Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Meet the Teacher: Robert French

You may have noticed we haven't been meeting any teachers here on Teaching PR lately. To make up for the recent lack of profiles, this week I've landed the biggest fish of all, Mr. PR-and-Social-Media himself, Robert French of Auburn University.

I can personally attest to Robert's willingness to help other educators, as my Campaigns class is putting together an entire semester project by 20 people on a wiki he created and is hosting for us. (More on that project some other time.) Read on to learn 5 great reasons to use social media in the classroom.

Q. You were one of the first, if not the first, PR educator/bloggers in the U.S. How and when did you first get interested in blogging?
I'm not sure if we were the first to use blogs, but perhaps the first to so publicly use them in class activities.

Privately, my first blog of any kind started on February 28, 2001, at Blogspot and later at LiveJournal, starting on March 19th, 2003. We were experimenting with private blogs during that time in classes. Our first effort at using a CMS, of any kind, for classes actually took place on the AU servers in 2000. Students were writing features and posts about Auburn and also broad topics in public relations. That one has since been taken down and it was behind a firewall, not pinging anything.

In a public forum, we started using AuburnMedia.com for class writing, blogging and other CMS class activities back on August 9, 2002. We started our first WordPress blog on the university servers Sunday, December 12, 2004. PRblogs.org started up about August 16, 2005. That's when I registered the domain and we went live with the site just days later, thanks to James Farmer in Australia. James has hosted PRblogs.org on his servers all this time. A very nice guy, and the premiere edublogger in the world, in my opinion.

Prior to all of that, we used Yahoo! groups in 2000 and even used Yahoo! Messenger as the default way to communicate with clients live. We also experimented with other online CMS tools for class writing, campaigns and other discussion purposes. Those often included students communicating with clients in other parts of the country. We also started experimenting with CMS from The Open Source Collective in late 2002. We have tried most all of their software platforms at one time or another.

Finally, I started my current blog on July 24. 2004: infOpinions?. I was actually blogging months before that, on PR, using other software applications like Serendipity - but, I deleted all those blogs and databases. Dummy me.

Q. What are the purposes of your blogs?
Oh, goodness. I feel the exercises serve many purposes, but here are the ones I believe are most important.

1) Writing. The practice of researching latest trends and forming opinions, then writing about it, is perhaps the most valuable aspect of blogging, in my opinion. Our students need to practice writing in many forms. I have students using blogs to write the more traditional brief conversational posts. Other times, they write features and alsodo video / audio podcasting.

2) Engaging mentors. One of my favorite blogs has always been Marcomblog.com. Social media now allows us to engage our students in conversations with PR / Marcom practitioners from around the world. Never before has it been so easy to provide students with a true worldly view of PR practice. If there is one thing social media has done for education, which may be more important than any other aspect, is to open up the world via VOIP and streaming media, along with reading blogs.

3) Experiential learning. Students may now experience trends like never before. I'm referring to trends beyond just social media, too. But, the barriers to entry for social media are so minimial, students now have a window on the world along with the chance to actively participate with leaders in the field. It is easier than ever before to engage the students in real-world activities and track their progress. They see results, rather than dream about how the practicemight work out in the future.

4) Reading. Our students are required to read a wide variety ofpublications, including blogs, throughout their tenure in the program. After all, that's the best way to develop a broad understanding of PR practice around the world.

5) Social networks and VoIP. We use social networks and Skype to do interviews and conferences with people all the time. Now, with social video networks (Seesmic, uStream, ooVoo, etc.), we're looking at doing something just like an e-mail interview (Q&A), but seeing if the interview subjects will answer the questions on video and share them so the students can do a mashup of responses. Now, when could we have really done that before? Once we get them, we post them to the blogs.

Q. What other social media are you using?
We try to at least experience a little bit of all of it. We've used blogs, to be sure. We also use wikis (both MediaWiki and PmWiki, among other platforms). We've also used YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Skype and other platforms. Our classes were beta testers forEdelman's StoryCrafter and Shannon Whitley's PRXBuilder, too. We are about to embark on the use of UStream.tv, BlogTalkRadio and Seesmic in the Spring 2008 semester. Finally, we've also dabbled with Pligg, the open source platform that is similar to the Digg site. The "purposes of your blogs" section above actually refers to our overall philosophy, too. We've been fortunate, due to our early visibility, to have some major PR firms contact us to beta test their new tools, too. This kind of exposure, again, was never really possible before the advent of social media and social networks.

Q. Tell us a little about your school and how PR is taught there.
Auburn University's Department of Communication and Journalism is home to the public relations program. The public relations discipline is essentially a traditional program. Writing is strongly emphasized. Experiential learning is strongly encouraged and incorporated into class activities. Although only one internship is required to graduate, we encourage students to pursue two or three -- as well as many related work experiences they can find. It is not uncommon for our students to graduate with two or three internships under their belts. Finally, I believe that most PR, if not all, is local. Most public relations practice is actually done in smaller shops, or one/two people offices. In fact, my best count shows that there are far more PAs (public affairs practitioners) than their are business (agency/corporate) PR practitioners. So, we emphasize that PR offers a broad range of opportunities for future employment.

Q. In what ways do you incorporate social media into the classroom? What would you most like to do that you aren't doing already?
Well, aside from the blogging, we use wikis for collaborative writing exercises and campaign projects, Skype for interviews with various PR/Marcom professionals around the world, Pligg for experiments with ranking articles, Twitter for networking, video blogging in association with features, and more. The writing aspect of the exercises is perhaps most important. It goes further than just writing. Students are beginning to be exposed to the latest trends in PR practice, as well as the tried and true.

Q. Do you have any advice for other PR educators who are considering starting a blog or getting involved in social media?
Take it slow, at first. Whether we're talking about students or faculty ... begin by reading the numerous blogs out there already. Then comment. Then begin to write your own posts. Your posts may be short or long. Doesn't matter, really. Try to write with some frequency (at least once a week) to begin developing your audience.

Network. Visit the Teaching Social Media page at the NewPR/Wiki - That was begun by educators like Elizabeth Albrycht and Kaye Sweetser, for instance. Engage all of those educators in a discussion. Look for some new offerings from SNCR, the Society for New Communications Research, too. Their site is sncr.org.

Interact with all those educators and practitioners. We'll all share what we have, or at least I will. I've seen a lot of caring and sharing from many educators, PR firms and practitioners around the world. Ask for help and resources. You'll likely get it. That's the whole idea of social media, right? Collaborate & share. We, for instance, have provided blogs and wikis for many educators around the world. That was one of the reasons we started PRblogs.org.

Q. Auburn grads have a fine record of employment in social media positions. Take this opportunity to brag a bit!
We have been very fortunate to gain visibility for the program via social media class activities. Our students are now working and/or interning with many of the largest firms. But, they are also with the small boutique agencies, too. A lot of attention has been given to the high profile students, but we also have students engaging in social media practice in corporate in-house departments, government agencies (state & local), churches, nonprofits and small business. For just a sampling, here is a short list. Erin Caldwell, Ashley Imsand and Mary Metcalf are all with Edelman (DC & Chicago). Christi Eubanks is with Converseon in NYC. Lara Worsham is with Golin-Harris in Chicago. Emily Melton is with Weber-Shandwick in NYC. If they'd let me write about their clients, I'm sure everyone would be impressed. They are all heavily engaged in social media activities with a wide variety of clients. You know, we've had a lot of much appreciated attention.

But, I'll share a secret. People are watching because of the students. Reality says, if it was just me blogging - no one would care. The students have humored me and dug in when I ask them to experiment and try to come to terms with social networks and the strategies that can make them work for a client. Students. Ya' gotta' love 'em. They are great people.

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