A story of superhumans – inspiring a PR generation

Today I met the 2012 intake of public relations students at Bournemouth University. To use the vision of the London 2012 games, this is the next generation that we need to inspire to lead our occupation. A quick poll (well asking them to put up their hands) revealed pretty much all use Facebook, but perhaps a quarter have a Twitter presence and a handful can be found in LinkedIn or Pinterest. So are they a digital generation – who live an always-on, hyper connected lifestyle, ruled by apps and online news?

If they are not, then they will soon need to address this gap in their competencies as they look to engage fully with the world of public relations, and indeed, modern University education. Rather than Google and Wikipedia (which undoubtedly have become their primary sources of information at school), we expect them to engage with online learning resources, electronic journals and ebooks, web and mobile based communications, respected blogs (such as PR Conversations) and social media based professional networks.

Their future careers need to be about more than getting to grips with the tools of digital communications however. We need to inspire them to change perceptions and become highly regarded strategic managers. This aim requires the practice of PR also to change its perception of students and not see them only in terms of craft skills destined to follow a career that relies on time-served and step by step promotion up the agency or corporate ladder.

In the new world of work, you need to create your own opportunities – this was the message from the final year students who came along to share experiences of their placement years. If you want to be recognised and have a great personal reputation, this takes superhuman effort rather than floating along waiting for chances to come your way.

As the Summer of superhuman efforts in the Olympics and Paralympics fades into our memories, it is worth reflecting on how perceptions were changed during a few weeks of inspirational sporting endeavours. At least for a while, our opinions of being British changed. We felt a vicarious satisfaction in delivering a world-class games, that reflected our unique culture and showed the rest of the planet that we are more than the impressions often left by our politicians and drunken holidaymakers.

One legacy that it is hoped will have longevity is a new view of those with disabilities – thanks in part to the Meet the Superhumans campaign by Channel 4. This involved more than a short promotional video however, as Channel 4 had invested in getting to know the Paralympic athletes over a two year period. But the phrase, superhuman, was inspired and helped reposition the Paralympic games, and its competitors, as people who demonstrated superhuman abilities rather than disabilities.

But without the achievements – and genuine personalities – of those who participated in the games, no creative communications campaign would have altered perceptions. What challenged our opinions, beliefs and attitudes was the realisation that the athletes were, to an extent, just like us. Well, in reality, they aren’t like us, as most of us never aspire to, let alone achieve, the pinnacle of our potential. Whether that’s being a medal winner, or delivering a personal best, it means striving and sacrificing to realise dreams.

That also means being better than the previous generation – I genuinely want to be inspired by those entering public relations. Yes, as an educator, I can help them on their career paths. I can introduce them to the theory and practice involved in public relations, and encourage them to engage fully with digital communications and future trends. But what inspires me most is when they push this further and show what they can achieve. Only they can change the future perception and opinion of public relations.