There’s a brilliant paradox described by marketing author Seth Godin. He was writing about the Catch 22 facing advertisers two decades ago: ‘The more they spend the less it works. The less it works, the more they spend.’
A similar paradox has taken place in higher education. Higher fees (or rather, greater levels of student debt) have not yet dampened demand. It’s to be welcomed that more people have taken up the opportunity to benefit from higher education.
What higher fees have resulted in is a building boom. And vice chancellors are now well paid in recognition that they’re running large, complex organisations facing many competitive and regulatory challenges.
With the fees came the statistics that measure universities on a range of metrics. Prominent among these is ‘student satisfaction.’
A successful university now has to recruit a student in the first place, retain them and then ensure that by their final year they’re a satisfied customer.
Are fee-paying students likely to be satisfied with challenging teaching, long reading lists and tough marking and feedback? Or are they more likely to be satisfied with teaching that helps them achieve their desired results with as little effort as possible?
Is it any wonder that nationally more than one in four of all students now graduate with a First?
This is a preamble to explaining why encouraging students to blog is a hard slog.
You either build it into an assessment, which gives students the incentive but risks resulting in lots of dutiful and uninspired posts (and unlike conventional assignments, these are being shared in public for anyone to see), or you encourage students to blog as an individual side project. This is challenging because it’s difficult and the rewards seem intangible.
I'm not alone in this. University of South Wales has been prominent in #bestPRblogs. Yet this Twitter exchange reveals the same concerns:
Students are increasingly transactional in their learning approach. They are usually focused on assignments and based on my teaching experience they don't like creative assessments eg. blogging, creating digital magazines etc. They prefer essays which is profoundly depressing.— MSc Public Relations (@USW_PR) March 14, 2019
That’s what I meant last week when I described our leading PR student bloggers as outliers rather than products of a system. My words were interpreted as a criticism of their efforts by some lecturers, but that was not my intention. I was attempting to give most of the credit to some exceptional individuals.
Of course students should gain some textbook learning on their courses. Of course they should have some familiarity with the key authors and debates in the field. Of course there’s a place for academic writing and referencing in higher education.
At some point you need to put in the hours on the road, in a safe environment, that allows you to improve your skills and make non-fatal mistakes.
What’s the public relations equivalent to hours coordinating gear changes and use of the mirror?
I’d argue it’s three things, and they are probably better learnt by blogging than by classroom exercises.
That’s still true of public relations, though we’re making strides to be more accountable.
Take an imaginary start-up business, Company X. Its Product X is an innovation that promises to save time and money.
So why haven’t you heard of it? Because it’s new, because many other businesses claim to offer similar benefits, and because it hasn’t managed to cut through the noise.
An advertising campaign would be expensive, and would be unlikely to be effective as we filter out those we’re willing to pay attention to. We’re not likely to listen to someone we’ve not heard of.
What’s needed is a public relations campaign that builds credibility through independent voices (‘third party endorsement’). Depending on the product and sector, this is likely to involve a mix of journalists, academics, employee advocates, analysts and other experts, celebrities and social media influencers.
You need to know who they are. You need to know how to inform and inspire them (in other words, you need arguments in the form of content). You then need to measure the reach and the persuasive impact of these messages.
You need to build up your content (one blog post does not make you a winner). You need to expand and strengthen your network (who reads your content or even knows it’s there?). You need some means of measuring your progress and justifying the time invested (ROI).
It’s not easy, but some lessons are best learnt the hard way.
My worry about the #bestPRblogs contest is that by singling out the successes (the outliers), I make it harder rather than easier for others to reach for this level. They might be put off from even trying.
It’s a risk. But we have to take some risks, especially when the rewards are so apparent.
It’s also a reminder of the power laws governing online content. Anyone can have a blog. Anyone can create social media content. But not everyone becomes a top-ranked influencer.
While higher education shows that anyone can achieve success, the laws governing online content are much less egalitarian. Algorithms and social sharing have produced a winner-takes-all world.
It’s right that academics should condemn inequality and should seek to make the world a better place. But we also need to prepare students for the world as it is.
If you’re a student aspiring to work in public relations, there are many things you can and should be doing to enhance your prospects.
But a grounding in blogging is as good a starting point as any I can think of. So why not sign up for Marcel Klebba and Stephen Waddington's CommsSchool? Don’t worry - it’s free (though like all good things, you will have to work at it).
And keep an eye on our weekly selection of practitioner content published at PR Place under #ThisWeekinPR. When you add podcasts, media commentary and LinkedIn Pulse articles to individual and group blogs, you realise just how lively and interesting this is as a field.
When you consider that these practitioners are mostly seeking talented individuals to hire and to collaborate with, then that’s another compelling reason to start blogging - for personal branding.
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.