History placed PR education in journalism school; some of us think it still works

When asked to prepare a post for the faculty blog at Kent State’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, I agreed. But only if they’d let me post it here, too. It’s my first “double dip” since entering the blogosphere. Who knows, maybe it’ll boost my readership!

logo.jpgFor 70 years now, the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State has offered some type of public relations class. According to Pathways, Fred Endres‘ history of the school, it began with a taylorphone.jpgcourse in publicity in 1936, shortly after William Taylor (right) took over as director. Today public relations is a popular major with more than 150 students and a 92.5% job placement rate.

OK, that’s a self-serving plug, but I spent two days gathering the data, so I figure I deserve the payback.

Teaching PR within a journalism school made sense in those days. And to a large degree it still does. In the 30s — and well into the 70s — the PR biz was heavily weighted toward media relations & publicity. And even as the business has changed, those remain among our core functions.

What better place to learn press relations than a J-School? You practice writing clear, concise news stories. And you learn what hard-nosed editors and news directors look for.

The skill set for PR has changed over the years, but it still mirrors that of journalists. We write for a broader range of media (print, broadcast and online), but so do our pals in the news business. We’re a lot more visual in our thinking today, and so are they. We do a lot more with interactive messages. Ditto for the newsies.

So it remains a good fit for both sides, I think. In fact, Kent PR students labor alongside news majors for their first three semesters, taking Media Writing, Newswriting and Print Beat Reporting. As a result, our grads are often applauded for their writing skills.

The PR faculty takes over at that point, delivering seven strategy and tactics courses (plus an internship or two) that all require top-notch writing skills. We think it works, but there is another side to this argument about where PR education really belongs.

Since the late 70s, the emphasis on public relations has been moving rapidly away from its traditional focus on publicity. Today, strategic PR pros think a lot more about controlling and directing their messages, which often means going directly to audiences and bypassing our old pals in the news media. Blogs are one example of how we do it, but so are Web sites, email campaigns, special events, and face-to-face presentations.

It’s ironic, but as PR becomes more strategic, we move farther and farther from our roots as “journalists in residence.” And we pay less and less attention even to our own trade publications. Ask someone in PR where they turn for industry information, and they’re more likely to point to bloggers Steve Rubel or Shel Holtz than Public Relations Tactics, our number-one industry publication.

Public relations, as strategic problem solvers for business, might well be more at home in a business school. At Kent, we value business enough to require our students to take 21 credit hours, including courses in Financial Accounting, Management, Economics and Marketing. But if we moved PR studies to the College of Business, we’d lose the emphasis on writing and communication skills that have made Kent PR majors so marketable and the program so successful.

There’s a third group out there that believes PR belongs in the area of Communication Studies, but Dr. Endres told me I had 500 words, and I’m already over that.

For many PR educators, journalism schools represent an uncomfortable home base, thanks the longstanding tension that exists between our professions. Not so at Kent State, where PR gets its fair share of resources and respect.

franklin.jpgSo, we’re staying put. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we get to move to a very cool, $20-million building next year — something we could never have done without our friends in the news business.

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