(Note: This article originally appeared on Tough Sledding.)
Girls, Girls, Girls! That Motley Crue classic might be a perfect theme song for public relations these days. But I gotta warn you, the video will set back women’s rights a hundred years! Link with caution!
Public relations belongs to the “girls” in 2008. Some 70% of PR practitioners and 80% of PR students today are women. At Kent State it’s closer to 90%. In the communication biz, PR has become the new nursing. I know what you’re thinking: So what? Women do well in PR, don’t they? They do, indeed. But if you embrace diversity as I do, you have to worry about the trend line. Today’s public relations practice is out of whack gender-wise. The absence of men — particularly among the 20- and 30-somethings — hurts our profession and it hurts those who employ us. Men and women view the world differently. We bring different values to the table, thus different perspectives to PR problem-solving. So today I launch a one-man campaign to bring gender diversity back to public relations. Care to talk about it? I have the summer off!
In search of the missing man
Students in my PR Case Studies class conducted about 70 on-campus intercepts to learn what male undergrads knew and how they felt about the PR major. In addition, students interviewed over 20 high school English/journalism teachers via phone or email. They also talked to their own classmates to learn what drew them to the major. Finally, we surveyed 120 students in a big-box freshman mass communication class. While none of this research is generalizable, it does provide direction for future study. It also gave my students a foundation for creating their PR plans to attract more guys to public relations. Next week I’ll do a second post to share the best strategies and tactics from our plans. But first, here’s what we learned:
High school students don’t know about PR.
Most freshman and sophomore men told us that studying PR was never a consideration before coming to Kent State. Even some of the seniors interviewed were unaware that Kent State had a PR major. Discussions among our own PR students (mostly women) reveal only about one in ten came to Kent State intending to study public relations. Most began in other fields and were drawn to PR through word of mouth. This also could explain why so few PR majors graduate in 4 years!
High-school influentials know little about PR.
Only one of the high school journalism teachers we interviewed had any professional background in public relations. Few discuss PR careers among their students, even though many of those students have the perfect skill set for it. Said one teacher: “I just don’t know enough about public relations, so I don’t talk about it.”
Update: Forgot to mention that high school journalism programs are experiencing a shift toward females that’s similar to PR’s: very pronounced. So journalism programs may not be the ideal recruiting spot for PR. But since most high school journalism advisers are also English teachers, it still may be a conduit to good writers
PR myths are alive and well on campus. Said one student during the intercepts:
“When I think of PR, I always picture a girl, because
all of the PR majors I know are women. It’s a default general
stereotype. Plus, it’s harder to tell if a woman is lying, so they’re
probably better at the job.”
While a good many of our young men at Kent State see PR as “liars for hire,” most seem to know of the skills it takes to succeed in the major. They correctly identify writing, public speaking and organizational as central to a PR career.
Men in the large mass communication class (mostly freshmen) seem unaffected by the “chick” stereotypes voice by upperclassmen. More than 3 in 5 called the statement, “Men and women are equally suited to public relations jobs,” very accurate. But here’s a reality check for you: Not one of the 32 men in the freshman mass comm class has selected the PR major. Not one.
Some of this is our own fault!
Students don’t know about the PR major in part because we don’t tell them. PR for the PR major — at least at Kent State — is pretty much nonexistent. Some findings from my students’ secondary research:
PR on the website?
Good luck researching the PR major on our main website or the School of Journalism site. Information is sparse and hard to find. Type the key words “public relations” into the School of Journalism site and you get — wow — nothing. The search feature isn’t operating at all. Type the same words into the Kent State site and atop the list is an item on “newsroom convergence” from our alumni magazine. Not one of the top-ten links leads to useful information on the major. Clearly, we need to work on our web content and our search engine optimization for PR.
Face-to-face opportunities are overlooked, too.
This year alone our Center for Scholastic Journalism will bring some 1,500 high school journalists to campus for 4 or 5 separate events. For each of those events, the PR major will supply only one guest speaker who will see about 40 students for about 30 minutes. That’s it. The other 1,450 students won’t hear a peep about PR during their visits to Kent. Too bad, because most are scholastic journalists won’t pursue journalism in college. And way too many won’t consider careers in PR, in part because we didn’t tell them about it. Oh yeah. The Center for Scholastic Journalism also hosts a handful of events for high school journalism advisers every year. What an opportunity to enlighten these teachers about careers in public relations. But we haven’t.
Academic advisers on campus don’t know about PR, either.
The advisers meet with some 3,500 incoming freshmen every year are without the information they need. Imagine if just a handful of them became messengers for public relations. We could do this with a handful of orientation sessions. But we haven’t. I’ll be the first to boast that we do a fine job preparing students to practice public relations, but we do a poor job managing our own. I didn’t need 14 PR majors in my Case Studies class to tell me this. Well, maybe I did.
More to do, more to learn
We need to build on this research and spread it across the country and around the world. Some thoughts on how to do that:
Survey a larger and move diverse group of college freshmen.
Our one on-campus survey had some flaws, but it gave us a solid picture of how incoming students view PR. We should expand that survey to a sample of campuses around the country, and we should target students beyond those in “mass communication” courses.
Interview a broader sample of teachers.
Highschool journalism and English teachers can be key influencers, but we need more input to understand what they know and how we might assist their students.
Interview high school journalism students who come to Kent State.
It’s a convenience sample, to be sure, but it will help us better understand how these kids make career decisions. Some 1,500 of them will come to our campus next year. Why not talk to them? If you have more ideas, post a comment or send an email. Also, if you’re interested teaming up on some additional research on the topic, I’m all ears.
Bill Sledzik is an associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. Bill teaches courses in public relations and media ethics. He blogs at Tough Sledding.