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Back to earth. Back to reality.

5 Sep

There's a feeling of 'back to school' this week. But that's not the reason for the jolt.

The reality check is the decision to fold the Media Guardian supplement (and Education and Society supplements too) into the main paper. Clearly, this is a commercially-driven decision taken because of the migration of job advertisements from print to online (and elsewhere). Decades ago, before the world of the web, each Monday's Media Guardian had page after page of job ads and was the place to find a whole range of graduate opportunities. Times change, and so does technology.

The second jolt relates to this first one. Here's a very lucid perspective on the issue of unpaid internships from an MSc Marketing student. The phrase that leaps out at me is this uncontentious-looking one: 'I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising'. Only connect. The Guardian loses its well-established Media supplement  because of the migration of classified ads online. Then ask some questions about the future of display ads and print media.

Yes, but surely broadcast ads have bounced back in the past year. Perhaps; but what's the wider picture? The future of advertising isn't in advertising. It's in creating ideas, delivering compelling communications, fostering communities and managing digital campaigns (as this student is already aware). In other words, the future of advertising looks very like public relations…

Hopefully smart graduates are alert to this. Hopefully their lecturers and textbook authors are too. But I very much doubt that university marketing and management teams are when they offer courses that appear to promise glittering careers in glamorous twentieth-century industries that evoke a Mad Men world.

Bump. Back to reality.

There may be trouble ahead

15 Jul

Graduation We have a problem. There's a perfect storm approaching for students and universities. Oversupply of graduates is meeting a shrinking jobs market just when the cost of higher education is about to jump.

What's a young person to make of this? They should shop carefully and decide whether and when higher education is the right decision for them. Education is priceless and the opportunity university brings is valuable. But it's not about the degree certificate alone; it's about the journey. Where should you begin your journey (which city, which university)? What should you study?

Students will have to become more businesslike, starting with 'brand me'. Most are already holding down one or more paid jobs while studying, and should gain credit for their work outside the classroom where it adds to their independence and employability.

What's a university to do? We have to prove our value in a crowded and competitive market. Value starts with staff and buildings but extends to alumni and other networks. What have former graduates gone on to do? What do they say about the course? What do employers think of our graduates?

There's more to education than money and more to degrees than careers. But we can't ignore the cost-benefit analysis that young people and their parents will be conducting.

I anticipate a shift from 'full-time' education of 18 to 21 year olds towards different patterns of adult education, workplace learning and continuous professional development. None of this is new, but there will be renewed impetus from 2012. University buildings will need to be occupied for more than half a day for half the week and half the year.

I also anticipate a shift in emphasis from producing employable graduates to developing entrepreneurial young people. This is exciting – but very problematic for business schools. Would an entrepreneurial young person be better advised to invest £50,000 in their business or in their education (an approximate cost of tuition fees plus living expenses over a degree course)? It depends…

A suitable candidate for company graduate schemes is likely to be a conventional team player. The successful  entrepreneur is likely to be a stubborn, thick-skinned individualist. Which personality type suits the classroom better?

Then there's a cultural problem. Mass higher education has worked hard to reduce failure and so operates in a fail-safe culture. Innovation requires lots of experimentation – including much failure. Since failure is the necessary flip side of success, we will need to learn to embrace it. Risk will need to be taught as a good thing, not as a problem as now.

Trouble ahead? If I think as an entrepreneur, I see plenty of opportunity in education. In the meantime, we're celebrating another batch of graduates next week.

Photo by digitalkatie on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graduateness without a degree (21 by 21)

16 Jun

I spoke to a class of sixth formers about university this week. They, remember, will be the first group having to fund fees of up to £9,000 a year if they choose to go to university.

I told them that except for a few specific professions (like medicine), a degree is still not an absolute essential – but gaining 'graduateness' will be vital for their future success. (I told them I wanted them to go to university, but even more than this I wanted them to want to go.)

The challenge now is to articulate what I mean by graduateness. To kick this off, here's a list for discussion of '21 things to achieve by age 21' – suitable for graduates and non-graduates alike. What would you add or change?

21 by 21

21 things to have achieved by age 21


  • Have raised money for a good cause
  • Have campaigned in an election or for a cause
  • Have written to your MP
  • Have a track record of volunteering

Media literacy

  • Have had a letter published in a newspaper or have appeared on television
  • Have your own blog or personal website
  • Have a following on social media (eg 500 Facebook friends; 100 Twitter followers)
  • Can name your five favourite novels (and say why you've chosen them)
  • Can discuss and explain the day's news headlines

Entrepreneurship and independence

  • Have started your own business
  • Have gained demonstrable team-building and leadership qualities
  • Have lived independently and learned to budget
  • Have cooked a meal for six or more

Global outlook

  • Can speak a foreign language
  • Have lived abroad (not just visited on holiday)
  • Are sensitive to cultural and religious differences

Personal achievements

  • Have the expected grades and qualifications – plus something extra
  • Must have sound basic literacy (spelling) and numeracy (counting) skills
  • Endurance (eg have run a marathon; have walked 100 miles)
  • Can explain your passion for sport/fashion/celebrity/music etc
  • Have in addition to this some notable musical, artistic or sporting skill, or an unusual hobby

Am I too unambitous? I can think of some current first year students (who may be 18, 19, 20, or 21) who have already ticked off most of this list.

University lecturers: the three tribes

17 Apr

Watching the English Inspired by re-reading a popular piece of social anthropology, I thought I'd proposed three types of university lecturer. I'm aware that many practitioners are curious about – even envious of – our working lives, so this portrait may provide some useful clues.

I've studied at two universities, taught at four and visited many more in an external capacity, so these portraits are composites rather than depictions of individual colleagues.

Here are my three tribes.

One: the research academic

The popular picture of the absentminded professor could not be further from the truth. Members of this tribe are single-minded in their pursuit of the truth through fundamental research.

They descend (in approach; not genetically I hope) from the desert fathers of early Christianity, and share many ascetic qualities with them: you'll find a disproportionate number of marathon runners among this tribe.

They differ from the 'media don', an attention-seeking bon viveur who is far from ascetic. But in our discipline, I've never encountered this type. I suspect they're all still working as consultants.

Two: the multitasking manager

This is a familiar PR type. They can manage multiple projects and keep tabs on many concurrent relationships. In their home lives, they're often parents. At work, they're good process people as they keep on top of the (electronic) paperwork. If there's a drawback, it's that they'd rather be managing a course than teaching a class, the function of the third and final tribe.

Three: the teacher and mentor

This tribe is primarily focused on the process of teaching and learning. Their domain is the classroom. While this would seem to be central to the purpose of universities, it's not for the ambitious as pay and promotion do not come from routine classroom teaching (the older universities often delegate this to research students or teaching assistants). Their job satisfaction is similar to that of a school teacher, with whom they share many frustrations. Yet they have the compensation of being sought out for many photographs on graduation day.

Is this you?

In truth, these three tribes are not mutually exclusive and high achievers must combine aspects of the researcher, manager and teacher roles. But I hope it's clear that each role calls on a different part of the brain, and different levels of emotional and academic intelligence. It's very rare for one individual to do them all equally well.

Why Sundays are still special (in PR)

16 Jan

On the face of it, there's nothing special about a Sunday. It's just another shopping day; just another day of professional sport.

Sunday is a religious holiday for just one of the world's three great monotheistic religions – and in this part of the world only a minority attend church regularly.

Yet a Sunday is still valuable as a punctuation mark in a busy, monotonous week. It's a pause; a semi-colon (like that).

When PR people were primarily media relations advisers, the better practitioners knew the value of announcing news on a Sunday. The 'Sunday-for-Monday' story was well-established practice, since Monday's newspapers are being produced from quiet newsrooms today and there's less competition for space in a Monday paper.

Something similar is going on in the blogosphere. It's a quiet day, so a good time to get noticed (or to get ahead of the pack by preparing for the week ahead).

Here are three blog posts I've noticed today. What's more, they're all reflections on milestones in life from three different ages of man (and woman). Leading with the youngest first:

  • Jazz Chappell has life ahead of her, and I hope to help not hinder by highlighting her exceptional early promise.
  • Wayne Burdett is in a tougher place having graduated in a recession and during a period of public spending cuts. He's charting his challenges in finding worthwhile work and I hope the process of blogging will help (it should be cathartic, at least).
  • Shonali Burke wishes herself a happy birthday and provides a photo gallery of her serene-looking progress through life.

(I've not met any of these three, but feel I'm getting to know them through social media).

New year, PR career

13 Jan

Careers I seem to have been busy giving careers advice recently.

I've also been discovering several new student and graduate blogs and enjoying learning about your journeys through life.

The careers advice is so consistent that I've decided to curate and aggregate the best advice for those embarking on a career in public relations.

There are three steps: join in at whichever point you feel you're at.

Step One: Before

Here are some things to be doing before you put in any job applications for paid, permanent work.

  • Do some PR for brand you. Are you blogging? Are you on Twitter? What does your social media profile say about you? Are you developing an online portfolio?
  • Listen and learn from these role models (three students and a graduate): Michael White, Clare Siobhan Callery, Lauren K Gray, Ben Cotton. (One thing you'll immediately notice is that they're all proficient in WordPress. Another is they mostly own their domain names).
  • If you don't have a PR qualification and you don't make it directly onto a graduate scheme offering training, then you should consider a professional course. These start with the CIPR's Foundation Award, which Karl Booton has just gained.
  • [Update] Come along to this free seminar in Leeds on 3 February: How to break into PR

Step Two: During

Interviews vary, but there are certain things you should consider, and questions you should be prepared to answer:

  • It's about them, not just about you. What do you know about them? What questions do you have for them? Why would you like to work there?
  • It's about the wider world: What are you reading? What are the headline news stories? What are this year's new trends?
  • It's about a profession: What is public relations and why are you suited to PR work?

Take note of Michael Higham's advice on applying for graduate schemes. And note Ben Cotton's list of 2011 graduate schemes.

Step Three: After

It's a mistake to think you've finished learning once you've graduated. You need to start all over again (and at a much higher level of intensity). Don't believe me? Listen to Justin McKeown:

'Pay your dues. When you are first starting off in a career in PR, you really need to ring fence a few years just for gaining good, hardworking, unglamorous experience. Get your head down and slog, rather than thinking about the glory.'

And take note of Katy Jameson's lessons from her first few weeks in a graduate job.

Notes from a short speech

19 Sep

[Here are my notes and links for a short welcome talk to first year PR students]

Katherine Shentohn Congratulations etc.

This is a great time to be studying public relations.

  1. Private sector recession followed by public sector cuts
  2. Good time to be at university before fees rise and/or places contract
  3. You'll be studying a young and fast-developing area (trade publication PR week has just celebrated its 25th anniversary)

Public relations is now a high profile business (in the last century, it was invisible alongside journalism and advertising, say). But is this high profile necessarily a good thing?

Back to reality… There are opportunities out there for those who can study, work hard, gain experience and keep on learning. 

Look how Leeds Met PR graduate Graeme Anthony is trying to find an opening in London. He's using his skills and creativity to do some personal public relations. 

And three Leeds Met PR gradutes from 2007 have just been shortlisted for Outstanding Young Communicator Awards in the CIPR PRide awards: Katherine Shenton (photo) in the North East; Amy Bullard and Lorna Gott in East Anglia.

New job, no news

2 Sep

'Never go back' has always been a useful motto – as well as a statement of the obvious given the inexorable passage of time.

So why am I disregarding it and returning to my old lecturing job at Leeds Met? Well, I do so a bit chastened, but with some relief. I also do so humbly, knowing there were some good candidates in the running.

I've had a mixed time since leaving full-time employment almost two years ago. 2009 was a difficult year that ended in disappointment (let's just say that the timing wasn't right for me at the University of Gloucestershire). 2010 has been busy and challenging (how many university lecturers work flat-out in August, including several weekends?), but the highlight was leading a summer course for high-achieving graduates studying with Johns Hopkins University.

The cash flow has been acceptable – but as a freelance you live with uncertainty and the constant threat of famine. I hope not to lose sight of my instinct to take on new challenges despite returning to the payroll.

'Not exactly a team player' was a damning but truthful comment made of me in a graduate interview I attended long ago. Despite this, I value loyalty. I've continued working for Leeds Met despite 'leaving' and I'm immeasurably grateful for their loyalty to me. I value the contact with students and graduates too (another two-way street as I often find myself writing references and giving advice).

Opposite of exotic

Before the resumption, I'm taking some days' leave (holiday would be a misleading term). One of the side-effects of being married to a travel writer is the decision over holidays: we often choose not to go far.

Next week, we'll be on a small island off the north west coast of Wales, living in a house without electricity, running water, internet or even a phone signal. There are no shops, few people, no roads. Nothing. Our holiday is about the absence of things. This may sound strange, but until recent decades most of humanity has lived like this. Many of us in western societies could benefit more from the absence of things than from yet more surplus.

Gail recommends it highly. Perhaps I'll find another reason to break my 'never go back' motto.

Advice to graduates: don’t be hopeless

29 Apr

Students are about to graduate with record debts and into a challenging jobs market. I fear many will be unprepared for the challenges ahead. Why?

Bill Sledzik and Todd Defren have been offering some overdue tough love to a millennial generation that has had it easy up to now and which has a strong sense of entitlement and of their abilities. Yet as Sledzik writes:

"Everyone isn’t above average in all they do. And in real life, only the winner gets the trophy."

So is it a hopeless situation? Not at all.

The best public relations graduates are still highly sought-after. Read about Katy Jameson's experience here (and note that I welcome more graduate tales for Behind the Spin).

Then there's the comparison with others. Journalism graduates, say. Note how this advice (8 things college journalists should do before they graduate) is applicable to PR graduates. To summarise:

  1. Create an online portfolio
  2. Blog
  3. Network
  4. Get a new wardrobe (this is less applicable to PR graduates, in my experience)
  5. Clean up your social media profiles
  6. Talk to your professors (we have networks too)
  7. Band together
  8. Have a plan B

Here's a prediction. Whatever the outcome of the election, there will be fewer places at university and the fees students pay will be very much higher in future. You'll soon be looking back on a golden age of carefree and low-cost living. If it can also help you to a good graduate job then you'll be well placed.

Cold feet: my difficult year

11 Dec

This is awkward, embarrassing even. I'm often asked by students and graduates to be a referee and frequently find myself giving careers advice. Yet I'd not recommend anyone follow my path.

My decision of a year ago to leave a big course in a big university for a small course in a small university (well, 'small is beautiful' right?) has not proved to be a wise one in hindsight. Or, if wise, then circumstances have not proved auspicious. So I'm leaving (again).

MCheltenham-Dec-weby final teaching week ended on a high, with one group delivering some strong work – and then joining me afterwards for drinks (see picture). Other groups presented ideas for a 'safe, sensible, social' anti-binge drinking campaign at police headquarters, with the winners receiving concert tickets donated by pub chain JD Wetherspoon.

Meanwhile, I've been glad of some continued involvement at my old university – and distance has changed my perspective. It was a pleasure to join the team's seasonal celebration last night, and I'm impressed by the way many students are developing.

On other fronts, I've been kept busy as a specialist CIPR Diploma tutor (online and face-to-face); I'm looking forward to leading a summer school in Italy for an American university next year, and I will soon have some capacity to take on more private training and consultancy work.

I've traded security and status for uncertainty and independence – and the arrangement may suit me. But I realise it's not for everyone. 'Do as I say, not as I do'.

But there is a lesson in this for everyone. We live in a surprisingly small world and the most valuable thing we can accumulate is our reputation. The lesson is to never burn your bridges and to treat everyone with respect. I'm writing references for students now, but who knows when I might need their references and recommendations?