Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Becoming a Professor

I don't know if it's a sudden increase in teaching or the unfortunate economy and the layoffs of both PR professionals and journalists, but I have been having an increasing number of requests for coffee or lunch to answer questions people have about being a professor. 

I spoke on this subject recently for the West Michigan PRSA chapter--my presentation is available on Slide Share  if you missed it. That presentation reviewed the basics of being a part-time adjunct or making the transition to full-time professor as either a visiting/affiliate professor or as a tenure-track professor. 

But I need to expand on that overview with three general comments related to letters, emails, and applications I've seen recently from some would-be professors:

1. Consider how you tout your experience.
Many professionals trying to impress university search committees include a phrase in their cover letters that they have "actual business experience." My first reaction: of course. We would not expect you to apply for a job teaching PR if you had no experience in the field. That is not a statement that sets you apart--that's a basic expectation for all candidates. I would add, by the way, that PR experience could also be in the nonprofit and government sectors, where a significant number of PR practitioners work. Knowledge/experience of PR in multiple contexts is vital. Secondly, it implies that the full-time faculty currently on staff do not have experience. This is not necessarily true; where I teach and at universities across the country I know legions of professors who teach PR and have worked in the field before. And if they have not, having a PhD and no PR job on the resume does not mean one is removed from reality. Many life-long academics are well informed on PR  from their empirically sound research and other connections with the profession. Third, while there's no doubt that work experience in PR is an asset in the classroom, it can also be a crutch. Many new professors  rely too heavily on the specific stories from their careers and fail to set them in context, integrate them with larger sets of experience and theoretical implications. That's called teaching, and that's what the job is.

2. Know the job.
When I made the transition from practice to professor, I endured a lot of jokes about smoking a pipe and wearing a blazer with elbow patches. These people were kidding, but stereotypes endure about professors--namely that all you do is teach a few hours a week and then relax. First, teaching is a lot of work--preparing lesson plans, locating up-to-date and useful readings, designing projects and activities, grading, advising, etc. If you are a full-time professor, you also need to consider research and publication/presentation expectations as well as service obligation to campus committees and community activities. I frequently put in more hours per week during the school year than I did in my jobs when I was a PR practitioner.

3. Don't try to change everything--right away
Adjuncts and new full-time professors bring a refreshing new perspective and eagerness to university departments. But be careful not to expect to come in singing "here I am to save the day." Adjuncts and new professors often recommend new courses or even complete curricular overhauls without considering the rationale for the current program, past efforts at change, the national landscape, and the process on campus for proposing new courses. There's a good chance that those on staff already have considered new ideas and decided against them for practical and/or pedagogical reasons. Try to respect that, learn, and then propose innovations once you grasp the historical and curricular context.

So, the best advice would be to stress how your experience is relevant and unique to the university where you are applying, how you understand the program and curriculum and see your place within it, and why you are confident that you will be able to teach well.

Monday, May 11, 2009

GRCC Scores Mention in TIME for YouTube Channel

Grand Rapids Community College was mentioned briefly in a TIME Magazine article about a special higher education channel on YouTube called YouTube EDU. 

It's nice to be mentioned in national media. But the author seems to slightly diss GRCC when it points out that many colleges--"ranging from Grand Rapids Community College to Harvard Business School"--have a presence on YouTubeEDU. It implies that GRCC is at the low end of a scale.

However, GRCC's Derek DeVries clarifies in a well done news release about the TIME mention. He points out the GRCC is among the few institutions posting videos, and that the local CC has more content than Harvard Business School currently.

You can see that content for yourself at GRCC's YouTube EDU channel. It's another example in what I predict will be an increase in PR people providing original content directly to their publics in innovative ways using new media. 

River Bank Spun?

I've been an avid runner for years and can't help but be enthusiastic about the annual Fifth Third River Bank Run in Grand Rapids.  My brutal schedule of teaching, consulting and PhD studies forced me to tone down my training and I only did the 10K this year, while my wife and various friends persisted in the flood-altered, hill enhanced 25 K course.

I had more time to think less about a runner's PR (personal record) and more about the PR, as in public relations, associated with the event this year.

There's no doubt race officials did a great job dealing with the flood issue and re-routed course, and communicating all aspects related to the last-minute changes. But while I respect race director Kristin Aidif and local running legend Greg Meyers, I was a little taken that some of their media comments before and after the race seemed, well, a little spun.

The rain. Look, rain happens. No one will blame you for it. But to hear them say runners (as if they talked to all of us) "wanted" the rain and said "bring it on"? Wrong.

The new 25K course with its additional hills and out-and-back feature. Yeah, it is a little exciting to see elite runners shooting past you on the double back. (I've never seen Kenyans during a run, but one year at the Chicago Marathon I finished neck and neck with a guy named Ken). But while race officials praised this feature, the majority of comments I heard from runners was that packing a record crowd of runners into one lane instead of the expected two made for crowded running and constant watching for elbows and potholes and not much glancing at runners coming the other way.

Saying the new course featured "rolling hills" is like a realtor calling a broom closet a "cozy apartment." Most runners, including some media celeb runners, spoke of the fear the new course induced. I don't think race officials spoke for everyone when they said the added hills were a fun challenge, not when runners I talked to said they "hated every minute of them."

A well, it's a race. Weather and situations happen. Hills, rain, and wind were not pleasant. It's ok, and honest, to say that. Maybe some runners loved the misery, but let's not project that comment on everyone. People won't blame the race officials for the weather; but they will be put off by words being put in their mouths.

A last thought, about branding. This event is so big now that it has a brand that seems distinct from its sponsor, the awkwardly named Fifth Third Bank. Most people think of it as the River Bank Run, on its own, and associate it with an annual spring event. It does not induce thoughts of checking and savings accounts, or money market CDs. Nevertheless, Aidif said in one interview they want to continue to deliver a good "product" to West Michigan. OK, I get the marketing mantra that everything is a product and every person is a customer. But can that metaphor rest along with my tired legs for once? It's an event, a run, a race. A product? Maybe you can discuss it that way internally, but I would bet on mile 12 most participants see themselves as runners, not consumers, engaged in an event, not buying a product.

Friday, May 01, 2009

PRoof Positive

It seems I spend a lot of my time explaining and defending public relations. It seems that people simply don't understand the profession, or they think they do and equate it either with mere publicity or as intentional deception. As I say to my students, the general public tends to minimize or demonize the public relations profession.

So it was nice last night to sit at Eve in the BOB and watch a number of hard-working local PR professionals receive PRoof Awards from the West Michigan PRSA chapter. As chapter president Andrea Clark mentioned to me before the program, there is a lot of PR talent in West Michigan.

Media host Gerry Barnaby was his usual entertaining and humorous self in reading the descriptions about the work. But he also made some heart-felt serious comments about how much he appreciates PR folks in the region who help him get information, ticket giveaways, and interviews for his radio program.

As I say and watched the parade of PRoof recipients, it was striking to see that the work they do is so varied. Large PR firms and sole practitioners were among those honored. PR tactics and campaigns recognized were associated with corporate, non-profit, and government organizations. The work went far beyond mere media relations, and all of it was notable for meeting stated objectives for an organization as well as keeping the public interest in mind.

The PRoof Awards prove once again the value and variety of our noble profession. It's too bad more executives and common citizens don't understand what PR really is, how PR people toil behind the scenes to advise clients to communicate effectively and ethically. But that's why these award programs are good--they help us encourage each other, reward hard work, and inspire integrity.