Recruiting a top notch PR graduate is as challenging as a quest to find hen’s teeth – as Richard Bailey wrote recently: “We’re in a recession, with high levels of youth unemployment. And yet the PR industry’s demand for bright young people appears to be insatiable.” Great news for all those A level students who will have had their places confirmed for a PR university course this week – but what kind of career can they expect to encounter in three or four years time?
Undoubtedly social media is going to continue to offer employment opportunities – but will we have moved beyond thinking of recent graduates as best placed to be the early career adopters of latest technologies? Currently that means that graduates are being sought in specialist positions such as ‘social media ninja’ – which B.L. Ochman has been tracking as an emerging social media self-descriptor.
Such creative titles often mask employment that is one step up from working in a click farm. The production of press releases has been replaced by a role of content creation and social media updates – but without the need to persuade a journalist of the quality or usefulness of a story. A role that involves activating pre-agreed organisational status updates, chatting (sorry, engaging in two-way symmetrical communications) with followers/fans, or pitching off-the-shelf promotional copy to online influencers could be better described as a ‘click click chicken’ job.
Clearly you don’t need PR graduates to fill such posts – but recruiting them helps justify the fees charged to clients. These roles are probably positioned as offering a first step on a career ladder, and can seem like a fun, easy job for a while at least.
This focus on tactical skills underpins the demands often expressed by the PR industry for, what Liz Bridgen of De Montfort University termed as ‘oven ready chickens’ at the London College of Communications PR & Disruption conference.
But the role of PR educators, students and the wider industry ought to be on ensuring young practitioners are equipped for life-long adaptive careers. The need is for innovators and critical thinkers who are prepared “for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet” – in the words of Karl Fisch’s Did you know? Shift Happens presentation.
My hope is that tomorrow’s PR graduates will encounter a more mature career market for social media competence, where familiarity and experience will be the norm as part of a continuous, long-term process of technological adoption. Understanding, utilising and managing digital technologies will no longer require, what Paul Holmes noted in 2007 as ‘rare and perhaps even contradictory qualities‘ as knowledge of new media opportunities will be more commonly found alongside the good judgement that comes with age and experience.
In looking at the longer-term value of social media in PR careers, I’m making a presentation and running a workshop at an event for a community of PR educators organised by Liz Yeomans of Leeds Business School at the start of September. I believe there is considerable ongoing potential for social media to offer valuable career capital for PR practitioners (and PR educators). But I think this means looking differently at future PR careers rather than modelling them on past ideas (such as profession, craft or management) or extrapolating approaches based on how many people ‘backed into the field, as it were, by accident‘ and worked their way up.
Returning to Richard’s post – vocational experience will continue to be important. However, I believe this requires a constructivist learning viewpoint where PR education and practice integrate more closely to offer life-long opportunities to support those who are active participants in their personal career tapestry of creating and challenging, thinking and theorising, and innovating and implementing.
This goes far beyond ideas of studying and practising skills in a classroom, supplemented by ‘on the job’ learning prior to graduating, or seeking a professional post-graduate qualification to underpin experience gained in the workplace. Instead we need a more seamless approach to learn-experience-learn-experience in a virtuous process throughout our careers. A bit like the chicken and egg circle of life – creating wise old birds of us all.