Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty. As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.
Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages. One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…
I was talking to a couple of colleagues yesterday over coffee about teaching Public Relations and something occurred to me.
PR students are, in some cases, better experts on some areas of PR than their supervisors.
Public Relations is a relatively young discipline. Many people who practice PR have no formal education; they’ve acquired their expertise informally – usually through experience.
As a result, the people who lead PR departments or agencies frequently don’t have a broad-based understanding of the profession. They may have come from hospitality with event-planning expertise, or from a news background (which gives them media relations expertise). While they have a very deep and nuanced understanding of those disciplines – they have relatively little or no awareness or education about some other areas of PR – which is a very broad field that encompasses many responsibilities, practices and tactics.
In my experience, this has proven to be true. I’ve worked in PR for over a decade and the majority of the leaders I’ve worked for fit this description. They have very strong skills in particular disciplines, but they invariably have blind spots as a result of how their knowledge was acquired. They may be experts on handling crises, but lack skills in measurement. Or they may excel at writing, but know very little about the legal concepts that apply to PR.
That broad base of knowledge is what the Public Relations Society of America’s “Accredited in Public Relations” (APR) designation works to remedy – the gaps in the whole profession that may have been missed through one’s career in the profession.
It can be intimidating to be an intern or an entry-level PR pro sitting at the table with leaders who have decades of experience on you. PR pros who are young to the practice should take confidence from the fact that in addition to the fresh perspective they can offer, they may also offer leaders knowledge they may not have.
This window of opportunity likely won’t be open forever though.
Public Relations is now a formal degree offered by an increasing number of colleges and universities, so eventually the majority of PR pros will have some formal education. I tried to track down the first college/university to offer a PR degree and found references to Boston University – but despite Google and leafing through a couple of PR textbooks I’ve not been able to locate a history of PR higher education (and if anyone knows the historical roots of formal education in PR – I’d love to hear about them).
Mike Petroff at .eduGuru had a clever rebuttal (“Redesign Your University Website According to xkcd”) to the criticism posed by the recent XKCD cartoon chastising college/university websites.
Having been involved in higher education web design for the better part of my professional life, I thought it might be valuable to break down the “whys” behind the problematic aspects of so many sites. The common theme for most of them is trying to reach too many audiences with the front page of the website.
Things on the Front Page of a University Website (and why they’re there):
- Campus Photo Slideshow
Limited technical resources, a lengthy approval process, and an inability to shrug off the old constraints of print media are to blame for the ubiquity of campus photo slideshows. The prevailing belief is that people like to see people who look like them (and apparently also pictures of the buildings they’ll be studying in) so that’s what makes the montages the dominant content. Problem is though, colleges have such a diverse constituency that in an attempt to depict it all an incomprehensible mashup results.
- Alumni in the News
Most schools see alumni as an important constituent group; they contribute money, they give their time, and they serve as good evidence to the community that the school is successful in its mission. Administrators also figure that students are compelled to attend by seeing examples of the outcomes of education.
- Promotions for Campus Events
Current students and community members one of the many audiences served by college websites, and as a nod to the outdated principles of traditional advertising, most schools think that advertising events on a high-traffic page will result in higher attendance.
- Press Releases
Yet another of the many disparate audiences that colleges/universities cater to is the media, and the public relations side of the college try to make information as accessible as possible. Most schools also use press releases as their method of disseminating news to students and the community.
- Statement of the School’s Philosophy
This is one of those mandatory “the president/chancellor/board of trustees says” items that no one really reads, but which is given disproportionate attention.
- Letter From the President
Again – another “president says” item that everyone feels is mandatory. These letters are also included in printed materials like the catalog where they’re also summarily ignored (and often the letter on the website is exactly the same as the letter in print).
- Virtual Tour
For whatever reason, college administrators are enamored with the spaces in which they work and figure this will be a selling point to prospective students. To be fair, this may be the case for large universities that have impressive, sprawling, ivy-covered campuses – but it’s not the case for the majority of schools.
Things People go to the Site Looking For (and why they can’t find them):
- List of Faculty Numbers and Emails
Actually many school sites do have faculty numbers/emails, and of those – many have them accessible from the front page of the site in a “people finder”/”phone directory.” Trouble is, the lists are often incomplete or hard to find. This is attributable to a couple of factors: 1) many sites are organized by department, so one needs to find the department of the faculty member to find their contact info, and 2) many adjunct faculty are not listed because they change regularly from semester-to-semester and most schools don’t have a publicly-available database of this info. That’s not to say that there isn’t a database – there is in the form of the human resources department. Understaffed IT departments usually don’t have the time/resources to write the scripts necessary to query these secure databases.
- Campus Address
This is actually an unfair criticism; most college/university sites have the campus address in either the header or the footer of every page on the site.
- Application Forms
This is also a curious inclusion as most schools prominently display an “apply now” button on the front page of the site (and nowadays the link usually goes to an online application form – as opposed to a printed copy that one would need to mail/fax in).
- Academic Calendar
Ideally the academic calendar should be merged with all of the other campus activities calendars into one super-calendar tool that is easily searchable. Unfortunately as is the case with many other enterprise databases, the tools are either powerful OR user-friendly; never both. Most schools have complex space reservation management systems (because in addition to scheduling thousands of sections of classes, they have myriad events happening on campus and often maintain catering/room rental operations) – but it’s difficult to crowbar these into being user-friendly calendars. Conversely, static web pages or simple databases can’t handle the load that event schedulers require, so a lot of schools have both.
- Campus Police Phone Number
Good point. I have no excuse for this not being on the front page of the website; though I would say that it’s unlikely in an emergency that anyone would take the time to fire up their laptop/mobile browser and go surfing for the campus police number – they’d likely just dial 911.
- Department/Course Lists
This is another unfortunate case of enterprise databases clinging stingily to the data they hold. While departments are usually a common part of any college website navigation scheme, the course lists are not. They’re either hidden behind the wall of a database (with an insufferably complex search tool) or they’re locked inside of a static PDF.
- Parking Information
- Usable Campus Map
The campus map is an unfortunate case of trying to appropriate static content designed for the world of print materials for the web, so JPGs and PDFs are turned into web content. Fortunately the tide is turning, given how open Google and Bing are with their interactive maps – so now many schools are able to embed helpful, dynamic maps into their sites (without having to have a Flash designer on staff).