What does #PRSAICON mean to me? Reflections from a PR professor

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(Photo credit: Zignal Labs)

Informative, innovative, and invigorating – these are the words that come to my mind when I think of the recent PRSA international conference in Atlanta from Nov. 8 to 10, 2015. If you were fortunate enough to attend the conference in person, you know how much great content you have packed away.  While I wasn’t able to attend the conference in person, I managed to participate actively through the #PRSAICON hashtag. For three days, I was glued to my phone, tweeting, retweeting, commenting, and giving favorites.  As a teacher of public relations, several highlights strongly resonated with me. I will share these highlights with you in the order of Inspire, Content, Outcome, and New (ICON) given how much I loved their ICON hashtag.


To quote William Arthur Ward, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  To me, the most challenging part of being a good teacher is indeed to inspire students to have passion for the field and for lifelong learning even after their formal education approaches an end. At this year’s PRSA conference, there were several keynote presentations that were inspiring and memorable.


Daniel Lubetzky (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

For example, Daniel Lubetzky, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship, talked about the importance of strategic communications in establishing a brand. As the founder and CEO of KIND, Lubetzky also discussed in length about the importance of mission and how that should be the defining feature for an organization. Having a strong mission is a critical driving force behind their successful #kindawesome campaign.


James Kane (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

James Kane, a behavioral scientist and consultant, offered an in-depth discussion about loyalty and what makes someone loyal to another person, an organization or a cause. I particularly liked his distinction between “satisfaction” and “loyalty.” Whereas satisfaction is a mood and is in the past, reflecting what brands have done for their customers, loyalty talks about behaviors and the future, entailing what your publics can do for your brands.


Sheryl Connelly (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

As a futurist, Sheryl Connelly gave an inspiring talk about the future. Connelly is the lead person at the Global Trends and Futuring Department at Ford Motor Company. Specifically, she offers six tips to think strategically about the future. These tips are:

  • You can’t be afraid of the future.
  • Explore the things you can’t control or influence.
  • It is better to be generally right than to be precisely wrong.
  • Be provocative.
  • Be plausible.
  • The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Among those, the first and last are my favorites. As an educator teaching such a fast-paced industry as public relations, it is important to be uncomfortable with the status quo. If we are afraid of change and the future, we will communicate that fear to the students. In a way, we educators should all be the futurists of our PR education and classrooms by initiating and embracing change. Students in turn can mirror that and at least become change-adaptors rather than resisters.


In today’s information-overloaded society, it has become increasingly competitive for anyone or brand to stand out among their peers. Lee Odden (@LeeOdden) talked about the emerging trend of content co-creation and participation marketing in the sense that content was co-created by brands and their internal and external influences (check out his slide here if you want to know more about his talk on crowdsourcing content). And here’s some food for thought for educators: How can we co-create a course curriculum between the professor and a professional influencer  in the industry?

On a personal level, Odden suggested that an important question to ask is, “What is the singular specific thing you want to be known for? Specificity makes you stand out and takes you to the top.” He offered three specific tips to cultivate a strong personal brand online: to create, curate and network. He suggested that we start with specific and then expand, give, influence and scale. The giving part echoed with me strongly. As in the Chinese language, there are two words to describe “receiving,” which are “giving” and “receiving”. This means that one cannot receive without giving. It is through giving that one is receiving. This perfectly describes the role of PR professionals as content creators and distributors. By creating and sharing useful content, we bring people to our businesses. Likewise, Shonali Burke (@shonali) talks about generous offering. She urged people to think more about “what’s in it for them?” as opposed to “what’s in it for me?” to bring more traffic to one’s website for example.  


Today’s PR is a lot different than before. The digital landscape has transformed how public relations is practiced and measured. As Shonali Burke (@shonali), nicely put, “Social media engagement and consumer empowerment” are two of the biggest changes to PR over the past five years. With a wide range of tools, apps, and software, should it be Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on Relationship (ROR), creating desirable and measuring PR outcomes have become a lot easier. One effective channel to ensure good outcomes is to engage and interact with influencers. As Burke said, “Engage with influencers by listening to them, participating in what they’re doing and curating their content.” At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of paid posts, as Steve Radick (@sradick) stressed, “Paid posts can get just as much engagement as the most compelling editorial.”

Even for common activities such as storytelling and media pitching, the digital evolution has shifted how things used to be done. As Radick suggested, “We must stop thinking of ourselves as story ’salespeople,’ and start thinking of ourselves as story-creators.” Cathy Hackl (@CathyHackl) shared her personal example of how she used Periscope as an effective tool to build relationships with journalists.  Michael Smart, who is an expert on storytelling and media pitching, offered refreshing and empowering advice on pitching. For example, he discussed how the commonly practiced “spray and pray” method is not effective when it comes to media pitching and will not give you the outcomes that you aim. Customizing one’s pitch is crucial, which he reiterated several times. In fact, Cision did a #pitchpromise to invite people to pledge “to learn influencers’ contact preferences and abide by them.” Many attendees took the ledge. Smart also suggested using less crowded channels to reach out to reporters such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook messaging to ensure successful pitching.


What is something new that you tried and learned lately? Do you have a priority list of tools, apps, or software to learn or courses to take? Lifelong learning is a strong theme mentioned by lots of attendees and presenters. Take Periscope as an example. Cathy Hackl (@CathyHackl ) offered an informative and engaging in-person and periscoping session on Periscope. You can watch the replay of her talk here. She discussed the power of Periscope as a live-streaming tool to manage crises. Hackl also believed that live-streaming apps are the missing link between TV and social media.


(Photo credit: Casey Cawthon)

Analytical tools and software are another popular topic at this year’s conference. Zignal labs, with their impressive screens capturing data trends and patterns, hosted an amazing command center that attracted a good number of professionals and educators. I really hope you caught their display if you attended the conference in person. If you want to know more about this tool and identify ways to incorporate this into teaching, please contact DJ Waldow (@djwaldow).

In conclusion, I hope this recap is Inspiring for you to read, gives you some good Content to ponder, offers you some ideas to achieve better Outcomes, and provide you with a few New tools and apps to explore. As an educator, I am constantly seeking ways to improve my teaching and to better prepare students for today’s rapidly changing and developing industry. I love the 1% rule discussed by Shonali Burke (@shonali), which states: 1% of the population creates news, 9% share and curate news, and 90% consume the news. Innovators fall into that 1%. How can we help our students become that 1%? It starts right now in the classroom. There’s a lot that we can do to prepare our students. With the communication firing back and forth between academia and the industry, the opportunities to innovate our classrooms and prepare our students are endless. Of course, there was a lot to absorb from the conference, whether you attended in person or digitally. To end this post, I would love to use what Deirdre Breakenridge (@dbreakenridge) shared during one of the “express learning” sessions. “Listen, watch and learn” — this is how we reinvent ourselves and reignite our careers, as educators, students, and/or professionals.

Public Relations Education & Learning: Reflections on the #PRStudChat on Oct. 13, 2015 (Part II)

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(Pic credit: Deirdre Breakenridge’s website)

Remember what we discussed last time about a #PRStudChat that focused on public relations teaching and learning. Here are more of my takeaway insights.

Describe your best PR professor. What made him/her so effective? 

Just in case you are wondering if you have all the important traits to be an effective teacher, here they are: integrating real-world cases with teaching; hands-on projects; challenging students creatively; helping students make professional connections; sharing real life stories and lessons; setting high expectations; being tough but fair; being knowledgeable of and updated with the field; being passionate, inspirational, and confident; and offering service learning and client work. Whew! That seems to be a LONG list. I know I still have lots of work to do! How about you?

What are your recommendations for improving PR education? 

There were a lot of different answers and great suggestions, but one theme strongly stood out: the need to make PR education more applicable to the industry, which I wholeheartedly agree. As one student tweeted this directly, “Make curriculum as close to real world as possible. As a senior, I want all the practice I can get.” Similarly, Patrick Merle posited a challenge to PR professors, “Integrate projects to bridge academic-practitioner gap. Limit lecturing & increase challenging practice.” I think the best way to ensure such integration is through service-learning projects, which help give a context for learning. I have been giving service-learning projects for a number of semesters with good results. Students may not like it at the beginning but they all ended up liking it and benefiting a lot from the hands-on experience.

Another important concept that emerged was, lifelong learning. People had a lively discussion about how this should be reflected in PR curricula. As Kirk tweeted, PR education “should always be fine-tuning to ensure providing most current knowledge. Never stop learning; never stop growing”. I think that as educators, we can also think of ourselves as PR professionals. In fact, even though we may not work for organizations (although some of us do professional consulting), we can still keep pace with industry trends, understand the practical realities of PR work, and incorporate all of that into our teaching. Again, Kirk puts it well, “If WE (profs) don’t know latest trends, how can we prepare YOU for your future?” And this raises a good point specifically for educators’ career development in the academy: how can we gain time and support to develop our professional sides? Often (depending on the institution), tenure-track professors are rewarded more for producing academic publications and bringing in research funding, as opposed to making themselves relevant to the field. But another educator pointed out, “Professional development is as important as scholarly research and publication. Need to give credit to professors who make an effort to develop and network.” I feel lucky to be at a university where teaching and professional development are highly valued, but I have friends and colleagues at other schools who are focused solely on research, and not on keeping up with relevant trends. Although academic research is certainly important, we can’t forget about the young professionals for whose future we are in part responsible. Producing graduates who are uninspired and uneducated about the current state of the industry is detrimental to students, the field, and the credibility of the institutions responsible for their education.

How has extracurricular activities such as PRSSA involvement and internship helped your career and professional development?

For a highly applied field like PR, you simply cannot learn everything in the classroom. The more you get involved, the higher is your ROI on education. Should it be doing internal or external internships, joining a club, working for a local organization, or serving as volunteers, hands-on experience is students’ best teacher and number one motivator. Among all, there is one organization that is close to my heart that brings the highest value to students: PRSSA. As the faculty advisor for my school’s PRSSA Chapter, I saw so many students transformed as a result of their leadership experience in PRSSA. At my school, we just launched our student-run PR firm this fall. What a valuable learning experience it has been so far: working with clients, practicing leadership skills, receiving trainings in digital PR and graphic design, and developing a true bond among one another. It’s simply one of the best experiences that could happen to any student. If you are still not sure about PRSSA, listen up – students and professionals are speaking:

  • “Prssa introduced me to a network of profs. & taught the me technical skills to better promote other clubs I was involved in.”
  • “PRSSA has taught me the importance of networking & to be open to new experiences.”
  • “Attending #PRSSA events & engaging with mentors at workshops gave me a clearer picture of what PR path I wanted to take.”
  • “PRSSA is also great for developing leadership skills.”
  • #PRSSA can provide opportunities to expand your portfolio and gain experience to help land that first job or internship.”

To that end, as Patrick Merle tweeted, ““PRSSA= high value. #PR profs must understand that preventing students from exposure to this group is detrimental to careers”. I certainly don’t want to be a disservice to a field that I feel so passionate about.

Knowing what you know today, would you recommend PR as a major? Why/why not?

Yes, absolutely! I love PR because I truly enjoy the relationship building aspect of this profession, the ever-changing nature of the industry, and the positive impact that we could bring to society. As Deirdre Breakenridge said, “I would absolutely recommend PR as a major. After 25+ years … still loving what I do!” I hope I can say the same thing about PR twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-five years down the road. Regardless you are a student, teacher, or professional, lifelong learning is the key. Otherwise, you will indeed end up being a slow turtle competing with a none-resting rabbit. The result, you will be devoured by the pace of change.

Thank you to Deirdre and Valerie for this wonderful opportunity to partake in a topic that I feel so close to my heart and passionate about. It is professionals like you that make me feel passionate about teaching and see hope in the next generation. Thank YOU both!

This blog post was originally published on Deirdre Breakenridge’s blog. Please follow #PRStudChat on Twitter to stay updated with its latest chat!

Public Relations Education & Learning: Reflections on the #PRStudChat on Oct. 13, 2015 (Part I)

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(Pic credit: Deirdre Breakenridge’s website)

“To learn without thinking, one will be lost in his learning. To think without learning, one will be imperiled.” – Confucius

Learning and reflecting are my daily staples. After all, I am an educator, right? I have been teaching communication/public relations courses for a decade, if you include the earlier years when I was a Teaching Assistant at Syracuse University and the University of Maryland. Compared to many other seasoned educators, I still have a lot to learn and reflect upon. However, if I may, one thing that I learned about teaching over the years is that to be a good teacher, one has to be a lifelong student. Especially in today’s digital age, there are always a plethora of things to learn. Sounds intimidating? Yes, for sure! However, we all know the famous story of the race between a studious turtle and a lazy rabbit. To me, the ever-changing PR landscape is like a rabbit, while we are all like turtles crawling along to catch up. As long as we don’t stop walking or learning, even turtles can win the race and be ahead of the game.

Since graduate school, a question that has been in my mind is whether or not undergraduate PR education is teaching students the necessary skill- and knowledge-set to succeed in today’s job market. How can I improve my teaching to better train my students? What are the latest tools and trends that I should be bringing my classes and curricula? What else should I be doing to help students excel? These are some of the underlying motives that pushed me reach out to Deirdre Breakenridge to discuss the possibility of hosting a #PRStudChat with an exclusive focus on the status quo of undergraduate PR education. I was delighted when Deirdre said YES. I was dancing in the room with my four-year-old boy. On October 13, 2015, I joined an invigorating #PRStudChat with my fellow educators, students, and professionals about Teaching and Learning in Public Relations. I am going to share what I learned from this informative chat in two separate blog posts because there’s a lot to be covered.

What courses does/did your school’s PR major offer?

The Commission on Public Relations Education developed a five-core-course requirement for schools that offer undergraduate public relations education. If you use this as the requirement, the good news is that public relations curricula across the board seem to meet the requirement. Most schools offer the basic courses such as Introduction to PR, Writing, Research, Campaigns, Case Studies, and Crisis Communications. When it comes to electives, the not-so-good news is, that the breadth and depth of PR programs are not so standardized across the board and the overall quality does vary a lot. Whereas some schools do not have the luxury to offer students a wide range of electives, some other schools offered Communication Law, Social Media, Corporate Social Responsibility, (Advanced) Public Speaking, Programming, (Digital) Graphics/Production, Fundraising and Nonprofit Management, Professionalism, Sports and Entertainment, Tourism and Hospitality, and Health PR. I agree wholeheartedly with Natalie Tindall’s tweet, “For students at universities with many PR classes, you’re lucky. Some students don’t get depth of PR classes in uni curriculum.”

What classes outside of traditional PR classes are helpful for a future PR pro? 

The most noticeable difference between traditional and today’s new-age PR practice is probably the digital divide. In today’s digital world, every digital skill is an asset or maybe even a must to students’ career success. It is interesting to note that social media has not yet entered mainstream PR curricula. Among programs that do incorporate digital training, social media is typically listed as an elective. However, as student Kyle Wallace pinpointed, “Social media should really be a core in every program! I took it as an elective.” Can I high five that a million times? As someone who teaches most of my school’s PR courses, I can say that students are NOT as digitally and technologically savvy as we assumed. If we don’t train students these important digital skills while they are in school, who else can train them? As Karen Freberg, a social media professor and guru, tweeted, social media class “can serve as a bridge for other majors like sports, business, etc.” She raises a great point — once students start working, they will need to interact and work with people from all different disciplines; they need that breadth in their spectrum of knowledge.

Some other non-traditional courses mentioned by the participants were: analytics; business operations and finance; psychology courses; statistics; marketing courses; organizational behavior; branding/brand management; graphic design; project management; customer service; ethics; sociology; psychology; language/writing; English literature; philosophy; neuroscience; visual storytelling; and video production.

How has your PR education prepared you for your career?

I have to say that the real PR education for me started after I earned my doctoral degree in PR. Sounds ironic? Don’t get me wrong. My doctoral study definitely laid a solid foundation for me in terms theory and research. However, it is through doing, teaching, getting involved in PRSSA, managing campaigns, handling crises, and interacting with professionals that I truly learned what PR means, fell in love with the field, and became a loyal advocate of it. I resonate with what Valerie Simon tweeted, “A good PR education can change the way you research, question, plan and measure!” So true!

For an applied field such as PR, learning does not have to happen in classrooms; nor does it end as formal education approaches a finishing line. Quite the contrary, at least based on my experience, the end of formal education opens a new chapter in real learning, i.e., lifelong learning. I call this a student mindset, which means that we also have to be resilient to change, striving to be a change initiator – or at least a change follower – as opposed to a resistor. When something new is here, be excited about it, play with it, and embrace it. As educators, maybe we won’t be pioneers in the technology world. However, we can be the change in our classroom. We can always give a new tweak to how we teach an old class. I love changing how I teach an existing class by adding new elements, mostly digital elements nowadays. Even for the basic research class, as Patrick Merle challenged, educators “need to move away from the traditional survey-focus group content.” Agreed wholeheartedly!

What are the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary PR programs?

It shouldn’t be surprising that students like PR training that is practical as opposed to purely theoretical. They want to learn through hands-on projects and internships. After all, PR folks are called practitioners, right? If you are looking for ways to improve your school’s PR program, here are several things that people like the most about their respective schools’ PR programs: community engagement, service-learning, active PRSSA chapters, guest speakers, group project, professor connections, and adjuncts.

Two aspects stood out to me here: professor connections and adjuncts. Professors are students’ first assets! As professors, we have to constantly learn and network to enrich students’ learning and expand their professional networks. I cannot overemphasize the importance of professors’ professional connections. I have benefited tremendously through attending my school and other local schools’ PRSSA events and networking with professionals via social media, for example, participating in this awesome #PRStudChat. Doing these things are “time consuming” if you want to think that way. However, the benefits far outweigh the time invested. I have met so many remarkable professionals through blog posts I have written, or a comment that I made on someone else’s blog, or a twitter chat in which I participated. Once you build a relationship with them, they are willing to network with you and share their experience with your students. For example, Carrie Morgan, an experienced PR pro, decided to host a twitter chat with my entire Intro to PR class this semester. How awesome is that? As Deirdre Breakenridge perfectly described, social media brings professors and students together! We need more of that type of collaborative learning! Because in real life, students do not only work with students; they work with everyone!

In terms of adjuncts, Kirk Hazlett said it perfectly, “Adjuncts bring “freshness” of profession…’Here’s what I did TODAY’ versus ‘Here’s what the book says’.” When you share something you did, you are more credible, persuasive, and of course more successful at teaching your students. I feel so honored to interact with seasoned practitioners who are also adjuncts, such as Jason Mollica and Deirdre Breakenridge. They are invaluable assets to PR education. I cannot imagine teaching a PR class without bringing in any professionals as guest speakers.

Weaknesses: Students are hungry for courses on social media, social media analytics and measurement, digital graphic design, and everything else that is digital. A few courses that got favored are: Social Media Strategy and Tactics, Grassroots Digital Advocacy, and Visual Strategies in Strategic Communication. From faculty’s perspective, there should be more emphasis on research, experimental designs, causality training…” The bottom line is, PR students should NOT be afraid of numbers. For all of us, to push forward PR education, as Bonnie Riechert tweeted, “We should continue to evolve the curriculum, adding new courses and content.” To that end, faculty members need to sound a concerted voice that says that academia needs to allow faster change. As I always say, hierarchy kills innovation!

To be continued …

This blog was originally published on Deirdre Breakenridge’s blog. Please follow #PRStudChat to stay updated with the latest chat and update!

My Social Media Journey as a Public Relations Professor


March 2015, one week before spring break, I received my first wake-up call as an educator who teaches public relations and communication courses at Stockton University in NJ, US. I noticed that my students are not digitally savvy at all. Maybe this is no news to you, but I was shocked by it. I had always thought that my students are more digitally advanced than me! However, I was wrong. Some of them have never heard of Pinterest, social influncers or even used Twitter. When I heard that, I realized that there is a hole in my teaching. I need to fix this if I want to train my students to become competent players or even find jobs in today’s increasingly competitive (digital) market.

The first step that I took was to train myself to become more tech savvy and overcome my own fear of the unknown! I have long been interested in topics related to social media, technology, pedagogy, and education in general. But, that’s about it. My interest stays at a superficial level. So, I asked myself, if I don’t become technologically savvy myself, how could I expect my students to be? It’s time for me to walk the talk! I chose to work on my twitter account first.

I had about 300 followers on my Twitter account in March 2015. I decided to build my twitter followers by being more engaged as we hear so much about engagement in PR and marketing! I picked up Twitter chat. I did participate in a few twitter chats here and there before, but never ventured into any in-depth relationship building or discussions. So, I started with #Raganchat first and loved every single chat. Then I didn’t participate in any until the spring semester was over (end-of-semster craziness)!

Then, over the summer, I went nuts about Twitter chats. I don’t even recall how many PR/marketing-related twitter chats that I participated, such as, #Sproutchat#Bufferchat#MeasurePR#PRProChat#Hootchat#PRStudChat#Pichat, and too many to be listed here. I cannot express enough how much I LOVED all the chats and how much I have learned and grown my Twitter followers (gained about 800 followers). This shows the importance of engagement and the amazing power of social media for professional development.

As an educator, I am constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve. For example, for the Fall semester, I am experimenting with lots of interesting things, google side (a class website), google slides, Pi App , about.me , and GIFs and emojis in lecture notes and assignments. I am loving every single change that I have made along the way. There is still so much for me to learn and I truly believe that we should all be lifelong learners in this journey called life. Finally, I want to give a big shoutout to Karen Freberg for her inspiration and dedication to social media and PR. I have learned SO much from her!

What’s your experience with social media and digital tools as an educator?