Part II: PR Education & Learning – A Recap of the October #PRStudChat Twitter Discussion

A Guest Post By Ai Zhang, Professor, Stockton University

PRSTUDCHATRemember what we discussed last time about a #PRStudChat that focused on public relations teaching and learning. Here are more of my takeaway insights.

Describe your best PR professor. What made him/her so effective? 

Just in case you are wondering if you have all the important traits to be an effective teacher, here they are: integrating real-world cases with teaching; hands-on projects; challenging students creatively; helping students make professional connections; sharing real life stories and lessons; setting high expectations; being tough but fair; being knowledgeable of and updated with the field; being passionate, inspirational, and confident; and offering service learning and client work. Whew! That seems to be a LONG list. I know I still have lots of work to do! How about you?

What are your recommendations for improving PR education? 

There were a lot of different answers and great suggestions, but one theme strongly stood out: the need to make PR education more applicable to the industry, which I wholeheartedly agree. As one student tweeted this directly, “Make curriculum as close to real world as possible. As a senior, I want all the practice I can get.” Similarly, Patrick Merle posited a challenge to PR professors, “Integrate projects to bridge academic-practitioner gap. Limit lecturing & increase challenging practice.” I think the best way to ensure such integration is through service-learning projects, which help give a context for learning. I have been giving service-learning projects for a number of semesters with good results. Students may not like it at the beginning but they all ended up liking it and benefiting a lot from the hands-on experience.

Another important concept that emerged was, lifelong learning. People had a lively discussion about how this should be reflected in PR curricula. As Kirk tweeted, PR education “should always be fine-tuning to ensure providing most current knowledge. Never stop learning; never stop growing”. I think that as educators, we can also think of ourselves as PR professionals. In fact, even though we may not work for organizations (although some of us do professional consulting), we can still keep pace with industry trends, understand the practical realities of PR work, and incorporate all of that into our teaching. Again, Kirk puts it well, “If WE (profs) don’t know latest trends, how can we prepare YOU for your future?” And this raises a good point specifically for educators’ career development in the academy: how can we gain time and support to develop our professional sides? Often (depending on the institution), tenure-track professors are rewarded more for producing academic publications and bringing in research funding, as opposed to making themselves relevant to the field. But another educator pointed out, “Professional development is as important as scholarly research and publication. Need to give credit to professors who make an effort to develop and network.”

I feel lucky to be at a university where teaching and professional development are highly valued, but I have friends and colleagues at other schools who are focused solely on research, and not on keeping up with relevant trends. Although academic research is certainly important, we can’t forget about the young professionals for whose future we are in part responsible. Producing graduates who are uninspired and uneducated about the current state of the industry is detrimental to students, the field, and the credibility of the institutions responsible for their education.

How has extracurricular activities such as PRSSA involvement and internship helped your career and professional development?

For a highly applied field like PR, you simply cannot learn everything in the classroom. The more you get involved, the higher is your ROI on education. Should it be doing internal or external internships, joining a club, working for a local organization, or serving as volunteers, hands-on experience is students’ best teacher and number one motivator. Among all, there is one organization that is close to my heart that brings the highest value to students: PRSSA. As the faculty advisor for my school’s PRSSA Chapter, I saw so many students transformed as a result of their leadership experience in PRSSA. At my school, we just launched our student-run PR firm this fall. What a valuable learning experience it has been so far: working with clients, practicing leadership skills, receiving trainings in digital PR and graphic design, and developing a true bond among one another. It’s simply one of the best experiences that could happen to any student. If you are still not sure about PRSSA, listen up – students and professionals are speaking:

  • “PRSSA introduced me to a network of profs. & taught the me technical skills to better promote other clubs I was involved in.”
  • “PRSSA has taught me the importance of networking & to be open to new experiences.”
  • “Attending #PRSSA events & engaging with mentors at workshops gave me a clearer picture of what PR path I wanted to take.”
  • “PRSSA is also great for developing leadership skills.”
  • #PRSSA can provide opportunities to expand your portfolio and gain experience to help land that first job or internship.”

To that end, as Patrick Merle tweeted, ““PRSSA= high value. #PR profs must understand that preventing students from exposure to this group is detrimental to careers”. I certainly don’t want to be a disservice to a field that I feel so passionate about.

Knowing what you know today, would you recommend PR as a major? Why/why not?

Yes, absolutely! I love PR because I truly enjoy the relationship building aspect of this profession, the ever-changing nature of the industry, and the positive impact that we could bring to society. As Deirdre Breakenridge said, “I would absolutely recommend PR as a major. After 25+ years … still loving what I do!” I hope I can say the same thing about PR twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-five years down the road. Regardless you are a student, teacher, or professional, lifelong learning is the key. Otherwise, you will indeed end up being a slow turtle competing with a none-resting rabbit. The result, you will be devoured by the pace of change.

Thank you to Deirdre and Valerie for this wonderful opportunity to partake in a topic that I feel so close to my heart and passionate about. It is professionals like you that make me feel passionate about teaching and see hope in the next generation. Thank YOU both!

Ai Zhang, Professor, Stockton University
Ai Zhang, Professor, Stockton University

Ai Zhang received her M.A. in Communication from Syracuse University, and her Ph.D. in Communication/Public Relations from University of Maryland. She graduated in 2009 and then started teaching at Stockton University in New Jersey. She started the PR track at the school and developed most of its PR courses. Professor Zhang is also the faculty advisor for her school’s PRSSA Chapter and its newly launched student-run PR firm.