Jonathan Wilson, senior lecturer and course leader for the Advertising & Marketing Communications Management course at the University of Greenwich, in London, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Islamic Marketing, is speaking at the Global PR Trends Summit, which is slated to take place in Doha, Qatar, on June 1. He sits down with Communicate for a chat on how communications sectors, in particular PR, have evolved as academic disciplines.
What is the context in which you are partaking in the Global PR Trends Summit and what will you be discussing?
I’m probably the only academic in the lineup of speakers at the event. If I am to be honest, academics have a bad reputation with practitioners; there is a perception that we’re out of touch, that we can’t make interesting points and that we’re boring. There might be some truth in that. I think the reason that I’m at the event is that I used to be a practitioner; I started off my career in marketing and communications, did some PR and then crossed over to academia. You can’t lecture in branding, advertising or PR and not do any yourself. Students are paying a lot of money, they’re not stupid and their expectations are very high. From my perspective, I like to look at public relations and branding together – which I believe require different curriculums than for advertising or marketing – and I think the future of education in this field will be tying these two disciplines together.
How has PR changed as an academic discipline?
If I am to look at Greenwich as an example, there is a lot more specialization. Writing press releases is a very small part of that. People know that in order to do PR, you have to learn a lot of culture, geography, history, politics and so on. Today, people are very interested in trying to understand zeitgeists and get pockets of information that help them understand different cultures, so they can communicate with them. In that sense, I think there is a more cultural element in PR today.
We also now have specialist courses on political PR and other industries, because each of them requires a different communication skill set and media spectrum. Also, PR students tend to have very specific ambitions and plans; they actually start mapping their career and work in different industries while still at university.
Is PR education in line with the industry’s evolution and trends?
The challenge is, if you’ve got a PR course, do you make it really practical? And by practical, I mean having the students produce PA (private assistant) and not PR work – such as following up on press releases – and not necessarily honing their skills to become leaders. From my experience, the great people that I’ve met have not necessarily studied PR.
Throughout their careers, they’ve been in leadership roles; Mary Jo Jacobi and her husband, that’s a powerful couple. She worked with Ronald Reagan and he was in the navy before becoming the private secretary to Princess Diana. They have the ability to influence senior decision makers. At universities, you will either get courses that are more practical – in which case you would only be graduating low-level junior professionals – or you try to do something a bit more ambitious, in which case PR students will have to study behavioral psychology, anthropology and political science, among others.
Are these fields being integrated across PR courses? On this note, how have curriculums changed for PR degrees?
I think each of my colleagues will bring their own perspective. One of them has a PHD in Singaporean literature; language is very important to her. My PHD was more philosophical; I looked at the likes of Aristotle and Socrates to understand communication. So, I find that when I am teaching students PR, they have to have a fundamentally good grounding in science; they also need to be up to speed with technology and social media, and they have to be in touch with anthropology. One of the tasks I assigned students was to identify the countries in Asia and the Middle East region in which people put milk in their tea.
The trick is, they have to apply all these disciplines to business. That’s the difference between studying sociology and political science and doing a business discipline such as PR. Especially at universities, PR has had to become more academic, because otherwise, it wouldn’t have any credibility and PR scholars would still be looked at as practitioners with secretarial skills.
What do you reckon are the trends that will shape PR education in the future?
In addition to the intertwinement of PR, branding, technology, anthropology and culture, I think PR people will have to look closely at the channels through which they are publishing their work. Academia has traditionally followed this route of academic journals. The problem with that, however, is that they take too much time to come out. Because of the nature of the discipline, PR academics will start to publish their work using more online and social platforms. Now, I am trying to get anything [I write] out as quickly as possible; I am contributing to the Huffington Post and even for a fashion and lifestyle magazine in Singapore.
And if I get my story out in Singapore, which is a really thriving area, it gets picked up in London. I told my students that at the end of the year, they have to get readapt their best essays to publish them online.