22.2.17

A Student Perspective: PRCA Industry vs. Academics Debate


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.

Teaching Integration

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.

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