ACADEMIC INSIGHT: LIZ BRIDGEN, SHEFFIELD HALLAM UNIVERSITY

Name: Liz Bridgen
University: Sheffield Hallam University
Job title: Principal Lecturer, Public Relations

Twitter: @LizBridgen
LinkedIn: Liz Bridgen

What does the PR degree at your university involve?
Our PR degree is situated in an arts faculty, so the focus is broader than just on learning how to ‘do’ public relations or how it ‘ought’ to work.  Students also learn about the position of public relations within a broader media and organisational landscape and about the critical issues and problems surrounding its practice. It’s important that students don’t come out of the degree as ‘oven ready graduates’ but rather as critical thinkers with a wide range of valuable skills and perspectives.  Our PR degree hopefully equips students with the knowledge and confidence to explore new ways of solving communication problems –  and important with the ability to challenge and question poor practice if they are ever faced with unethical or shoddy PR in the workplace.

Students have a lot of contact with local and national organisations through a lively guest speaker and employability programme and many of our assignment briefs and challenges set in class are from ‘live’ client projects.  We’re also a CIPR accredited programme and are a PRCA partner university.

And I must mention that Sheffield is an amazing city for students to study.  It’s been totally transformed over the last decade or so and the arts, live music and sporting opportunities are among the best in the north.

Have PR degrees changed much in the last ten years?
Yes!  There is a constant change and you can never present the same lecture two years running.  New research and new modes of practice – not to mention the rapidly shifting media and political landscape at home and abroad – means that there is a constant drive to keep teaching relevant to the world the students are going to face in the future.

While some of the skills of public relations – for instance understanding audiences, negotiation, and persuasive writing – may be timeless, the technologies we use to perform them, and the solutions we might consider, change all the time.

Beyond practice, PR is an emerging as a research field and there are always interesting new perspectives and research coming to the fore.  And as public relations teaching and research becomes increasingly global and diverse, existing research and thinking is always being challenged –  which is a good thing!

It’s one of the few subjects which mixes creativity, intellectual rigour, and an understanding of business and the media

Why study PR and not a general business or marketing course?
Because it makes you think!    There’s also much more variety and, when PR is taught from a media or cultural studies perspective, there are lots of opportunities to consider why people do PR in a  certain way, and learn the critical and analytical skills which will benefit students whatever job they do.  It’s also one of the few subjects which mixes creativity, intellectual rigour, and an understanding of business and the media – not just in the same module but sometimes in the same lecture!

Is doing a masters or post grad PR qualification a good idea?  
At Masters level, those who have already studied PR can channel their energies into an aspect of public relations that they are really interested in, while those new to the subject can immerse themselves in the subject, gather new skills, networks and knowledge and show employers a real commitment to their future career.  At a far more basic level, for students who ‘lived life to the full’ during their undergraduate studies and don’t have a good degree or much extra-curricula experience to show for it can make amends when they do a Masters programme – but they’ve got to commit to it.

some of my most successful students, have all had passions in life outside PR

What makes a successful PR student?
I’ve been teaching for ten years now and there is no ‘typical’ student.  I’ve had students who have succeeded and gone on to great PR careers despite being dyslexic or from challenging family circumstances so students shouldn’t think that they necessarily need to be outgoing and good at everything to succeed in PR.

There are, however, some things that all successful students have in common – an intellectual curiosity, an ability to get on (and be credible) with a wide range of people, a willingness to explore the subject beyond their lecture programme and (it goes without saying) an interest in the media in the widest sense.  Interestingly, when I think of some of my most successful students, they have all had passions in life outside PR – such as sport, DJing, music or charity work.  Essentially, they’re all students with a zest for life who can also manage their time effectively.

earn new skills while you study – this could be editing videos or pole dancing

What are your tips for A level students considering a PR degree?
Look up from your ‘A’ levels from time to time to consider the world about you.  If you don’t understand something on the news, make it your mission to find out more – this knowledge will always be useful.  Keep up to date with the world of PR and if you’re not sure what PR really is, keep up to date with media news.  And learn new skills while you study – this could be editing videos or pole dancing but it will put you one step ahead of your peers at university and demonstrates to future employers that you are able to commit yourself to something and work independently.

What should PR students be doing along with their studies to make them attractive to a PR employer?
Not all employers are the same.  Some will want a student to have immersed themselves in the world of PR through writing for blogs and attending events, while others will want students to demonstrate wider participation in the world through extra-curricula studies and experiences.  Others, meanwhile, want to see plenty of relevant work experience.  Some will want all three!

And it goes without saying that all will want a good degree.

As you can’t pre-guess what an employers want, it’s  important is to build up a network of PR, media and business contacts while you’re still at university.  This can be done through Twitter and LinkedIn but also by talking to your guest lecturers and course’s industry contacts (and getting to know your lecturers – after all, they’ll be writing your references). 

Twitter tends to be a bit of an echo chamber of very similar London-focussed white male voices

Which PR blogs, news sites and websites do you read?
I follow a very wide range of PR academics and practitioners on Twitter.  Twitter tends to be a bit of an echo chamber of very similar London-focussed white male voices when it comes to PR and media, so it’s good to step outside this ghetto and find people who are doing PR in different ways and in different countries.

What I read in terms of PR, media and politics tends to be a pretty standard diet (Guardian, BBC, New Statesman, PR Week, etc. ) but I throw in a lot of political and comedy blogs for variety.  And as anyone who knows me will testify, I read a lot about running and cycling too.

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