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In praise of excellence

17 May

In my day job, I primarily have to teach to assignments. Curiosity, interest and long-term value are secondary.

Teaching to assignments is repetitive and often involves a discussion of rules (word counts, referencing conventions etc). In truth it’s a dull business (but someone has to do it).

I’m also a mean marker. By that I don’t mean I’m particularly miserly, but that I keep an eye on averages. I’m delighted to award high marks, but they will tend to be counterbalanced by low ones as marks revolve around a mean (as well as recording the achievement of ‘learning outcomes’). Yet university administrators really don’t like low marks to be awarded: it looks bad, and is assumed to reflect bad teaching and support rather than any failing on the part of the (fee-paying) student.

Luckily, the day job’s constraints have their limits. As a volunteer magazine editor for almost ten years I’ve been able to set my own rules and to strive for different standards.

What do I have to show for this dedication? Not as much as I should, but allow me to be very proud of one achievement only.

Consistency is king

After a misfiring experiment with ranking students on their influencer metrics (#socialstudent), I came up with a better formula to identify and recognise outstanding PR students. Our #bestPRblogs contest has been running for four academic years. I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the three past winners (they were the best in their year) – but to me the contest has never been stronger than this year.

It’s an exercise in excellence. It rewards exceptional achievement, but is also a long-running contest that rewards consistency over sporadic brilliance. It’s a true test of PR ability.

Here’s the breakdown. To compete, a student has to:

  • Have a blog, partly or wholly focused on public relations. Easy. Then they have to post consistent, quality content to their blog (the hard part) – and make sure that others know about their efforts (by using, but not abusing, social media channels).
  • Be selected for my pick of the week roundup. This ran throughout the academic year. 39 students from 13 universities made it. No doubt I missed several talented student bloggers, but part of the exercise involved them finding ways to draw their efforts to my attention. Most of those shortlisted were outliers, who faced no competition from classmates at their universities. They found their own way.
  • Be consistent. Those shortlisted after 24 weeks were those who had appeared most often in the weekly roundup. Some had scarcely missed a week. There’s a time and a place for brilliant, original content – but let’s not overlook the virtue of consistency.
  • Be brilliant. In a crowded field where anyone can have a blog and a social media presence, how do you stand out? Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from our shortlisted student bloggers:
    • Brilliant writing counts. It’s so simple really: good writing is easy to read. But what’s difficult is getting the balance between the personal and the professional.
    • Quality content has value. Your blog does not demand a stream of personal anecdotes or confessions. This year, we’ve had shortlisted candidates who have been editors as well as writers. They have commissioned and published interviews with practitioners. This is doubly valuable as an exercise in networking.

The strength of the leaders this year has meant there were fewer opportunities for others to force their way into the competition. There was little space for the merely ordinary.

So, just this once, let me praise some exceptionally talented individuals. Let’s recognise excellence and out of the ordinary achievement. Far from diminishing others, our shortlisted bloggers are leading by example and inspiring others. It’s the best lesson of all.

Teaching quick, learning slow

15 Dec

Education is ripe for disruption. The expense, the waste, the disappointment, the frustration.

I see this first as an educator and describe it in this paradox: the more I teach, the less they learn. But if more is less, does it necessarily follow that less is more?

Large fees and the pressure for high levels of student satisfaction mean that higher education is in danger of offering less just as paying ‘customers’ are demanding more.

So I’m not surprised that the entrepreneurs are circling. I’m glad that Richard Branson sees the irony of speaking out on education, but welcome his challenge to what we do.

Of course education can be speeded up (I’ll give some examples); but it’s growing up that takes time.

I have taught in two weeks a postgraduate course that would normally take a whole semester. We had classes from 9-1 five days a week for two weeks (that’s 40 hours of ‘contact time’) and assessed students before, during and after the teaching. It was intense; it was exhilirating. We were all in a foreign country which added to the richness of the experience and ensured near 100% attendance.

I also teach on professional qualifications which are taught over several days within a year (or by a mix of online and face to face teaching). This reduces costs and increases effectiveness.

Both approaches work well. But in the former case, these were sophisticated, older postgraduates. In the latter cases, these are practitioners who can apply the lessons to real-world contexts.

The challenge comes in the traditional space for HE – the 18 year-old school leaver. For them, HE still needs to provide a rounded education if it’s to provide value lasting a lifetime. Independence, resilience and team working are some of the soft skills that students gain by leaving home and attending university. That’s before they start gaining any specific vocational skills.

So training can often be quick, but education is necessarily slow because it proceeds at the pace of the learner, not of the teacher.

Besides, time is the most precious commodity we have. We deny our children time by over-scheduling their lives. Adults are denied time by the demands of work, living and family. University students are granted a special opportunity in being allowed time to develop.

Sure, much of this time will be wasted – or spent working to pay the bills. But some of it will be used to dream up a better future or new business opportunities. Creativity demands this cognitive surplus, and that’s surely something Richard Branson would applaud.

Without creativity, we’re just drones.

 

 

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.

 

Clue 1

17 Nov

See if you can work out who our guest will be in our class next week (hint: s/he’s a prominent public relations practitioner). The first clue is in this paragraph. For the next clue in our blog treasure hunt, you’ll need to head to:

www.thebettinsonblog.wordpress.com 

 

The power of public relations

3 Oct

Comms and caffeine 2I love teaching: it’s the hardest communication job I’ve ever had.

Let me explain this – first to practitioners who’d like to teach more, then to students.

To those who think university lecturers inhabit an ivory tower with endless free time for abstract research, let me put you straight. We’re much closer to school teachers with heavy timetables and endless admin and emails. We snatch time for study and research around the teaching, assessment and admin.

So why is it such a good communication challenge? Because teaching isn’t about you, the teacher. It doesn’t matter what you know or what you say. Teaching is all about learning, and your words can have unintended consequences.

I’ve given a version of an introductory lecture for over ten years. I show a range of definitions of and perspectives on public relations. That’s what I say. But what do students write in their essays?

They take from this lecture the lesson that it’s impossible to define public relations – which is the opposite of the intended message.

Teachers have to show, not tell. To encourage a culture of learning rather than imposing a rigid view of the world.

Sometimes metaphors help.

Some students and graduates tell me they struggle to gain work experience placements or job interviews. So I ask what methods they’ve used. It sometimes turns out they’ve been bombarding businesses with emails or (worse), hassling them through public channels like Twitter.

Is that how you’d try to get a first date, I ask. By emailing random strangers? Or by publicising your desperation?

How does this make you look to the recipient of your messages?

You need to start over and first make yourself attractive to your potential partner. In public relations terms, this means showing you can do PR for yourself before you offer to do it for someone else.

  • Do you have a blog or website? Is it up to date?
  • Check your About page and your Twitter bio
  • Scroll through your Tweets: what impression are you giving to a professional?
  • Are you a visual communicator? Then show off your Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube streams and channels

Ashley Keir-Bucknall did not believe that blogging could help her on the way to a career in public relations. Now that an employer approached her to offer an interview that led to a job, she’s a convert.

It’s a better lesson than I can teach. What’s more, Ashley’s never been in my classes; we’ve not even met, though we now work together on a spare-time project.

That’s the power of public relations. It can help turn strangers into friends.

Here’s what it takes to succeed in PR

28 Apr

Class of 2015We’re at that time of the year when graduates start worrying about jobs and careers and students are looking for summer work experience. So I’m reading lots of regurgitated advice on what it takes to succeed in PR on blogs and magazine sites.

At the risk of over-simplification, I’d suggest it comes down to just three things.

  1. Aptitude: Can you do it? Writing, social media, data, interpersonal skills, presentation skills and a nose for news are all examples of the skills you should be able to demonstrate.
  2. Achievements: So have you done it? You should be able to talk about your previous placements and jobs and say what you’ve learnt. If you’re light on experience, then you should at least be able to show what you’ve done for your personal brand. Major accolades can help too, even if they come from your hobbies rather than your work.
  3. Attitude: Do you love doing it? Fanatical about Formula One or obsessed with shoes? This is where you can turn your interest into an asset. But please avoid burning any bridges since that dream job in fashion PR may prove elusive and other sectors may be more interesting than you think as well as more lucrative. Employers will expect you to be interested in their business, not just your hobbies.

So if you’re looking to get a foot on the PR career ladder, I suggest a skills audit, a CV or LinkedIn makeover and a workout for your motivation. Remember, it’s a test: the successful PR practitioner will be able to find a point of interest in even the dullest-looking widget.

If you can gain early experience of working in-house and in a consultancy, in marketing PR and corporate PR roles, in external and internal communication then you will be open to a world opportunities and well-placed to succeed. Even short-lived and unsuccessful roles can build your experience, self-awareness and resilience.

Students and young people may feel that the odds are against them, but employers see it differently. They’re constrained only by a lack of suitable candidates. So you can get ready to succeed by focusing on your aptitude, achievements and attitude.

So, what do we make?

21 Apr
Baked by Maddy Grey

Baked by Maddy Grey

In my Creative Arts faculty, students are preparing for their degree show exhibitions.

Public relations, as so often, is a misfit. What do we make? What do we have to show for all the talk and all the work?

Advertisers have their creative visuals. Journalists have their published articles.

There was a time when we made press releases, and had media coverage to show for it. Then we made blogs and gained comments.

These artefacts are not a good way to describe public relations as they only give a glimpse of an output, never an outcome. To explain the purpose of public relations, we resort to abstract concepts such as ‘reputation’ and talk about ‘intangible assets’.

Yet most students need to start with tangibles – things they make. Only then can they explore the extent to which the things they make, make a difference.

So, in an attempt to show a product of public relations, we created a social media event (#SOSM2015, summarised by Storify), We generated scores of tweets and shared photos on Facebook and Instagram. The virtual event went well, but there was one benefit to attending in person: only then could you enjoy the beer and the cake.

So, what did we learn? Public relations makes things happen in order to make a difference. (It’s like cake, but slightly longer lasting).