discreet matchmaking to be done. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be able to help – and I tend to trust my instincts.

Here’s the talent-test I apply.

I’m assuming that all candidates have achieved good grades, have some credible work experience and have strong portfolios. So how to identify the future stars?

I judge my students on their ability to hold a conversation with me. It could be on a topic of my choosing, or it could be on something they know much more about than me (One Direction?). Are they curious? Are they informed? Can they explain themselves?

It’s a very old-fashioned talent test, I admit, but it’s a good indication. Any young person is comfortable in their peer group – but their colleagues, clients and contacts will not all be formed from their peer group. So their ability to relate to others is a good test.

Let’s say the question was about the meaning of Easter.

An answer revolving around chocolate reveals a rather childish self-centredness. An answer about the central events in the story of Jesus is better – but rather conventional. A discussion of the pagan origins of a spring festival more interesting still. And a discussion of the benefits of a fixed date for Easter arguably best of all for a potential PR student.

Does my talent test favour those from middle class backgrounds? Possibly so – but it also seeks out those with divergent views and experiences. Writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Alan Bennett have mined their working class origins throughout their literary careers.

The test encourages difference, not sameness. It’s surprisingly challenging for young people whose efforts up to now have been all about fitting in with their peer group.

It’s never wasted (only connect)

28 Sep

It's so easy to have regrets, usually over the things we didn't do. But nor is there necessarily a right way, or a correct sequence, for gaining experience. Here are some of the jobs I've held before working in public relations that I still draw on today in my university teaching:

  • Special needs carer. We're all different, we're all unique and there's something special in everyone. You just need time to find out what it is.
  • History teacher. Experience of school teaching is valuable in the lecture theatre. I even called on a lesson learnt in a difficult client presentation. The new boss of my main client was talking audibly to a colleague as I presented. How to respond? I did what always works best to quell unwanted noise. I stopped talking and waited.
  • Typesetter. Not quite hot metal, but the system pre-dated Apple, Microsoft Windows and visual displays. Learning a code language early on means that HTML has never seemed too scary. Acquiring the principles of typography and visual design was a valuable lesson.
  • Researcher. It often seems that everything is just a Google or Wikipedia search away. Gathering accurate facts in the world before the web involved patience, persistence and perfectionism. I was surprisingly good at it.
  • Editor. This is the most underrated and most valuable skill of all. How to spot dull copy? How to transform it into something readable? How to cut 1000 words down to 200 while keeping the meaning?