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Undergraduate Education

The knowledge and skills required of public relations practitioners have not changed much in content over the past seven years. But they have been significantly refocused and repositioned in terms of priority and emphasis.

Recent research provides a deeper understanding of the demands on and changes affecting the field of public relations. There is a clear need to put more emphasis on particular issues and trends in the field such as ethics and transparency, new technology, integration of communication messages and tools, interdisciplinary problem-solving, diversity, global perspectives and research and results measurement.

Undergraduate public relations education has been shifting and repositioning itself in step with the shifts in the practice of public relations. Those academic programs that consciously aligned themselves with the recommendations of the Commission’s 1999 report have found themselves well-positioned to respond to trends and changes in the field as they have occurred. Such responsiveness points to a closer working relationship between educators and practitioners than may have been the case five years ago.

Progress and Change Since the 1999 Report

In the field of public relations, the greatest changes/advancements have been in the areas of diversity, technology and global communication. Crisis communication and social responsibility have also emerged as essential public relations functions.

The public relations industry is under increased scrutiny to embrace and demonstrate its ability to diversify its workforce and communicate across cultures, races, genders, sexual orientations, languages, ages and other dimensions of diversity. When practitioners fail to do so proactively, with sensitivity and understanding, negative activism and negative attention directed toward organizations often result. On the contrary, when practitioners aid organizations in developing mutually beneficial relationships among diverse publics, organizations thrive. Incorporating elements of inclusion and diversity throughout the undergraduate curriculum is therefore essential to adequately prepare future practitioners for the roles they will play in such relationship-building.

...(P)ublic relations education must be interdisciplinary and broad, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences.

Web sites in this millennium have gone from being a corporate frill to an organizational necessity. Blogging has become both a threat and a tool for organizational communication, and public relations professionals must monitor blogs (and, in some cases, respond to them) in an effort to protect, maintain and defend reputation. Consequently, some colleges and universities are beginning to develop courses to teach skills necessary to use these new technological tools. Other programs, noticing that web sites and blogs are often lacking in quality and style, emphasize adapting traditional skills such as writing to the new technology.

As international trade and commerce continue at a rapid pace, as U.S. companies seek outsourcing as a method of increasing profit margins, as arguments flair over immigration, as issues such as terrorism and health pandemics face the entire globe, practicing public relations internationally and not just locally has become a requirement, not an option. Some undergraduate programs are adding global content (which is popular among students), and some are offering a semester abroad with internship opportunities in addition to courses in culture, language and international history.

As the news media, in an effort to compete for readers and viewers, concentrate on crises and scandals, companies and organizations are feeling the need for public relations departments and practitioners to protect their reputations and lead crisis communication planning and response. Issues management, crisis management, community relations and relationship-building have been key foci of research and practice, particularly post-9/11 and post-Enron. These foci have transitioned from research into the classroom and are being taught as part of the public relations curriculum. The inclusion of public relations at the management level in dealing with these issues and crises has precipitated a move toward interdisciplinary undergraduate education. Rather than directing students to complete courses in relevant disciplines such as business and social/ behavioral sciences, some of the content of those kinds of courses is being incorporated directly into the public relations curriculum.

Even with educational programs keeping pace with changes in industry, the shortage of faculty with appropriate academic and professional qualifications continues to plague public relations education. The shortage of faculty with a doctoral degree might actually be called a crisis. As programs grow and expand with more classes offered, students are increasingly being taught by faculty not qualified in public relations. Some see a solution through joint Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs providing academic training for practitioners who are parttime instructors interested in qualifying for full-time positions. Meanwhile, the competition for doctoral talent is exacerbated by the growing global interest in public relations education. Faculty with public relations Ph.D.s are being recruited to join faculties outside the United States.

Finally, the trend toward outcomes assessment at colleges and universities corresponds to the trend toward better measurement and assessment in the field. Assessment in public relations education focuses on basic standards of performance. Many programs are therefore implementing summative evaluation (i.e., portfolio reviews) of public relations students as they approach graduation to determine whether basic standards have been met. There is also heightened interest in tracking graduates to assess placement and career paths.

2006 Recommendations

As the field of public relations has changed since the Commission’s 1999 report, education has kept pace with those changes. So, while the fundamental knowledge and skills recommended by the 2006 Commission have not changed since 1999, the Commission suggests a need for refocusing and realignment in terms of what is most heavily emphasized in an undergraduate public relations curriculum. The purpose of an undergraduate degree is still to prepare students for entry-level positions and to advance over the course of their careers into leadership roles. But what they need to know and be able to do has shifted somewhat.

Research suggests that professional success requires that the right knowledge and skills be accompanied by appropriate personal traits, and certain attributes have been identified as developmental necessities. It continues to be crucial that graduates be responsible, flexible and professionally oriented self-managers. For communication to occur with and among diverse audiences, individuals must be able to respond and adapt to new and changing situations and to feel comfortable in having to make such adjustments without giving up personal identity. Students must have intellectual curiosity and be able to think conceptually. They must have positive attitudes and be able to take criticism. They must be organized selfstarters who take initiative to solve problems. They must be both creative and pragmatic, and they must have integrity as team participants and leaders. Students should be able to demonstrate respect and empathy; even if practitioners do not belong to a group or agree with it, a practitioner must be able to show appreciation for those who are different and be able to understand others’ cultures and perspectives.

Therefore, public relations education must be interdisciplinary and broad, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. A minor or double major is recommended to broaden students’ education and knowledge base.

The following reorganization of the knowledge and skills identified and recommended in the 1999 Commission report reflects current research on requirements for successful entry into the field.

  1. Necessary Knowledge and Skills

    The following knowledge and skills should be taught in an undergraduate public relations curriculum:

    Knowledge
    • Communication and persuasion concepts and strategies

    • Communication and public relations theories

    • Relationships and relationship-building

    • Societal trends

    • Ethical issues

    • Legal requirements and issues

    • Marketing and finance

    • Public relations history

    • Uses of research and forecasting

    • Multicultural and global issues

    • The business case for diversity

    • Various world social, political, economic and historical frameworks

    • Organizational change and development

    • Management concepts and theories

    Skills
    • Research methods and analysis

    • Management of information

    • Mastery of language in written and oral communication

    • Problem-solving and negotiation

    • Management of communication

    • Strategic planning

    • Issues management

    • Audience segmentation

    • Informative and persuasive writing

    • Community, consumer and employee relations and other practice areas

    • Technological and visual literacy

    • Managing people, programs and resources

    • Sensitive interpersonal communication

    • Critical listening skills

    • Fluency in a foreign language

    • Ethical decision-making

    • Participation in the professional public relations community

    • Message production

    • Working with current issues

    • Environmental monitoring

    • Public speaking and presentation

    • Applying cross-cultural and cross-gender sensitivity

  2. The Undergraduate Curriculum

    The undergraduate public relations curriculum must continue to be strongly grounded in traditional liberal arts and social sciences. Coursework in public relations should be built on a foundation of liberal arts, social science, business and language courses. More than ever, this knowledge base must be interdisciplinary. Principles of public relations and management must be intertwined with and related to business, behavioral science, technology and other disciplines. Changes in the field of public relations demand integration of the knowledge and skills of these disciplines. With the growing need for students to be completely conversant in principles and practices of business, there is a parallel need for them to master principles of etiquette and professionalism.

    Globalization now requires more attention in today’s public relations education. It is not enough to offer a course with a global focus. Global concepts must be integrated throughout the curriculum because many students will be addressing issues related to globalization, diversity and multiculturalism as they enter the practice of public relations. Fluency in a language other than English also is desirable.

    Given the organizational crises of recent years, ethics and organizational transparency also require emphasis across the public relations curriculum. Similarly, relationship-building has become a critical skill. In preparation for working with diverse publics and global issues, students will need to learn that establishing trust and acceptance among publics begins with having a clear understanding of those publics and demonstrating sincerity and commitment.

    Technology and its use and abuse have become another important consideration in public relations practice. Students must not only understand current technology and its use, but must develop skills that will enable them to adapt to rapid changes and advancements. It is insufficient to train students to use current technology; they also must be able to identify and analyze new technologies as they emerge, understand the ramifications and implications and develop strategies for using the latest technologies and dealing with their effects. Technology will not be sufficiently addressed if isolated from the rest of the curriculum; the only effective way to prepare students for the rapid changes they will face is to integrate the study and use of technology across the curriculum.

    More critical than ever is the need for solid research skills and the ability to interpret and use research in decision-making. Students must be capable of conducting research, analyzing and interpreting data and information, integrating research into planning and management and conducting evaluation that demonstrates results. In conducting secondary research, students should recognize that a variety of voices exist and that many people on the fringes of society, or outside the mainstream or center, are often not adequately covered in media and other published works and therefore won’t be represented in secondary research sources. Similarly, when learning about primary research techniques, students should recognize the influence that culture and other aspects of diversity have on research design, methods, participants, analysis and presentation of research. And greater emphasis needs to be placed on using solid research to design and manage messages. Not only must students be able to design messages that motivate publics to action, they must be able to manage the distribution and flow of messages to ensure publics actually receive them and that dialogue is facilitated.

    Finally, the ability to incorporate the internal audience into public relations planning and communication is increasingly required in meeting the challenges and opportunities presented to an organization. Whereas organizations have always identified employee publics among those considered important, human resources departments increasingly are expecting public relations to manage employee communication, a change from the days when human resources considered communicating internally to be its exclusive purview.

  3. Content of Undergraduate Courses

    The following topics are all deemed essential to a strong undergraduate education in public relations regardless of the course(s) in which they are taught. While many of the topics lend themselves to be framed within a specific course, care must be taken that the concepts, knowledge and skills described above are integrated throughout the public relations curriculum so students better understand the interdisciplinary nature of the practice.

    • Theory, origin, principles and professional practice of public relations: the nature and role of public relations, the history and development of the field, theories and principles underlying PR practice and the societal forces affecting the profession and its practice. Important to include are the societal mandate and ethical justification of public relations in a democratic society and free-market economy. Also included are practitioner qualifications (including education and training), responsibilities and duties, diversity competencies and skills, functioning of public relations departments and counseling firms and life-long learning and professional development. Also included are a variety of specializations in public relations such as community relations, employee relations, consumer relations, financial and investor relations, governmental relations, public affairs and lobbying, fund raising and membership development, international and cross-cultural public relations and publicity and media relations.

    • Public relations law and ethics: including codes of ethics and practice in public relations and in other professions; ethical issues and trends toward greater organizational transparency and core values; specific legal issues such as privacy, defamation, copyright, product liability and financial disclosure; legal and policy considerations relating to diversity in the workplace and in communication and legal and regulatory compliance.

    • Public relations research, measurement and performance evaluation: including quantitative and qualitative research designs, processes and techniques such as publicopinion polling and survey research; experimental design and research; new research methods and tools; fact-finding and applied research; observation and performance measurement; social, communication and employee audits; issue tracking; focus groups and interviews; use of external research services and consultants and the ability to effectively direct their efforts; media and clipping analysis and historical research. The emphasis should be on measurement of tangible results in evaluating program effectiveness, staff and counselor performance; criteria for performance; and reporting the results of evaluation. The impact of culture and diversity should be carefully considered.

    • A minimum of five courses should be required in the public relations major.
    • Public relations planning and management: including theory, techniques and models related to setting long- and short-term goals and objectives; designing strategies and tactics; segmenting publics and designing effective messages; identifying appropriate channels to ensure message receipt; analyzing problems and opportunities; communicating with top management; developing budgets; contingency planning for crises and disasters; managing issues, developing timetables and calendars; and assigning authority and responsibility. Diversity should be well-integrated into the content and should include the business rationale for diversity in organizations and the demographic changes within countries and across global communities that affect the role and practice of public relations worldwide.

    • Public relations writing and production: Public relations writing is an essential, discrete skill that is not fully addressed in journalistic writing, composition or creative writing. Content here should address communication theory; concepts and models for mass, interpersonal, employee and internal communication; new and emerging communication technologies and their use and abuse; organizational communication and dynamics; communication with diverse audiences and across cultures; persuasion and propaganda; controlled versus uncontrolled communication; and feedback systems. It also must include competency in such skills as design, layout and graphics; electronic media and Web publishing; speechwriting and delivery; spokesperson training and speakers bureaus; corporate identity and reputation; photography and filmmaking; and working with outside suppliers. It requires a solid understanding of media, media channels, the societal role of media and the challenges in the explosion of electronic and digital media vehicles. It includes message strategy and delivery (i.e., planning, writing, producing and delivering communication to publics in all media channels). It also includes a focus on designing messages to be sent in channels that will ensure publics receive and act on them.

    • Public relations action and implementation: Content includes the actual implementation of campaigns; continuing programs (e.g., product publicity and safety); crises and isolated incidents; individual activities of practitioners and firms, clients and employers; meetings and workshops; and special events. It should include ongoing evaluation of efforts and corrective action based on results measurement while a campaign or program is in process.

    • Supervised work experience in public relations: Internships and other pre-professional work experiences have become essential in public relations education. These practical experiences must be supervised by faculty and practitioners who cooperate to provide professional experience directed by learning objectives and assessed throughout to assure a quality practical educational experience. Students should be sufficiently prepared by prerequisite courses to receive and complete substantive assignments that prepare them to apply the skills and principles they are learning in their programs.

    • Disciplines related to public relations: Supporting disciplines that provide appropriate supplements to public relations educational programs include intercultural communication, international communication, political communication, organizational communication, interpersonal communication, rhetorical communication, small group communication, psychology, sociology, marketing, management and organizational behavior, finance, journalism, radio and television production, advertising, photography, filmmaking, art design and graphics, information technology and new technology. Students should be encouraged to pursue a double major or minor in a related area of interest.

    • Directed electives: Certain content in other disciplines should be considered essential for the development and preparation of public relations professionals. It is recommended that public relations education become truly interdisciplinary and that content in these areas be integrated into public relations coursework as described above. Nevertheless, more in-depth treatment of the content in related disciplines may be desirable through elective courses to supplement the core public relations and communication courses. Recommended disciplines for inclusion are business management, marketing, accounting, finance, economics, consumer behavior, political science and the political system, public administration, social psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, English and English writing, political science, including government and political campaigns, intercultural communication, ethnic and feminist studies, and international business and communication.

  4. Content Configuration in the Undergraduate Curriculum

    This report affirms the 1999 report’s identification of the following courses for an ideal undergraduate major in public relations:

    • Introduction to public relations (including theory, origin and principles)

    • Case studies in public relations that review the professional practice

    • Public relations research, measurement and evaluation

    • Public relations law and ethics

    • Public relations writing and production

    • Public relations planning and management

    • Public relations campaigns

    • Supervised work experience in public relations (internship)

    • Directed electives

    Although some academic programs will find it difficult to offer seven courses devoted entirely to public relations, the Commission believes the topics covered in the courses above are essential for a quality public relations education. While these topics could be combined into courses in different ways, and some of these courses might also address additional topics, a major should offer sufficient courses to address the knowledge and skills identified as necessary for success in the field.

    A minimum of five courses should be required in the public relations major. An academic emphasis should minimally include these courses:

    • Introduction to public relations (including theory, origin and principles)

    • Public relations research, measurement and evaluation

    • Public relations writing and production

    • Supervised work experience in public relations (internship)

    • An additional public relations course in law and ethics, planning and management, case studies or campaigns

    Programs that offer minors should make it clear that a minor in public relations is not sufficient to prepare students for the professional practice of public relations. Nevertheless, programs may offer minors in public relations to enhance the understanding of students in other professional disciplines that use or cooperate with public relations. A minor in public relations should specifically address the knowledge outcomes identified above rather than just the skills outcomes.

  5. Public relations education programs must improve their assessment of results– measurement of outcomes of learning.
  6. Undergraduate Curriculum Models

    Because public relations education may be located in various schools and colleges throughout a university, programs are subject to the core requirements of the unit within which the public relations program is housed. For example, programs housed in journalism schools differ significantly from those in traditional schools of communication or schools of business because of the requirements imposed upon journalism schools that wish to be nationally accredited. The Commission suggests three models to demonstrate differing curriculum constructions within the guidelines stipulated above.

    Journalism/Mass Communication Model

    (The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) permits no more than 40 credit hours in journalism or mass communication in a 120-hour degree program.)

    • Mass communication and society

    • Mass media writing

    • Communication law

    • Media ethics

    • Public relations theory and principles

    • Public relations writing

    • Public relations research

    • Case studies in public relations

    • Public relations campaigns

    • Internship in public relations

    • Communication electives (e.g., community journalism, management, production, multicultural, international, conflict resolution, messages and media effects and gender, race and ethnicity in media)

    • External requirements (e.g., English writing, accounting, marketing, business management and finance)

    Communication/English/Liberal Arts Model

    • Communication principles and practice

    • Research methods

    • Communication writing

    • Communication production

    • Public relations theory

    • Public relations techniques

    • Public relations writing

    • Public relations campaigns

    • Internship

    • Communication electives (e.g., multicultural communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, small group communication, ethics, organizational communication)

    • External requirements (e.g., statistics, economics, psychology, sociology)

    • External electives (selected courses outside communication)

    Business/Management Model

    • Marketing and finance

    • Marketing research and statistics

    • Marketing management

    • Consumer insight

    • Communication skills and persuasive messages

    • Public relations strategy and tactics

    • Creative message strategy

    • Media economics and technology

    • Managing communication integration

    • Internship

    • Business electives (e.g., public relations strategy, public relations planning, investor relations, crisis management, issues management, ethics, international business)

  7. Teaching Methods in the Undergraduate Program

    The 1999 Port of Entry report suggested more than a dozen ways that instruction can be delivered to students, ranging from traditional lectures to simulations, games and the use of small-group projects. A variety of instructional media, assignments and in-class activities that can create a bridge between theory and practice also are suggested. The more advanced students should be involved in client work and campaigns. There should be opportunities to engage in research and in competitions both within the university/college and with public relations academic and practitioner associations.

    The increasing growth of online courses is demanding a reassessment of teaching methods and more research on the challenges of global curriculum offerings. Learning to Teach, published by the Educators Academy of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and available on CD, is a comprehensive resource of teaching methods that have been tried, tested and proven effective in public relations education

    Teaching pedagogies that emphasize teamwork and client service should be well-integrated into programs. To aid in students’ acquisition of diversity competencies, professors should whenever possible diversify teams and assign clients, case studies or service-learning opportunities that involve diverse groups, issues and organizations. Students should also be encouraged to seek numerous pre-professional experiences like internships or volunteer opportunities through student professional organizations and their academic units. The academy must diligently seek to bring practitioners to campus as part of the overall student experience.

  8. Undergraduate Program Evaluation

    Normative, formative and summative assessment measures should be used to determine whether students have learned what their academic programs intend. These could include entrance/exit examinations, internship evaluation, capstone courses and portfolio review. And traditional self-assessment should be used to measure program effectiveness. This might include examining student evaluations, facultystudent ratios, placement and graduate school admission rates, alumni and employer satisfaction and input from advisory boards.

    External program review is also valuable. Sources for this include the Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) offered by PRSA (available to all public relations programs) and the ACEJMC (available to public relations programs in journalism and mass communication colleges, schools or departments).

    Public relations education programs must improve their assessment of results—measurement of outcomes of learning. Educators must become more sophisticated and request the participation of practitioners to determine if students are reaching the goals set for their entry into the profession. To this end, this new report has included assessment as a separate section to more clearly identify guidelines.

  9. Faculty Qualifications

    The 1999 Port of Entry report suggested that both academic and professional credentials and practical experience are important for public relations faculty. Ideally a full-time faculty member will have both academic credentials (usually a Ph.D.) and professional credentials— significant work experience in public relations. Programs may need to hire faculty without terminal degrees who have significant and substantial professional experience in order to meet student demand. In addition, all faculty members should be active in professional and/or academic associations and should be contributing to the public relations body of knowledge through scholarship and professional or creative activity.

    The 1999 Port of Entry report repeats a recommendation from the 1987 Commission report: “Public relations courses should not be taught by people who have little or no experience and interest in the field and have no academic preparation in public relations.” The Commission repeats that recommendation again in 2006.

  10. Resources to Support Public Relations Programs

    Public relations students should have the same access to both faculty and resources as students in other academic programs in the academic unit where public relations is taught.

    Faculty workloads should be balanced to include time for teaching, advising, research, service, administrative assignments and the advising of student organizations such as the Public Relations Student Society of America.

    Public relations education requires administrative and financial resources that include adequate faculty and staff with properly equipped classrooms, appropriate technology, wellstocked libraries, travel and professional development funding and office support.