OPINION: Judging by the number of CVs that come through my mailbox daily it seems as if studying public relations is as popular today as studying human resources was in the late ’90s. In recent months, our agency launched its first internship programme and I realised that the public relations industry is facing a serious problem: the poor quality of PR students graduating from tertiary institutions.
During the application time for our internship programme we received more than 300 CVs from final year students and young graduates. Upon examining their academic results, we were shocked that the average was low, around 55%. Remembering my own student days, I recognise that academic results are not an all-important factor; what matters is that you understand what public relations is, and that you are able to put into practice what you have learnt in theory.
The next step in our intern recruitment process is an assessment phase where students must complete a self-assessment of the basic skills required as a PR account executive, followed by a writing test.
Of the 30 candidates that were involved in this phase none knew what media list development was, and they also did not know what it means to pitch a story to the media.
Less than five of the candidates could deliver a half-decent press release in the writing test.
Discussing my findings within my network, one of my colleagues (who facilitates writing workshops in the PR industry) pointed out the fact that the quality of basic education has a direct influence on the quality of tertiary training.
Basic rules of English
“No amount of teaching someone how to write a press release will make any difference if the student does not already have a solid foundation of the basic rules of English,” he said.
I do not agree with him one hundred percent; as an Afrikaans mother-tongue communicator, I believe that, through questioning yourself, by researching the basic rules of a language repeatedly, by reading a new book at least once a month with a dictionary at hand, and with constant practice a person is able to drastically improve their writing skills.
What do tertiary institutions teach PR students if they do not know the basics of public relations? Are the institutions to blame? Are students just too lazy and rely on copy-and-paste for assignments? Most students and graduates who applied for our internship programme come from two tertiary institutions in Gauteng and I understand that they do not write any exams; they only submit assignments.
It is my opinion that exams play a crucial role in tertiary education; they are designed to test your knowledge in an environment where you do not have access to the abundance of online resources brought about by technology. Exams play a crucial role in teaching graduates discipline and the importance of deadlines.
Of the 30 students that underwent the assessment phase of our intern recruitment process, more than half of them could not finish the writing assignment in 90 minutes. What they don’t realise is that our industry often does not allow more than 30 minutes to write a press release because time is of the essence, especially when dealing with crisis communications.
This made me wonder whether the poor quality of PR students is the reason for seeing less internship programmes at agencies. It is just too time consuming in our fast-paced industry to teach an intern something that should have been taught at a tertiary institution. My thoughts then wandered to the hundreds of small PR consultancies that popped up all over Twitter in the past couple of months. With the government’s big focus on entrepreneurship, many of the graduates start their own consultancies without enough knowledge of the industry. This results in many small PR agencies doing a lot of mediocre work, which is damaging to the industry’s already fragile reputation.
The poor quality of students graduating from tertiary institutions poses a threat to the public relations industry. What can we, the PR industry, do to improve it? Senior agency staff should aim to lead by example; and students should aim for self-development, not a piece of paper that fuels entitlement for employment.
End note: Read Prof Jansen’s response to the #HireAGraduate campaign here.
Marisa Louw CPRP, is managing director of Emlo Communications