CPRE 2023 Signature Report Co-Chairs Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, the University of Maryland, and Pamela Bourland-Davis, Ph.D., Georgia Southern University, contributed the following research overview.
No one really expects PR practice to return to its pre-COVID-19 norms, according to the 2023 Commission on Public Relations Education’s 2023 Signature Report. Between the challenges of work-life balance, hybrid environments and mental health and accommodation concerns, this comes as no surprise.
Indeed, students have become accustomed to hybrid environments, having taken classes in various formats even before the pandemic shutdown. Still, AI influences and expectations of Gen Z forecast more changes to PR practice.
The report, “Navigating Change: Recommendations for Advancing Undergraduate Public Relations Education,” underwritten by the Weiss Family Trust, by Jim and Audra Weiss, has been issued as part of CPRE’s 50th anniversary year.
CPRE, through the report, has issued recommendations highlighting seven areas that practitioners and educators have identified as critical to pre-professional preparation in the post-pandemic environment. The seven report topics are the future of the workplace, the state of the undergraduate curriculum/hiring characteristics, critical thinking, data strategy and insights, ethics, DEI, and public relations as a driver of social change.
The report represents over a year’s involvement of the 65 CPRE board members as they participated in brainstorming sessions, crowdsourcing surveys, focus groups, and an omnibus quantitative survey of over 460 PR practitioners and educators. Seven teams of educators and practitioners contributed their expertise and content.
Key research findings
Practitioners were critical of young professional’s lack of mastery of essential skills in their first five years, particularly their lack of skills in critical thinking, strategic planning, and developing a personal code of ethics. Additionally, new practitioners reported experiencing hostile workplace environments and harassment more than anticipated.
Practitioners recognized the value of prospective entry-level candidates having PR coursework along with the basics of writing and communication. And they valued students who had completed internships. While educators and practitioners differed on how well-prepared students might be to succeed in the job market, rank orders of key expectations were very much aligned.
The CPRE study found increased standardization of PR undergraduate through a six-course standard; six PR courses should minimally comprise a PR major/concentration — PR principles, research, writing, cases/campaigns, ethics, and internship. However, the courses in a PR undergraduate track are not always dedicated to PR studies. Despite ethics studies reported to be essential by all survey participants, survey findings showed that PR ethics was a neglected competency in coursework.
Also of note is that practitioners and educators increasingly recognize the role of public relations in social change whether as activists or through CSR or CSA. Focus group interviewees highlighted a need for students to temper their personal activist agenda within the workplace, which might have a different agenda.
The need for early career PR practitioners to understand the basics of analytic metrics and data analysis could not be clearer. And, preparation for a diverse workplace will necessitate a comprehensive approach to DEI in PR education.
In addition to what students learn from their minimum of six courses, practitioners are looking for students who can think critically, act ethically, and analyze data. The high expectations of entry-level practitioners may create barriers to entry.
Call for increased practitioner-professor collaboration
The opportunity to navigate these higher expectations lies in increased collaboration between practitioners and educators. Working together to develop experiential learning opportunities for students will enhance exposure to professional behavior and workplace expectations and help develop students’ soft skills. Connecting practice to education is paramount to achieving expectations, especially in a changing and challenging workplace.
While many practitioners already collaborate through adjunct teaching, lecturing, PRSSA involvement, and mentoring, the report recommends opportunities for enriching PR undergraduate studies, which would benefit students and, thus, the profession. Examples of these connections, which can be in developing actual or realistic hypothetical material, include:
- Case studies — work with educators to highlight the details of past or present work
- Data sets — recycle or revise older data sets for students to practice analysis
- Internships — they come with a time commitment but are seen as critical by both practitioners and educators
- Give attention to onboarding practices so that they include opportunities for discussion and models for critical thinking, ethical application, DEI practices, and activism, in addition to how to balance office protocol and politics, especially in remote or hybrid settings
- Consider employee opportunities for graduate studies, which would extend critical thinking and application efforts.
We’d add that developing these kinds of opportunities can provide reverse mentoring, which is especially important given the constant technological change and adaptations and the expectations of newer generations of practitioners.
While change was the impetus for the 2023 report, finding stability in the recommended courses for public relations helps more students expect to see standardized coursework across U.S. universities that will help prepare them for practice and, consequently, helps practitioners know what students are bringing to the workforce.
This report of recommendations responded to what practitioners and educators felt were the highest priorities in 2022-23 for improving undergraduate PR education. We were impressed with their choices because they signaled high expectations of new practitioners to contribute more to organizational and client problem-solving through the wider knowledge of PR’s strategic/critical role in relationship building. New practitioners should be able to navigate a changing world through technology, social expectations and a changed workplace.
These priorities should not be lost on educators in the trenches with a generation (Gen Z) of students who learn differently and have different expectations for their employment than their instructors. Nor should they be lost on practitioners who are about to hire new employees who have a diverse worldview, a world that has always had digital technology, and ethical questions to bring with them to the workplace.
For the full 2023 report, including research, funding, and recommendations, visit the CPRE website.
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