A degree in social media to kick start PR


There’s been quite a bit of talk today about the degree course in social media being offered by Birmingham City University that provides graduates of the course with an MA in Social Media.

The two mainstream media reports I’ve seen – in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph – both focus on criticism of the whole concept and include quotes from a student at the university deriding the new course.

[…] Despite claims of its instant popularity, students have attacked the course for being too simple. Birmingham-based student Jamie Waterman, 20, said: "Virtually all of the content of this course is so basic it can be self taught. "In fact most people know all this stuff already. I think it’s a complete waste of university resources."

Too simple? Can be self taught? Doesn’t look that way to me, judging from the answers to the question “What will I be able to do when I’ve finished the MA Social Media?” on the university website:

  • Become a social media consultant (and understand what that means);
  • Develop innovative and low cost communication strategies for third sector organisations using social media tools;
  • Develop innovative and alternative media projects;
  • Work with existing mainstream media organisations as they develop social media strategies;
  • Enhance your skills and contribute to the development of new professional practice in PR, marketing communications and web design;
  • Continue to develop a scholarly interest in social media as part of a further research degree;
  • Contribute to the development of the social media industry.

It looks like a strategic approach to the subject of social media in the context of public relations practice. I don’t see that as being too simple, nor feasible for self-teaching.

On the contrary, I think the MA course is a terrific example of forward thinking by lecturer Jon Hickman and his colleagues, which recognizes the evolving nature of communication and the channels and means with which people individually, and organizations collectively, want and to need to use in order to effectively connect.

So one more university joins a few others others in the UK that I’m aware of – notably, Sunderland with social media programmes led by Philip Young – which already have a track record of embracing social media within their overall journalism and PR programmes.

What I think is key is how the course has the ability to evolve and develop during its term. One thing that we see with social media is how fast things move.

For instance, a year ago Twitter was barely on the horizons of anyone other than early adopters and geeks (but it was growing fast) with most attention still on social networks. Today, it’s on everyone’s lips.

The best summary I’ve seen recently on what educators needs to think about when planning courses and how university students can benefit from them comes from Greg Jarboe reporting on a visit to a public relations class at the City College of New York last week.

Jarboe has this to say about students and the usual curriculum of PR education:

Yes, they are still acquiring the skill of writing a press release. But they already understand that an optimized press release can get a high ranking in news search engines.

Yes, they are still becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of persuasion and communications theory. But they have already mastered how to make friends on Facebook.

Yes, they are still beginning to recognize how PR relates to other fields of marketing. But they’re already familiar with how to upload YouTube videos.

Yes, they are still learning the key ethical issues affecting the practice of PR. But they’ve developed an appreciation for the acceptable use of and unacceptable abuse of Twitter.

Which leads to this inevitable conclusion:

[…] most of the job descriptions in the public relations industry were written back in the 20th Century. So, these square pegs won’t fit into the round holes.

For example, is your HR department trying to hire an entry level public relations specialist? Does the job description read: "Prepares and disseminates information regarding an organization through newspapers, periodicals, television and radio and other forms of media. May require a bachelor’s degree in a related area and 0-2 years of experience in the field or in a related area. Has knowledge of commonly-used concepts, practices, and procedures within a particular field. Relies on instructions and pre-established guidelines to perform the functions of the job. Primary job functions do not typically require exercising independent judgment. Works under immediate supervision; typically reports to a supervisor or manager."

So, don’t blame your HR department if they aren’t looking for someone who can prepare and optimize information regarding an organization through news search engines, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

It seems to me that what Hickman and his colleagues at Birmingham City University are doing is kick-starting PR to meet today’s communication needs.

That’s right on the money.


Related: Primary school children could soon be learning about Twitter and blogs.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Adam Green

    I’d add a good background in database search techniques to the curriculum. Google is collecting all the world’s data and putting it behind a deceptively simple interface. Just typing the words you want is not enough. You must be able to determine the best query for your needs and your client’s needs. This can involve numerous special operators, such as site:, inurl:, link: etc. Normally this type of database management is taught as part of a CS degree. Social media professionals need the database application knowledge without needing to know how to program.

  2. Philip

    Thanks for the mention Neville. Actually, we are launching an MA in Public Relations at the University of Sunderland in September and it will have a very strong social media theme. As you might imagine, Online Public Relations (http://xrl.in/13fl), the new book I have written with David Phillips will be a core text.

    As I said in my contribution to the Birmingham debate, we believe would be failing students if social media WASN’T a key element.

    Anyone who wants to learn more about our programme can email me – philip.youngATsunderland.ac.uk

  3. Tom Craik

    What a fantastic idea. Certainly the tools of social media can be self taught, but teaching it in the context of strategic public relations is really positive.

    I’m currently studying for an MA Public Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University and we have a social media module that has proven popular. As far as I know they don’t teach it to undergrads yet. I expect more and more business courses will start to offer this sort of thing in years to come.

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