“One size doesn’t fit all” in master’s programs: Commission on Education to unveil new report in Salt Lake City

September 27, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA. All rights reserved.

From the October issue of PR Tactics.

By Jeanette L. Drake, Ph.D., APR

More than 70 U.S. schools offer master’s programs in public relations, yet there is little consistency among curricula, according to a spring 2000 Public Relations Review article by Linda Aldoory and Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D., APR. With such an array of offerings, a new report slated to be released in November in Salt Lake City may be helpful to those considering graduate work.

The PRSA Commission on Public Relations Education will issue its first report since 1999 with recommendations for undergraduate and graduate education. John Paluszek, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior counsel, Ketchum, co-chaired the commission along with Dr. Dean Kruckeberg, APR, Fellow PRSA, professor and division coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa.

This is not your father’s PR education, Paluszek says. “There is increased attention on global issues and how we need to be prepared for dealing with them. International courses are very important.”

Also key is the recognition of public relations as a management function. Paluszek borrowed a statement from Edward R. Murrow to emphasize the profession’s strategic role: “‘If you’re going to invite me to the crash, be sure to invite me to the takeoff.’”

Related to that function, he said, is the business aspect of public relations — running a staff, operating in the international sphere, having management acumen, reading profit/loss statements and dealing with people in terms of human resources.

Linda Childers Hon, Kathy R. Fitzpatrick and Margaret Rooney Hall reported in an article in the summer 2004 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator that professional sentiment was “fervent for business courses, particularly finance.” In fact, understanding business practices ranks as the second-largest hiring problem for entry-level practitioners, according to Don W. Stacks and Marcia Watson’s 2006 report, “Quantitative Survey Results for the Commission on Public Relations Education.”

Paluszek says the commission wrestled with whether enough management courses were included in the prescribed models. “The reality is that taking courses outside of the department may be difficult schedulewise,” he says. “Also there is the need for faculty cooperation.”

To hurdle these challenges, the commission calls for programs to work with different academic units such as business schools to deliver more interdisciplinary and management or business-focused curricula.

In addition to the above areas, the report calls for programs to include advanced courses in PR theory and concepts, law, ethics, applications, research, programming and production, publics, communication processes, behavioral sciences, a culminating paper, project and/or exam and practical experience.

Regardless of whether you pursue a master’s degree, “get your on-the-ground experience,” Paluszek advises. Although education is never a bad thing, graduate education isn’t for everyone. “Whether a practitioner chooses to enter graduate school is an individual choice because if you look at the certification process in certain areas (i.e., the military), the master’s credential is valued much more greatly than, say, it would be in a counseling firm.”

Be clear with yourself

Dr. Judy VanSlyke Turk, APR, Fellow PRSA, offers advice about choosing a program from her perspective as a commission member and director of the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Be clear with yourself about what you want to get out of it,” she says. If you want an academic credential so you can teach part time, you might look for a different type of program than, say, if you want to ratchet up certain PR skills. She compares the search for a master’s program to a Google search: “Know what your keyword is.”

Programs have different focuses. Some look solely at teaching and research — preparing future professors and researchers. Others provide a professional focus — concentrating on producing practitioners. The majority of programs offer a dual focus — using separate tracks to train students for either academe or practice.

“Be realistic,” VanSlyke Turk adds. “There are lots of graduate programs — some with residential, some full-time, some offer evening classes. Some, like ours, are set up like an executive MBA model, where students continue working, then go to class on the weekends.”

Other questions to ask yourself when considering a program are whether your employer is going to pay for it and are you in a position where you can take a year off and have the luxury of being a full-time student. For most, VanSlyke Turk advises, “Find something fairly local. Look close to home first.”

Finally, be informed. “You can find a lot of information online,” she says, and suggests starting with programs that have been certified or Accredited.

“Check out the new commission report,” she urges. “It’s a pretty thorough review of where public relations is right now, and will provide several models for graduate programs. It’s not one size fits all.”

“The overarching takeaway from a master’s program ought to be an understanding of how public relations fits as a management tool within an organization, how PR is indeed a management function and what that means as to how a practitioner fits into the organization,” VanSlyke Turk explains. “Most are familiar with the media relations role, for example, but have not had the chance to think about public relations as a management role.”

In addition to managerial level thinking, she says, students should expect to gain tactical skills that speak to technological changes, for example. Also, they should expect to gain a greater understanding of the multicultural, global, transnational work that goes on in public relations today.

The program you choose should relate to the type of organization you’re working for and your own background, Paluszek says, adding that educators are wise in presenting different models rather than a uniform approach given the wide spectrum of settings in which practitioners find themselves.

Jeanette L. Drake, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor teaching public relations in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Kent State University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. E-mail: jdrake2@kent.edu.


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