Why we need a support system for PR practitioners of the future

Why we need a support system for PR practitioners of the future

In this guest blog post PR teacher and practitioner Padraig McKeon makes the case for improving engagement between PR students and practitioners.

By Padraig McKeon

PR is a busy space. In my three decades experience I’ve regularly seen the urgent get priority over the important, so much so I feel we often miss what matters.

We read more and more about the value of PR as a strategic tool of management. To play that role requires that PR both knows, and prioritises, what is important.

As an industry however, we can’t expect just to arrive at the top table. To have the confidence to invite us to their side in leadership, those at the top in business, public or civic society need to see the value of PR being demonstrated from the ground up.

PR needs to show it understands what is important and where it adds value at every level in an organisation.

So, it struck me as counterproductive to read on this blog and social media, question marks over a suggestion that industry professionals would coalesce to facilitate students in completing coursework.

Professional advisors: why not how

If you ask me “why should we?”, I would say “‘why’ is exactly why. If those entering PR aren’t supported in getting to know what is important, or why we do what we do, how can we build the confidence of others in our professional capacity.

I’m a relative newcomer to teaching. I arrived there on foot of three decades at the PR coalface. In that time as a senior advisor and an employer, I’ve seen many bright people come and go who knew the what, could do the how but didn’t progress because they were unable to get the why.

The academic setting provides the space and the stimuli to embed the critical thinking skills that enable graduates assess a situation and advise “this is what you should do, and this is why" – which is compelling – rather than “this is what you should do and this is how” which I would argue will always be contestable.

Theory lags practice, lags theory

But PR is a living, applied subject. It is changing as we do. While there is an increasing and improving body of research in the academic sphere, research (because of its process) lags the market. Teaching, if framed in a solely academic context, follows again.

In my world view to teach PR effectively and to get students to explore it fully with contemporary relevance, industry has to be involved. I could be bold and suggest that it is too important to be left to academics but that would be unfair because it is not a one-way street - there's plenty in this for industry.

I spoke last week to a senior PR professional in the Irish market who is embracing the engagement with students. She takes it as an endorsement of the work she and her team are doing.

The pay off is multifaceted. She gets ideas from her discussions, she is creating advocates for her brand - as an employer and generally, she has the opportunity to spot and engage with talent and her support of the students builds goodwill with faculty which in return affords her access to informed sounding boards and conduits to intelligence. 

Scaffolding students

In academic terms the idea of providing a contact-point resource around students projects and dissertations would be a form of 'scaffolding,' a recognised teaching technique that provides students with supports to learning that can be gradually removed as they find their level and get greater understanding

Ultimately it is about enabling students get the best of both the industry and the academic perspectives. That makes each a stronger graduate and, one might reasonably expect, a stronger potential employee in a PR setting - a win for all surely? We should facilitate and celebrate that. 

It is fair to ask if it is counterproductive – in terms of encouraging the development of independent skills – to make it easier for students. But I would ask in response, what are we assessing?

Overall the judgement of students’ efforts should be focussed on the outcome rather than the process, with the critical caveat that there is transparency about the process so that it is clear that the work is the student’s own.

Shared spaces

So, I support the idea of enabling the connection. Tinder for dissertations might be step too far but something that advertises availability, that tags areas of expertise, that has a 'click through' and where the practitioner can turn off their availability at any time.

The inclusion of a toolkit for students on how to make and follow-up an approach in a structured and respectful way.

Such a facility could also include a space for brainstorming and teasing out dissertation topics.

Perhaps to encourage their engagement, practitioners could get continuing professional development (CPD) points for time given to students on accredited programmes?

There is a well worn proverb in the Irish language “Mol an óige and tiocfaidh siad” – “praise the youth and they will come." Actions speak louder than words.

I believe that to ensure graduates build a clear understanding of PR and of what is important we have to actively provide our young professionals with a balance of challenge and support involving both academic and practical engagement. When we do it is reasonable to expect more from them. The alternate is not a legacy I care for. 

About Padraig McKeon FPRII, Chart.PR

Padraig is an independent consultant and a lecturer at Dublin City University. You can connect with him via LinkedIn and Twitter.

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