Leeds is my home. I was born here, I chose to stay and study here and I don’t plan on leaving once I’ve graduated. I wish the same could be said for my University friends, the majority of whom will be packing up and heading South for London or across to Manchester before we’ve even put on our caps and gowns!
by Michaella Biscomb & Emma Bowers
As two final-year Public Relations & Communications students at Leeds Beckett University, we felt at the very heart of last weeks’ PRCA Industry vs Academics debate. The night saw a panel of academics & practitioners come together to discuss the necessity of a PR degree. Have the last four years really prepared us for a career in the fast-paced and ever changing PR industry?
A whole host of insightful and exciting topics were discussed; from the varying avenues into the industry, to the importance of close academic-practitioner relationships, as well as a passionate conversation about mental health in PR. We’ve picked out a few of the key points that really resonated with us, as current PR students, just months away from graduation.
Soft Skills: Inspiring the next generation
Soft skills are a fundamental component of any PR role, but how do we ensure that these skills are instilled within a vocational PR degree? As the panel agreed, it’s hard to teach students soft skills, so what can be done? From our perspective, universities need to be doing more to inspire students. Inspiring them to be ambitious, curious, thirsty for knowledge and hungry for success, with the confidence to attain practical PR work experience.
Student engagement within universities is an issue that needs combatting. Universities are indisputably providing opportunities for ‘real life’ experience for students, through internships, client briefs and industry lectures, but not all students are taking advantage of these opportunities. Lecturers and tutors need to be more proactive in overriding the common ‘University mentality’ that attendance is optional and that PR can simply be learned in the classroom. Universities must prioritise ‘student engagement’ in the opening weeks of University - the most crucial time to capture and inspire students, laying the foundations and expectations for the coming 3-4 years. Attendance to core classes, as well as additional guest lectures and workshops, should be monitored more closely, perhaps even contributing to grading. Students should also be encouraged to engage with the industry in real-time, through debates on current affairs or evaluations of recent PR campaigns. Input from the PRCA and CIPR should come earlier on to demonstrate the credibility and integrity of both the course and the industry, with practical advice on how to access online resources and webinars. Whilst it is important not to ‘spoon-feed’ University students, more could be done to make it easier for less confident, first year students to access crucial practical experience, such as work experience and projects within the University, with more PR agencies working with the University to offer internships to first year students in particular.
From our perspective, practical classes and workshops need to be more commonplace. As Nicky Garsten of Greenwich University and Robert Minton-Taylor of Leeds Beckett University both agreed, practitioners need to be embedded within PR courses, in order to ensure academia stays up to date with the pace of the industry, and students are equipped with practical PR skills. Moreso, giving students that informal face-time with professionals is invaluable, and absolutely core to developing their confidence and enthusiasm.
Public Relations degrees need to go far beyond PR as a standalone practice. The landscape is blurring and the roles are expanding. PR students need to know how to work across realistic integrated campaigns, bringing together wider marketing competencies, including social media, digital influencer activity, and SEO. It’s no longer all about press releases and journalists. Students would benefit from more practical workshops held by professionals, who deliver these services for clients, day in, day out. A contextual understanding of this will allow students to appreciate how different functions can be aligned to achieve an integrated campaign.
Furthermore, integration should be more apparent within universities. PR and Marketing teams work together in the working world, so why isn't this being mirrored in education? The PR degree at Leeds Beckett sits within Leeds Business School, alongside Journalism, Marketing & Business courses. Combined briefs and collaborative projects wherein students can not only work in tandem with relevant disciplines, but also build a network of connections, would be invaluable. This, in turn, would provide a more realistic experience of what modern PR looks like today.
With this said, throughout our final year, there are several modules wherein we have worked with real clients on live and mock briefs. While this provides fantastic practical experience, such opportunities need to be employed throughout the degree, and not just towards the very end. The idea of working on behalf of a client needs to be introduced earlier on, enabling students to better develop client management skills and allow their academic knowledge to be learned and practiced in context, outside of the lecture hall. We believe this to be crucial to producing well-rounded and confident graduates, who feel prepared to face the real world.
Industry - Academic Collaboration
Greater collaboration between academics and practitioners will ensure that vocational PR courses are able stay up-to-date with the fast-evolving industry. If courses are frequently updated to accurately reflect the reality of working in the industry, students will be best placed to jump straight in following graduation.
The debate touched on the need for academic research to be more accessible for practitioners. This could mean adapting the terminology, gaining coverage in industry publications, or a round-up digest produced by academics for practitioners. Regardless of what this looks like, the need for academics and practitioners to work together is more apparent than ever before. A closer relationship will ensure that relevant research is being carried out and that the results are helpful and applicable within the industry; from undergraduate dissertation level right through to professional academic research. Projects such as FuturePRoof have provided great value to both students and professionals, helping both parties to better their skills and practices.
Going forward, it would be great to see practitioners have more of an input into the syllabus. This will ensure that PR courses are incorporating current trends and modern practice into teaching. Given the fast pace of the industry, PR degrees need to be constantly evaluated and thus adapted to meet the needs of a transitioning industry. While this is a complex and perhaps, costly process, it is crucial in order to ensure that PR degrees continue to remain relevant and necessary.
Why Study PR?
Undertaking a degree in Public Relations allows students to learn the scope of the practice, without time constraints or limitations of a working environment. At Leeds Beckett, we are encouraged to undertake wider industry reading, exploring case studies of best (and worst) practice, in order to understand what has worked, and the consequences of what hasn’t. We believe that the course provides a fantastic platform, by which students are able to develop an extensive body of knowledge, that will be built upon through continuous professional development as their careers progress.
What’s more; we benefit from the university's excellent reputation within the industry, and have the opportunity to harness these relationships to gain experience and get that first foot on the ladder. Students are encouraged to explore various different avenues within the industry, whether it’s through working in an agency environment, in-house, or by undertaking freelance project work. Through live projects, students also have the opportunity to work with companies, such as IKEA, Co-Operative Bank and Leeds City Council, organisations we would otherwise not have access into.
If you take advantage of the opportunities, a degree in PR is a brilliant way to make valuable connections, gain confidence, and most importantly, prepare students to take that first step into the exciting world of PR.
The saying, “you get out what you put in” is never more appropriate than when thinking about University. A two year break showed me how much I missed education and I started my undergraduate PR degree in 2013 with a thirst for learning and a real desire to be there.
Fast forward three years and the opportunities I have had, really are pretty impressive – and whilst I haven’t particularly done anything beyond what the University offers for all students, my readiness to be back at University and my willingness to be committed and do well, has meant I have tried to grab opportunities with enthusiasm and continuously focus on my own personal development.
Adding talking points to my CV, whilst building a network of professional contacts has been a driving factor for me at University. As a student, you have the privilege (albeit mostly unpaid, but that’s another argument) to call up a company you fancy working with, and give it a go. Whilst some work experience and internships haven’t turned out to be all I wanted them to be, the things I have learnt and the people I have met have been incredibly invaluable. Internships have enabled me to develop my knowledge and explore the industries I want to work in and I have been lucky that my particular course promotes work experience so strongly. A couple of weeks here and there, a couple of days a week and a full sandwich year placement means I now have an enviable CV before I have even graduated and I am counting on those brand names and contacts to help me get a foot in the door in the job hunt.
Through the University, I have had the opportunity to study abroad too. I spent seven months in Australia during my second year, having a pretty good jolly of course, but also learning from incredible lecturers, experiencing different opinions and learning cultures and also having the opportunity to work on a small project with MC Saatchi in Sydney. I have built contacts, both professional and personal from countries around the world, I’m part of PR social groups in Australia, getting insider information about job opportunities – very handy for when we definitely make the move down under!
During a second year module, I had the opportunity to experience the challenge of working with students from across the world. I travelled to Malaysia (funded by the University I should add) to attend a global conference, present my ideas to leading industry experts and representatives from global brand, WWF. I have met with people from the University to talk about my experience and had the opportunity to deliver talks to students about my experience and advice. (Fantastic experience for someone who is keen to lecture one day!)
Our Global Communications Team winning second place in Borneo, Malaysia.
A final year project has enabled me to be in the same room as the leaders of PR, culture and tourism (a sector I am very keen to be a part of) before I have even graduated. My work is going to be of value as part of an exciting project for the city, something that may have taken me years, if ever, to accomplish without the University.
Guest lectures and key speakers have opened me up to a world of opportunity in the PR and business industry, introduced me to potential employees and enhanced my classroom learning. Listening to other peoples stories gives you perspective for how your own career can progress, lets you think about things a little differently and also shows you that even the most professional of professionals started somewhere.
Through the University, membership to professional organizations have enabled me access to a wealth of information, access to online courses and webinars to further my knowledge. I have attended networking events and annual meetings and learnt the value of professional bodies in my industry.
University has been a pretty bumpy ride. I’ve been disappointed, had many opposing views to lecturers and experiences – but I guess, looking back as graduation looms ever closer, I guess that’s all part of it. I have discovered things that I absolutely definitely do not want to do or be as a professional, and I have also met people who serve as role models and mentors. I have been overwhelmed and underwhelmed by assignments and deadlines and teaching methods, and there’s a million areas of improvement, but taking a moment in the middle of a hectic deadline week to reflect, it’s not been too bad at all.
But, back to my original point, I think your experience depends completely on your choices, your commitment and your drive to grab things by the balls. As I’m currently blurring my mind reading a tonne of literature, I reflect and think, I wish I’d have read more, I wish I’d have engaged more, I wish I’d have blogged more – I wish I would have committed to the fantastic PR Student blogging competition. I wish I had of had a go at being a course rep or been part of a society. But then, as a ‘slightly older’ student that never moved away from home, I have continuously balanced my home life with work and University, and you can’t do it all. Plus of course, there is no end game in Education – I can spend the rest of my life reading and blogging and engaging if I want to (and I do!).
I’m not sure what next year is going to bring, sometimes I’m excited to get into the world of work, but then I’m not done studying either. I want to do a masters, I want to study abroad again, I want to move abroad but I also want to get to work, work on exciting brands and projects with exciting people. It’s all a balancing act that I hope I will figure out, and it’s not easy to walk into any role these days, but I’m hoping that with an impressive CV of experiences thanks to my time at University, I stand a good chance.
(Although this video has only a tiny bit to do with this post, it sparked it off, it's excellent and everyone should watch it!)
I’m a Facebook addict. It’s true, I know – I should quit. But, a daily look at my time hop proves I’m getting better, I don’t post half as much as I used to, I try to restrain myself when it comes to arguments or preaching (unless it’s voting season, yep, I’m one of those preachy people) and my general time line is a lot less depressing than it used to be.
As in life, as you get older you realise you don’t have to be friends with everyone anymore – in life or online, cutting people out of your life whether it’s the guy from school you were never really friends with, or a close friend with whom your relationship naturally became unhealthy for the both of you – choosing quality over quantity and being a little bit more selective has proven to have a positive effect on my mood, happiness and general life.
But back to Facebook, there really isn’t anything like a terrorist act, a refugee crisis or even just a shitty written article in The Sun to show the true thoughts and mentality of people on your friends list. Although of course I do think I am right all.the.time, I am open to other people’s opinions. I know that some people have different priorities and thoughts and hell, that’s all fine if you’ve taken more than 10 seconds to do a little research into the facts, rather than share these thoughts and opinions alongside a randomly captioned photo or an almost laughable ‘Britain First’ post.
Perhaps I should try take some time to change these people's opinions, influence them in some way or open up the suggestions of credible sources and research, but sometimes I just don't have time to fight that losing battle.
think know sometimes
I let the actions and thoughts of other people affect me personally. I let it
consume my thoughts, stress me out or make me angry but as I am getting older
and hopefully a little wiser, I am starting to reign this in and put a stop to
it. I’m as guilty as anyone for gossip, or a little Facebook stalking or just
actually giving a shit about something that is NOTHING to do with me, and as sad as it is, Facebook is a big part
of that. It allows us to hold on to meaning-less relationships, it gives us the
opportunity to cyber-stalk our ex, or compare ourselves to people that are in
completely different life stages to us, and just as in life, for me – a regular
Facebook cleanse is an absolute must, to help keep my stress and anxiety down
and my happy, what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me attitude, up.
Currently, I have 785 friends on Facebook – WHAT? In real life I probably have a handful of people I call friends, so why do I have so many of these ‘online friends’? Okay, some are friends I have made around the world that I can’t pop in to see on a weekend, some are old work colleagues or school friends that I just genuinely like keeping up with, and seeing how they are getting on. I’m at a point in life, where seeing people I know succeed and do well brings me happiness, motivation and inspiration. Even if it’s someone I would only ever say Hi to on the street, those kind of positive people are the kind of people I don’t mind being friends with. But the guy from school I saw buying drugs last week? – Unfriend, The ill informed, can’t be changed, racist ex-colleague – Don’t get wound up, just delete!, The cousin you haven’t seen in 10 years but feel like you should be friends with on Facebook, but is definitely working on commission for all the Britain First articles he shares? – DELETE DELETE DELETE!
We can’t live in a world where we ‘delete’ everyone who disagrees with us, but that’s not the case. I love debates, and discussions and hearing peoples informed opinions and views. I love to see what people I only met once are doing, if they’re doing something fun and interesting!
But balls to everyone else, balls to upsetting the girls from school that you never see and don’t care about – nobody likes being unfriended on Facebook, but does it even matter? I’m sure I lost a tonne of friends during election season because people don’t wanna hear that either, but that’s fine, delete away!
So as my rant comes to a close, I’m off to start my Facebook purge which I do think genuinely contributes to a happy and healthier mind. I recommended you all have a good cleanse from time to time – online and in real life!
I think as a student, dealing with rejection is something you have to become pretty accustomed to. Whether it's desperately trying to secure a couple of weeks work experience or a part time job in the field you're studying in, or even harder - finding that dream starter job post-graduation.
Its easy to be overwhelmed with rejection and let it get you down, and whilst I think it's more than okay to be disappointed and a little sad when you don't get invited for an interview, or you miss out in the last minute, it's important not to dwell and to try and find some positives in each rejection. (It's also pretty sucky when people don't respond at all, just a generic "sorry you have been unsuccessful" will stop me days of panicking that my email account is working against me and not even delivering my applications!)
Sometimes rejection and 'failure' serves as a really great pointer as to what areas you need to improve in. Recently I was invited to the second interview for a part time PR role with the job ultimately going to the other candidate. Whilst I was assured it was about what she had more of rather than what I didn't have, it's easy to get wound up thinking you're just not good enough. BUT.. After a couple of hours sulking, I tried look at the positives..
- I've not even graduated and I'm already getting through to second interviews
- I actually got an interview never mind two, which means unlike a lot of people, my CV is impressive enough to at least get me through the door
- I know I don't have enough experience yet that employers are looking for so I need to keep ploughing on with that
- I need to focus my improvements on my interview skills and 'selling myself'
It's great to already be in a position to know what fine tweaking I need to be doing as oppose to starting from scratch when I graduate. Whilst I advise against being bitter with comments like "well it was a shit job anyway".. I do try and think about practical benefits of not getting the job.. Eg. I don't have to rush out to get a new car now and should I chose to study abroad post-grad I have less commitments and more flexibility.
If you are getting through to interviews, you are communicating directly with influencers and you should make the effort to try and use that to your advantage.
If they are in the industry you are wanting to be in, contacts are golden. Perhaps as a student you could offer to come in and do some work experience - whilst you shouldn't open yourself up to be taken advantage of, doing work experience paid or unpaid only works to your advantage in the end.
Make sure you thank them gracefully for their time in any case and ask for feedback if they haven't given you any. Showing willing, maturity and professionalism in such a well connected industry really is in your best interests.
Finally, I am a big believer that things work out the way they are supposed to. Not in terms of 'fate', Luck follows Action and sitting on your arse doing nothing will not make you a millionaire, but I look back at jobs that I wanted previously and when I didn't get them, something better has come along. When I freaked out about going to University after college I changed my career direction and found a vocation I genuinely love studying with a level of maturity that I would not have had if I had of gone straight to University at 18.
I am only 22, I have minimum commitments aside from a phone bill and a Netflix account and my whole life is not going to come to a crashing halt because I faced rejection at 22. (Although it may do if my Netflix subscription is suspended!)
Don't fear rejection and don't let it consume you, learn from every NO, make changes and 10 years look back from your "somewhere wonderful" and realise everything does happen for a reason. Keep moving, keep your head up, move on to the next work experience and apply for the next job.. And remember as my favourite quote right now says: "It's easier to steer things that are already moving!"
(Screenshot from Finn Communications website)
I signed up last minute to the first of a new series of CIPR ‘breakfast briefings’ with Leeds PR agency, Finn. The first briefing was entitled 'Unleashing your creativity' and was delivered by Emma Sibbles, head of creative and content at Finn PR and a former journalist and editor for Asos magazine, The Guardian and Marie Claire.
I often worry that I'm not a very creative person. Whilst I have faith in my ability to 'get things done' I'm not really the one to think up those wild and wonderful, innovative ideas and so I was eager to listen to what Emma had to say. It was a nice turn out with about 10-12 attendees and as always I was busy scribbling down lots of notes. (Side note, I've been reading up lately on note taking – perhaps a blog post is to follow on this topic!)
Emma on Creativity and Ideas
A lot of things that Emma said were a bit like, Duh! Obviously.. but not in a bad way - they were the kind of things that really you knew, or things that you were already doing but just didn't appreciate why or the value of it before Emma pointed them out. She started off by dismissing the idea of ‘lightbulb moments’ – ideas don't just come out of nowhere, they are connections and networks, cultivated from old ideas and new ideas and stitched together from different people, inspirations and experiences.
She drew on her previous news room experience and said that big ideas come from chaos, unpredictable collisions of minds and ideas; from conference rooms and brainstorming sessions – a thing I have found very enlightening and beneficial on my work placements.
I read a lot of different things, but Emma highlighted the need to be more conscious of what you are consuming. When you are going through the weekend papers (you should try and find time to!) look at what other people and competitors are doing and consider how you can repurpose ideas and make them your own. She talked about how she pulled things out of newspapers and magazine old school style, and created a folder of ideas that she can draw from in the future when she is working on new projects and ideas. She also told of the ideas wall in the Finn offices that people pinned inspirational words, stories and pictures to - it sounds like a really creative place to work!
From a recruiters prospective, she discussed the need to employ people that are different and who challenge your ideas and how valuable it is to get to know your team and their interests and their varied areas of expertise to learn what different things they can bring to the table. From a non-recruiter point of view, taking the time to talk to a range of different people and bounce ideas around with both PR and non PR people can help you to grow and develop ideas as well as dismissing bad ones! Being your own critic and challenging yourself allows you to expand and find new opportunities too. It's important, Emma stressed, to get over failing and accept you are going to come up with some bad ideas!
I liked the point she made about scheduling time in to nurture creativity and using time productively in order to be creative. Her suggestion of using your morning bus commute to disengage and let your mind wander to encourage creativity really resonated with my hour + daily commute! At times you also need to step away from ideas; eat, sleep, walk and trust that your self-consciousness is working.
Finally, in PR, you do need to always be switched on, actively consuming, staying on top of the trends and constantly asking why. (A scary thought?!)
Emma on Content and Audiences
The second key point I took from the briefing was Emma’s thoughts on identifying audiences and creating engaging, relevant content for them. Content builds brand loyalty and also drives emotional bonds between companies and consumers, but, it must be on the right platform and presented appealingly to them.
And, most importantly – you really need to know who ‘they’ are. Emma discussed the need to really get to know your audience - think about your audience, think about what they are watching and doing, what social channels they are using and even how they commute to work and what/how they consume during the journey. Where and how do they like to consume their information? Identify personas within your target audience and really get to know who you are talking to. Do not, under any circumstances assume your audience are idiots and that they will just ‘do it.’ If you can't identify with your audience personally, speak to friends or family that can and ask them what they think and like and what content they engage with.
She talked about how companies can use content to drive sales, using Asos as an example. Their free magazine delivered to customers, at cost to the company, shows consumers that the brand cares, respects and value their custom – as with all content, you are giving customers something for nothing. And within that content, be it a blog or magazine, it's important to combine regular features with reactive content but make sure that what you are sharing is relevant to your readers.
Emma highlighted the need to regularly check your data to see what your consumers are engaging with and adjust accordingly. The actual content may be good, but if the context or delivery just doesn't appeal to your consumers you need to switch it up.
I really loved Emma's Venn diagram and slide about ‘Jab Jab Punch.’ All brands have stories that they want to share, but some just aren't interesting – and it's important not to just bang on about your brand all the time. ‘Fillers’ are important, but they have to be relevant to your brand. You can't just witter on about national days or current events just so you are saying something and cushioning those brand messages – it still has to be relevant and of high quality; less frequent, better quality is always the best way. And of course, your consumers have a million other interests but you don't have to try tap into every single one of them - “Don't try crowbar things in if its not relevant to your brand - don't be weird!”
A final point which I enjoyed was the fact that you should consider what your competitors are doing but you should also widen that circle of who you consider to be a competitor. You're not just competing with similar brands in your industry, you are competing with everything else that your customers are reading or watching, you are always competing for their attention so take inspiration from what other industries are doing to communicate with your mutual consumers..
Perhaps the best thing that Emma said that really resonated with me was when we discussed interning. She advised being a sponge when you are interning – absorbing how to do things and how not to do things – it also gives you chance to think “When I’m in charge, we won't be doing this shit!”
Industry events can be really daunting and I'm glad Hannah came along with me, but I needn't have worried. The morning was casual, informative and really engaging and it felt comfortable to be around seasoned PR professionals without feeling like an out of place student! I'm really looking forward to finding out about the next one!
Thanks to Finn PR for being great hosts and Emma for her excellent presentation!