Wednesday, January 21

Wearing Verbs: The Future Of PR

When Bill Sledzik, associate professor for the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University (Kent State), first posted how his school hopes to raise the bar for public relations, I flagged his post. (I flag many of his posts, enough so I'm glad he doesn't post daily.) At the moment, I only have one more bullet to add to his already excellent post.

How Do You Raise The Bar In Public Relations Education? 10. Teach public relations students to think.

Public relations is changing. And with each passing year, it's changing at an accelerated pace.

In 2005, I could sum up what it might take to be a good public relations professional with just three bullet points.

• Think like a journalist
• Act like a business professional
• Write with the passion of a novelist

In 2007, I added three more.

• Dig deeper than a lead investigator
• Speak with the conviction of a communicator
• Exhibit empathy like a public service advocate

This year, I've added a seventh.

• Demonstrate authenticity like a social media evangelist

Next year, I'm planning to add number eight. All I need to do is settle in on a professional comparison for adaptability, which will require tomorrow's public relations professionals to think. They will have to know how to think, because as the velocity of communication accelerates and the tactics we employ to do so change, public relations professionals and other communicators will no longer be able to rely on "how to" hot lists that become obsolete the day after publishing.

Communication is situational. Adapt or die.

Two student questions reminded me just how much emphasis needs to be placed on thinking. One question, which came after class in an e-mail, asked me how I expected students to complete the assignment when I hadn't given them "how to" instructions.

The assignment is to write their own obituary (10-60 years from now) as a journalist. (While there are several objectives, one is to pay homage to journalists who used to start with assignments just like that.)

My response was simple enough. I can no more endorse a "how to write an obit" for an undefined subject than I could outline "how to write an advertisement" for an undefined product. There are too many variables. So I reiterated what I said in class. Read some real obits: Ricardo Montalban, Heath Ledger, Gerald Ford, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, etc. Then, think it through.

The other question, asked in class, wondered how I could wear both the public relations hat and the journalism hat from time to time (everybody wears lots of hats nowadays; just search "wearing many hats" and you'll see). What might have been a better answer, however, would have gone much further in emphasizing adaptability for future public relations professionals.

When defining hats, it's best to think in terms of verbs instead of nouns.


Jacob Summers on 1/22/09, 1:07 PM said...


Yet another great post, and I am truly sorry you have students like that. :) I, for one, would have had so much fun with that assignment. I am going to tie some of these 7 points into our PR(evolution) project and when I'm through, I will credit you and send you the slides. I love the fact that each of those points really drives home the ability to adapt and think in nonlinear terms.

Rich on 1/23/09, 8:04 AM said...


Please do tie some of these points into your PR(evolution) projects and I would be honored to see how you adapt them to your needs.

Bill mentioned a reservation about one of them. So, I might pre-address it by offering when I say "think like a journalist," I am hoping readers infer that I mean an idealized role and not necessarily what we sometimes see today.

Ah, see, verbs are better. :)


Anonymous said...

Good thoughts, all, Rich. Teaching students to think may be the toughest challenge I face as a college professor. And to be honest, I'm not sure I could tell another instructor how to do it.

I approach the "critical thinking" challenge by putting students in situations where they simply must "figure it out." Oh, I'll give them plenty of guidance, for sure, but they won't get a how-to roadmap. I'll also point them to examples of good work. But if they don't come to the table with some innate sense of curiosity, our job is a tough one.

In life and in business you must adapt on the fly, you must adjust to the context. This is nothing new to the digital age, it just happens a lot faster than it used to. Ask anyone on Twitter!

We disagree slightly on one point -- or a date really. You say that in 2005 all you needed to be successful in PR was to think like a journalist. I made that transition away from "newsthink" 20 years earlier, in 1985. It was then, influenced by PR evangelist Pat Jackson, that I began to think of PR in terms of "going direct" to key publics and key influentials with information that added value to their lives. It was social media, but without the digital tools. We looked them in the eye sometimes. Other times we sent them printed information. Either way, our focus was on relationships, not persuasion.

Social media now allow us to do this on a grander scale. But in truth, I stopped thinking like a journalist even before I bought my first PC.

Rich on 1/23/09, 1:24 PM said...

Hey Bill,

Thanks for taking time out. I agree with you.

Teaching students to think tends to be the toughest challenge because it requires unteaching too. And, it seems we share a similar approach.

I'm glad to read we don't disagree too much. I'm also advocate for going direct to the public, sometimes considering the media as one public (other times a conduit to our publics). Social media tools certainly have made that easier to do.

I love the way you frame it, however. It's much more concise that I sometimes do. So you've certainly succeeded in teaching me a better delivery for the concept along with a source to check out.

Thank you.

All my best,


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