Eileen Jones, who heads the PR course at Huddersfield University, was impressed by recent Behind the Spin articles on Blogging (here, here, here, here). But she says there are dangers in students spending too much time at the keyboard.
Firstly, blogging suffers the same fate as much unedited, web-placed material. Much of it is poorly written and personally opinionated, so that the occasional item of excellence has to be sought with the fervour of a gardener in search of a four-leaved clover.
Secondly, young people coming into university to study PR and journalism appear to have a scepticism of their own. Some are unimpressed by the ego-centricity of some blogs; others see yet another “new media revolution” which they believe will be surpassed or bypassed in a few years’ time.
We may be wrong, very wrong, and we will certainly not sit back and ignore what is happening in the blogosphere. But it is Tony Bradley’s demand “People skills are a must” that engages my attention more.
He says: “I mean being curious about people (the ones you like and the ones you don’t!), what makes them tick, how they respond to communications and how and why they make the decisions they do.”
My experience as a teacher is that young people – bloggers or not – belong to a generation which has lost the ability to engage directly with people. They can compose a text message (under the desk, during a lecture, without looking at the keyboard,) but they are afraid to make a phone call to someone they don’t know.
They can surf the net tirelessly, but send them out onto dry land in the real world, and they soon run out of energy.
Last year I taught a group of second-year PR students about telephone techniques. They chose the subject - for example, let’s try and reach Buckingham Palace, or Richard Branson or Max Clifford – and then we started calling. Or, at least, I did. They claimed to be too shy, or too nervous.
And they were astonished when, after the first rebuff, I’d dial another number, demonstrate some persistence, or be prepared to follow-up further contacts. The students admitted they would have given up after the first effort.
When the Palace press office confided that it might be possible to “event manage” a fashion show in the Royal grounds (“though not till next year, because of the Queen’s birthday”), the students were astonished at the breakthrough.
So what of stage two, making direct person-to-person contact?
At Huddersfield University we have always been determined to encourage our students to move beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room as often as possible. When asked to conduct market research surveys or vox pops, many students are unwilling to venture off-campus. They are uncomfortable talking to strangers of a different age group or a different ethnic background.
To overcome this, we have to stage-manage assignments, at least in the first year. We have already reported (Behind the Spin, Feb 2006) on local responses to a national survey about cultural hot-spots.
This year we sent a group – a big group, 60 students – to nearby Hebden Bridge (cultural hot-spot number 5; world’s fourth-funkiest town; best in Britain for independent shops) to examine issues of image and reputation. None had been there before - it’s 14 miles from Huddersfield! Their brief was to talk to people, as many people as possible.
The results were so encouraging that the exercise has been built into the curriculum more formally. They did indeed talk to people: editors, web-site managers, local councillors and business people; canal-boat dwellers; café owners on the brink of recording contracts; local historians and local gossips.
They came back with stories and images, having looked at the place and the people through PR perspectives, from the shabby temporary road-signs to the local authority’s strategic plan (obtained by one dogged student from an office above the Tourist Information Centre).
Their subsequent presentations were full of a liveliness and confidence which had been missing to date. They had acquired a new skill and were proud of themselves.
The moral of this tale is that a generation brought up with Playstations rather than playgrounds, with I-Pods rather than dance halls, need to be encouraged away from the computer terminal if they are to learn how people tick.