Head to Head: Can higher education really train future PR executives?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the most senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Primary Communication's Jenny Muir goes head to head with Poem's co-founder Rob Lowe.

This week’s debate is centred around whether or not higher education can effectively train future public relations professionals. Muir argues yes, as higher education provides young adults with critical thinking skills and helps build a foundation of knowledge across diverse areas. In contrast, Poem’s Rob Lowe argues university courses are struggling to keep up with the changing media landscape.

Who do you agree with?

Can higher education really train future PR executives?

Yes, argues, Jenny Muir, chief counsel, Primary Communication:

“Higher education in Australia educates broadly and is currently designed to build knowledge and critical thinking as well as the necessary skills across our diverse profession.

“With 81% of PR and communication industry practitioners with a university degree or higher, the challenge is to ensure that our education and training ecosystem stays in lock step with the level of demand for skilled professionals, while responding to the disruption we are experiencing.

“Higher education contributes to building a strong foundation of knowledge in diverse subject areas – from the fundamentals of storytelling using many mediums and technologies, through to a deep understanding and application of international relations, politics, design thinking, behavioural sciences, business and economics, banking and law.

“There are very few businesses or organisations who don’t rely on the skills and knowledge of a PR and communication professional these days, and this is only going to increase in the future.

Muir says higher education assists with critical thinking and a strong foundation of knowledge

“Since 2012 the demand for digital skills has increased by more than 200%, critical thinking by more than 150%, and creativity by more than 60% and presentation skills by 25%. All these skills are at the core of a PR and communication professional’s skillset, and tertiary education is the starting point for learning in all these areas, but it is not the end point.

“Whether you chose a university, TAFE or private college, tertiary education courses support a person’s ability to enter into the PR and communication industry and contribute meaningfully. Job readiness for graduates is still a contentious issue, however the responsibility for a person’s ability to contribute meaningfully and develop their skills and knowledge is an ongoing tripartite between the educator, the individual and the employer.

“As we transition into a new employment paradigm, on-the-job training and access to knowledge and learning needs to increase. The individual professional must also have a commitment to their own growth and learning to remain relevant to their employment opportunities. Universities and educators need to ensure that their offering is in sync with the current and future workforce, and organisations like PRIA need to ensure that industry standards are supported and maintained, training and knowledge is available, to ensure that there is a high level of confidence in our professional abilities.”

No, argues, Rob Lowe, co-founder of Poem:

“If you work in the media industry, you’ll be very aware of how quickly it’s changing. Most agencies, let alone university courses, are struggling to keep up. And that’s especially relevant to the PR industry. Gone are the days of relying on cleverly worded releases and press office strategies that push out nothing but gifts and feature angles. Many clients are calling bullshit on the practice. Modern PR agencies are now at the forefront of social content, paid targeting, influencer collaborations, culture and creative ideas that people are going to care about.

Lowe argues the three years spent on a degree “could be better used”

“I’ve always thought that to be a great PR (at least within the consumer lifestyle space) you need to be a jack of all trades (strategist, creative, suit, producer and digital expert all rolled into one), but more importantly you need the right personality and that’s not something that can be learnt at university. I value hard-working, curious, smart people with emotional intelligence, intuition and a grasp on modern culture, more than those with a PR degree and no practical experience. In fact, give me anyone that’s done three years at a forward-thinking agency over three years at uni doing a PR degree.

“My only exception is an experience I had working with someone from Hyper Island (which originated in Stockholm) where they train people in practical, digitally focused, skills-based problem-solving. They’re awesome. That’s where I’d send my kids (if they weren’t still at kindy and obsessed with being monster hunters or unicorn trainers).

“So to be clear, there’s nothing harmful about doing a PR degree, I just think those three years could be better used. And if you’re going to do one, simply because you need a leg up on the ladder (which is often the sad reality), then go niche and find one that’s known for its practically led, digital experience or human psychology courses.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au

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