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Why history matters

12 Jul

An open letter to Tom Watson

The First International History of Public Relations Conference you organised in Bournemouth last week was an important event for public relations education. The conference was large enough to have critical mass and small enough to be focused and friendly.

I detected a consensus around the need to revise the standard approach to the history of PR (from Barnum to Bernays via Ivy Lee). We clearly need more than a solely US perspective on the development of the practice, though this isn't to make an anti-American point. Your conference was notably well-attended by US academics and their contributions were vital to its success.

I found the German perspective particularly valuable (we were fortunate to have three opportunities to listen to Gunter Bentele). In a short space of time (about 150 years), Germany has experienced industrialisation, unification, fascism, communism and liberal democracy. Debates around the role of public relations and propaganda in society have particular resonance here.

But why is history important and why should it be studied and taught? Ultimately we are all history and all generations struggle with the contradictions and confusions of their times. We are no wiser in 2010 than were intellectuals living in the European Enlightenment – or those living in classical antiquity. History teaches perspective – and humility.

Claims of novelty are usually exaggerated (and not just in news releases). While the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility may have been first used in the 1950s, it's not a new concept. Similarly, public relations-like behaviour long predates the emergence of a public relations industry.

Public relations practice depends on context. History teaches a broader understanding of the forces at play (Kaja Tampere categorised these as 'economic, social, cultural and political'). When we teach students, it's context and analysis we should be teaching rather than a canon of facts. That way, we can avoid the impression that 'history's just one fucking thing after another', to quote from Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

Vince Hazleton rightly said there are two processes in historical research: information gathering and making sense of the information gathered. There were papers that presented new information based on archival and other primary research methods. And there were revisionist approaches to many well-known figures (Edward Bernays, John Hill). There is so much more potential here: I was amazed for example that no one mentioned Machiavelli in any of the papers.

Too often I heard people explain that they read history books but were not historians. This is not a useful distinction. Any academic who has written a literature review (and that's any academic) has researched and written history.

So where should we teach the history of public relations? It clearly belongs in our introduction to public relations theory and practice. It also opens up possibilities for dissertation research and could be taught at a higher level, perhaps as an elective.

Yet public relations can also be taught within the broader field of the history of ideas – and I recommend your colleague Kevin Moloney's Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy as the key text that maps out this intellectual terrain.

There are still few books in this field (here's my selection) but your conference and the resulting papers will add to this corpus and will surely spur more activity.

Thank you for this.

A new approach to education

12 May

It was always evident that whoever formed the new government, higher education would face a period of retrenchment after the rapid growth of the past decade. We're still waiting for Lord Browne's review to report, but can expect it to recommend raising the current ceiling on student fees.

Many complain about education becoming a market. Educators are faced with growing demands from students, who complain loudly if they don't receive what they feel they've paid for (this is never about good teaching, note, but about good grades).

For a marketing perspective on the problems in higher education, read Seth Godin's analysis of university courses in the US. 'Most undergraduate college and university programs are organized to give an average education to average students.'

Let's hope average courses are squeezed in a more competitive market with rising fees. But how could the education we provide become less average, while remaining affordable to many?

Here's one approach. We should welcome two-year undergraduate degrees, but under the following conditions:

  • Students should be older when they start university (either having taken a gap year, or worked, or studied for a foundation degree). We teach too many school leavers who aren't yet ready to learn.
  • A two-year degree should not simply teach more to compress the syllabus (that only encourages students to learn less). 
  • Students would be expected to meet minimum attendance requirements – at risk of losing the opportunity to be assessed.
  • Work placements should not be abandoned: space would ideally have to be made for two three-month placements as part of the course.
  • An academic year would have to become fuller: I suggest nine months, plus three months on placement. (Paid work outside the course would have to become a secondary commitment.)

Academics and university administrators will resist this fiercely: the status quo is very comfortable for very many. But Godin's right: an average education for average students is untenable in a world of rising fees and greater competition.

PR: a manifesto for change

5 Apr

David Phillips – author, consultant, academic and Fellow of the Institute of Public Relations – has built on news of the departure of the institute's director general Colin Farrington to issue an impassioned call for change within the UK's membership body for public relations practitioners.

As ever with David, there's much that's brilliant and far-sighted here, but I fear that his piece sets so many hares running that it won't amount to a clear manifesto for action.

So, to keep things simple, here are two action points that I had previously kept private, but will now air in public.

  • We need a UK forum for public relations educators and researchers. It could have been the CIPR's Education and Skills sectoral group, but this was taken in an entirely different direction. The CIPR's choice is either to facilitate this group under its wing, or to allow this group to operate independently (in the model of the Academy of Marketing or the US Institute for Public Relations).
  • University course approvals are a mess. There are CIPR-approved courses that are no longer recruiting, and well-established courses that are not approved. Public relations education at university level is at risk because changes in higher education funding pose particular problems for the 'new' teaching universities with their PR degree programmes. For the sake of the students and for the reputation and distinctiveness of the 'profession', the CIPR either needs to grasp this nettle or resign from its self-appointed role as an arbiter of educational quality.

School of hard knocks

10 May

If someone says you’re good, what do you learn? Very little. But if you (or your work) are deemed poor, then there are valuable lessons in the experience and in the feedback.

Educators want all students to succeed, but know that easy success brings few lessons.

One of the more memorable chapters from Ed Smith’s excellent What Sport Tells Us About Life is called ‘the curse of talent’. He cites an academic study from the US tracking the fortunes of a group of high school beauty queens. ‘Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse – in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness – than their less good-looking contemporaries. They had peaked too early.’

In education, failure is deemed as, well, failure (and the f word is even banished from discussions). Yet, as Ed Smith writes about sports coaching and sibling rivalry, ‘experiencing small formative early defeats made for subsequent large victories… Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script.’

MichaelYoung In last night’s remarkable Endgame on Channel 4, a corporate public affairs man played an ultimately successful part in discussions to end apartheid in South Africa. Yet he was continually being talked over and having his agenda disrupted by the stronger personalities involved in the story. He suffered many minor defeats but emerged a quietly heroic figure (and the history of public relations has too few public heroes). (Here’s an interview with the real-life character, Michael Young; it will make you reconsider the place of public relations in conflict resolution.)

The recession will give many of us opportunities to experience failure. Let’s hope we can at least learn some valuable lessons from this.

The five minute warning

14 Mar

I’m at Euroblog 2008 in Brussels, with two points to make. The first was the need for SAS (short attention span) communications in education and in public relations. The second was made by my co-presenter Helena Makhotlova: the emergence of ‘ME learning’ (mobile, electronic and about me, me, me).

But the one thing anyone remembers is our calculation of the attention span of a digital native. Five minutes… Time’s up.

PRET a reporter

11 Jan

Bagraduation07 I’m starting work on the new issue of Behind the Spin (print and online editions) – and intend to cover developments in Public Relations education and training (PRET). So, I’m looking for news of:

  • New courses
  • Conferences
  • Appointments
  • Accreditations
  • Publications

We’ll also be commissioning reviews (of books, training courses, degree programmes) and profiles (of academics and trainers).