Far back in the mists of time, I set off to what is now Leeds Trinity University to do my first degree. It was a joint honours degree in Mathematics and Public Media, a combination so rare there were only two of us in my year and just one other the year after.
Mathematics you could probably guess at, but what the chuff was ‘Public Media’?
Well, it covered a multitude of disciplines. The first year, in particular, was a taster year1 for what was to come. There were sessions on marketing, advertising, public relations, photography, location recording, studio recording, video production, organisational communications, computing, branding and lots of other things I’ve forgotten. We also spent two six-week periods out in industry in the first two years.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t do public relations in my subsequent years. I did the marketing module in my third year… which I promptly failed. In fact, I only really studied public relations when I did the CIPR’s Advanced Certificate in 2002/03.
Which poses the obvious question: why do we need three-year PR degrees at all, if there’s a Certificate I can take with eight days study?
Theory v practice
Indeed, several agency owners have expressed to me in the recent past the opinion that people on PR courses don’t have all the skills required to work in practice. Some students do get to spend up to a year working in an agency as part of their ‘sandwich’ year but that’s only useful if you want to work in an agency, and even then it’s touch and go.
A bit like asking a theoretical physicist to rewire a plug.
So rather than mourn the passing of the oldest undergraduate PR degree course at Bournemouth, or tut sadly as lots of other PR degree courses team up with journalism, I look at this as an opportunity to reshape undergraduate degrees – hopefully for the better.
Back to the future
First up, make them all four year courses, with a mandatory year out in industry. Let’s make an effort to produce practitioners, not theorists. If you want more theory, do an MA – that’s what they’re there for (in my case, a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Communications).
Being a practitioner still means having due regard for strategy, measurement and evaluation, ethics and similar. But it also means knowing how to write a media release.
Secondly, let’s go back to my own degree and provide a better introduction to this whole ‘media’ environment. In the second and third (fourth) years students can specialise in marketing or PR or whatever, but in that first year give them a grounding in everything else. Knowing how other elements of the media mix work will be an asset. I speak from experience here; that marketing, video production, location recording and photography stuff I did in 1986/87 was still useful 20 years later when volunteering with Leeds United Ladies and Huddersfield Air Cadets.
PR is not a discipline of marketing any more than marketing is a discipline of PR. But there are undoubtedly elements of marketing practice that overlap with public relations ones. Let’s harness those similarities as well as celebrating the differences, and create a well-rounded course that attracts students who would previously consider a marketing-only degree.
Now… what to call it?
- Or ‘Smörgåsbord’, for the more pretentious reader [↩]