I recently finished reviewing my PR graduate students’ thesis proposals.
So what’s on the minds of tomorrow’s professionals? Just about everything but public relations as we’ve practiced it.
Some of the familiar topics are there — branding, corporate social responsibility, crisis communications — but not necessarily in a form many of us would recognize as aspects of the profession we’ve come to know. Next-generation practitioners are identifying problems that may go beyond the ability of our inherited wisdom to address, while expanding the frontiers of our profession.
They’re not shying away from big topics: the rise of nationalism, trade wars, and online privacy. They’re taking a hard look at some of the gaps in our thinking, like the ethics of influencer marketing. Others are looking at what’s been lost, on a human level, by the replacement of face-to-face with online relationships, and how we might get it back.
Some of the questions they’re addressing are just plain hard, like how to coherently explain blockchain, a technology little understood outside of a small group of experts, to consumers who soon may be relying on it to secure their online transactions and protect their privacy on social networks.
And they’re thinking globally: how to attract foreign investment as East Asia shifts from a manufacturing economy to one that’s information and technology based; how to convey the vision and values of foreign companies planning to list on U.S. stock exchanges, and; how to coordinate global public health campaigns and insulate them from the impact of online misinformation.
Today’s PR students are the products of an ever more fragmented world. It’s not just America that’s split into warring tribes. Factionalism has gone international: “yellow vests” vs. elites, nationalists vs. globalists, and immigrants vs. nativists, their controversies fueled by internet trolls and a relentlessly hyper-partisan media.
A common thread running through many student topics is the potential for public relations to bridge these divides: to understand, to explain and ultimately to heal. It may not be immediately apparent, given the win-at-all-cost culture that often prevails in our profession, but who better to take on the challenge?
We’ve schooled our students well in the art of persuasion, well enough for some of them at least to understand that listening, dialogue and trust-building aren’t just tactics, they’re at the heart of what it takes to create lasting solutions and lasting success. It’s a powerful skill we’ve given them, this ability to influence the way people feel, think and act. I’m optimistic about what they’re going to do with their newfound powers.
Jay Kosminsky teaches in the graduate program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. He retired as vice president, communications, Johnson & Johnson Group of Consumer Companies.