Why learn social media at university

This is an article by Stephen Johnson.
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The creation of Web 2.0 has changed the way people view and receive content online. It has given all internet users the power to self-create content which other users can view and contribute to.

This is a form of communication the PR industry is still getting to grips with and is considered by many to still be in its infancy. Some businesses don’t understand it, whilst others try to avoid it.  It must therefore be considered a difficult subject for a university lecturer to teach to future PR practitioners.

I have just finished the second year of my Public Relations degree at Sunderland University. This was one of the first universities to include a social media module in the syllabus.

It isn’t a core module on any one course but can be selected as an optional module to assist in completing the 120 necessary credits needed to pass the year. My tutor, Philip Young, recommended everyone taking the PR degree should take the social media module as their optional choice.

At first, I didn’t get it: why would I want to complete a 12 week course on learning how to use Facebook and Twitter? Why write a blog? No one will be interested in what I have to say for a multitude of reasons.

For one, it isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. It’s Delicious, Digg, Flickr, blogs, micro blogs, YouTube and more.

It’s also not just about what these channels are  – it’s about how you can apply them to help execute your overall strategy.

It’s also about looking after your client/employer and protecting them from the dangers the online world has created. The internet and Web 2.0 have changed everything by exposing businesses and causing them to be more transparent – whether they have a company website or not. It is the practitioner’s job to manage this new level of transparency.

The module

Totally Sweden: Stephen Johnson's blog

At the beginning of the module, we were introduced to all of the different social media channels. We created accounts and browsed around some of the more prominent channels. We also discussed and then created our own blogs. We set objectives for what we wanted to achieve and decided who we would like to reach as our target audience.

My girlfriend is from Sweden and has recently moved over to Newcastle to live with me. My blog’s main objective was to find other Swedish people living in Newcastle, so I blogged about the differences between Swedish and English culture. Half of the module was practical while the other half was based around theory.

Before completing this module I didn’t expect there to be any theory in social media. Now I know it’s not just  Facebook.

I had to read many books and blogs just to keep up to speed with the classes. When the essay questions came around at the end of the semester I was relieved I’d taken on this extra reading.

So how is it different from other PR classes?

The biggest difference is that it’s new and it’s rapidly evolving. A lecturer can’t plan a few weeks ahead let alone 6 – 8 months. This year we used WordPress to write our blogs and signed up to Google Reader for RSS updates to provide us with content and ideas for our blog. In six month’s time new and more improved channels may have overtaken the previous ones.

During our module, Toyota had a PR disaster when they had to recall cars due to faulty brakes. We looked at how they could counter all of the criticism they were receiving from an array of different social media channels. You can’t plan for Toyota to have a crisis; it just happens.

As a lecturer, you need to be able to adapt and change your lesson plan quickly.

Crises happen, it happened with Toyota last year, it’s happening with BP right now, and there is no doubt someone else will fall victim to the same thing in the coming months.

What our Social Media class gained that other haven’t

If someone types my name into a search engine they will find me. Through my social media class I have carved out an online identity which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. If someone wants to know a little more about me they can check out my blog. During the module I feel that my writing has improved and that I developed my own voice as a blogger.

I am also now more aware of variety of different social media channels than could assist me in a PR campaign. I couldn’t have figured these things out on my own. Attending two classes a week to ask questions and learn other new things has helped me to develop my skills and knowledge in the subject.

Competitive advantage

A special guest came to my university not too long ago to give a talk on social media. He is a managing director of two successful PR companies – one in the North-East and the other in London. He said that for him, the hiring process didn’t begin by looking at a paper copy of an applicant’s CV anymore. Rather, he would find someone through their blog or by viewing their profile on LinkedIn.

PR is changing and social media is growing. The subject should be made a core module so that every person from every university can have the opportunity to learn as my class has.

As I said earlier, some businesses don’t understand it, while others try to avoid it. Yet the PR industry needs people that have a strong grasp of social media. The job market is tough right now and competition between graduates is high. I think this puts me and my social media class one step ahead of everyone else who didn’t take the subject.


  1. Yazmin Meza says:

    I agree completely with this blog. I also think that social media should be a core module not only in ALL PR COURSES, but also in the Communication ones, since social media has revolutionized the way in which we relate to each other.

    I also agree that social media is evolving so quickly that even it is important to keep reading about the new developments and learning from everyone who has developed any kind of expertise on this topic.

    Congratulations to this space where students and young practitioners can express their views.

  2. Hello Yazmin, thank you for your thoughts and I am glad that you agree with the points that I have made.

    I also agree that social media should be a core module in all communications courses.

    I feel that taking this module has given me the background knowledge to help me keep up to date with future developments in the field.

    If you want to follow me on Twitter I can be found @Jonk87

  3. Janey Spratt says:

    I completely agree, I study ‘Media, Culture, Communication and Pr’ as a joint honor at the University of Lincoln and I have learnt a lot about social media this year after taking a module based on an independent learning blog. I am so glad that I am learning about social media at university as I feel it is so important and the future of PR. I have had some work experience and have realized that many companies are not using Social media effectively when it could give them a competitive edge. I have found that many companies don’t use social media as their current staff don’t grasp the idea. Companies need to teach social media internally so that their staff are learning these new social networking skills that they need to practice. Not only is social media important externally but I also feel it is just as important internally. I think PR graduates will benefit a company with fresh social media knowledge and creativity when current staff may not completely grasp the revolution.
    Interesting article Stephen, well done!

  4. Thanks Janey, on my placement I also experienced the same thing. A lot of companies do not understand how social media works or what it is. Yet, there are others out there increasing their profit margins by using social media effectively.

    I also agree that PR graduates with social media knowledge will benefit a company if they are open to new ideas.

    Glad you liked it.

  5. Hi Stephen

    The issue you have raised on this blog is one that I have been battling for a while now. I’m also study PR on the Leeds Metropolitan course. Now I intern at Wolfstar, a PR, social media and WOM agency. So you can understand why this topic is one I have a particular interest and involvement in.

    After seeing this article being Retweeted on Twitter, I set right to writing a comment reply. However, when the reply started going beyond 600 words, I realised that not only would it probably not fit in the reply box, but it was worth writing my own blog about the topic and not completely overtaking the comment section of the article up!

    So you can see my reply here: http://claresiobhanpr.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/679/


  6. Hello Clare, I have also read similar articles stating that some PR employers don’t favour students with a PR degree and believe that a degree in another subject will bring more variation to their business.

    Social Media is definitely a subject we need to know about. If you don’t feel like you’re learning at university check out Online Public Relations – the book at the top left of the article.

    Everything I learnt in my social media module was taught in that book. It was very helpful.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation Stephen I will definitely be checking it out.

    And I forgot to say before, well done on the fantastic post! it’s attracted a lot of attention!

  8. Well written, Stephen! Thanks for pointing out this post to me on Twitter. You’ve captured some of the essence of why this is important.

    I’ve actually taught a section on social media as a guest lecturer at Rollins College, and I frequently try to find ways to work it into the marketing curriculum I teach at Shorter University. (@ShorterUniv).

  9. Thanks John, I appreciate you taking the time to give me some feedback. I hope to come across you again in another Commschat.

  10. Nice one Stephen. Nobody has written the rules on SM, and a lot of people are running around like headless chickens, spouting crap. If SM is not part of your module people, get a new module. And get a haircut.

  11. Kathrin Schallenberg (Miss Undutchable on Twitter) says:

    When Philip Young introduced this topic at the Euprera conference, I was one of the lucky students that were allowed do support his discussion and introduce the student point of view of the integration of Social Media classes in universities. And, as you can imagine, nearly everyone agreed that it would be important to integrate new media in the curricula but it was also obvious that nobody knew how.
    It is difficult to revise the content of a course every few months and especially somewhat older academics seem to still not be used to this everchanging “social media market” and therefore might not be able to teach such a course. As you pointed out alreay, there are quite a few obstacles to overcome and points to consider when (re-) designing the course. And it is also dependent on the student; there are many who never had such a course but are as good or even better as you and your fellow students when it comes to social media in PR.
    So it depends on both, students and academics, whether such a course will give you a headstart…and reading your article definitely shows how (and why) it can give you one 🙂

  12. Thanks for your thoughts Paul. I completely agree with you and that’s why we need to look at getting some new clients to do SM for. We can start at Holts Yard then expand to Walker and from there who knows.

  13. Thanks for commenting Kathrin.

    From my experience, when it came to Facebook a lot of the class probably did know more about it than our tutor. However, when it came to all of the other channels it was evident that we all had a lot to learn.

    The majority of what we were taught wasn’t just how the channels worked but how we could use them to meet the overall strategic objectives of a campaign.

    I agree with everything that you have said – Some academics may not be as interested in SM as others and some might simply believe that SM isn’t worth teaching.

    I think that’s a shame.

  14. Janey Spratt says:

    I think some academics are careless to overlook SM, I think it is important that anyone interested in PR needs to consider all the modern aspects of the industry as well as the traditional. Students learning SM need to remember that traditional PR can be just as effective as the modern PR and neither can be neglected! A good Pr should incorporate both traditional and modern PR techniques into their strategy. Consequently, universities need to cover both areas.
    As a PR student I am learning both traditional and modern PR, a tutor should also keep up-to-date so that they can effectively teach up-to-date PR.

  15. I am not one of the ‘Social Media’ set. My interests in internet mediated society and PR goes a lot further into the effects of neo-ubiquitous, interactive communication in a completely (if not comprehensively) internet mediated society.

    All I ask, is that you look wider than social media. Look at who is not directly affected by the internet and wonder what it means.

    My blind, 93 year old invalid mother-in-law is absolutely dependent on appointments, meals, care and communication delivered by internet-enabled capabilities.

    My latest software gig can take almost any content from the ‘visible’ internet and find its relationship with any other content. There is every opportunity to connect and there is no hiding place.

    I cannot imagine how one could deliver effective CSR without the internet, or media relations, a conference or an event or … well any PR activity. Such activity would, at best, be half the job done.

    All of this is about public relations as you know it. But it is sometimes a big leap to see the connection. The sort of connection universities should be teaching as a matter of routine.

  16. Janey Spratt says:

    I am a PR student from the University of Lincoln and find it comforting to know that my lecturers are keeping up to date with the changing world of PR and teaching the students the newest material. I think it is shocking that a marketing tutor does not use youtube – have they heard of viral PR! I know that my marketing module used numerous clips from youtube.
    I think that while we learn this new revolution of SM we cannot forget the traditional PR techniques and a good PR will incorporate both traditional and mordern techniques into their strategy. I think SM can only be used to a certain extent before the PR needs to go into real life, face to face.
    I think tutors need to teach both modern and traditional techniques.

  17. Thank you for commenting David and thank you for writing Online Public Relations. Reading this book helped me an awful lot when it came to writing essays and getting my placement for a company which specialised in SM.

    I have never given much thought to a person who isn’t directly affected by the internet because I have grown up with a generation who had computers in there bedrooms. All of my friends have an Iphone and if I meet someone who isn’t on Facebook I feel something is amiss.

    I realise that the internet is bigger than social media and wonder what the world would do if it was suddenly taken away.

    It was a long time ago but I remember reading the opening page of the book you wrote with Philip which said something along the lines of….. It is hard to avoid saying the internet changes everything but for PR nothing will ever be the same again.

    The biggest change is that PR now needs to be more focused on building more relationships more often and that the balance in power between the elite and their publics is shifting.

  18. Firstly, sorry for typo on there their on my last comment.

    In reply to Janey, it is definitely true that you shouldn’t forget old techniques just because there are now new ones. My university, like yours, teaches traditional PR as well as what many would now call “New PR.”

    In the last few years I have seen so many advances in technology – Ipod, Ipad, Iphone, online gaming, social networks, micro social networks, unlimited broadband at little cost and the huge rise of Google and the big deal around SEO.

    People still buy the odd CD or even vinyl! I still know a lot of people with desktop computers and not everyone spends their entire life updating Facebook. Even though we have email people still send letters.

    New things don’t replace old things they’re just another choice. It’s the same in PR – it just means that there is more to learn.

  19. Great post Stephen, and a very timely subject.
    I’m happy to say that I took a social media module as part of my Public Relations MA at Leeds Met, way back in academic year 2008-2009! Which is a long time in social media!
    The module was called PR and New Media (it’s perhaps not so new anymore); and I am eternally grateful for taking it. I blogged for the duration of the module and as part of the assessment, and learned a lot of things I would never have known anything about such as Twitter, Digg, Flickr, Stumbledupon, pingbacks, trackbacks, SEO….etc.
    You are also right in suggesting that some businesses don’t ‘get’ socia media; explaining social media to my sceptical employers has been something of a challenge, but is finally achieving some ‘buy in’. I have to say, I do rather enjoy the slightly perplexed look I get when I mention SEO, Radian6, Xobni etc, and I enjoy subsequently explaining it!
    I firmly believe this is where new PR graduates/practitioners can make the difference in already established business. I firmly emphasised my academic and practical skills in this area in my interview with my current employers, and despite the raised eyebrows and confused faces, I got the job, and now run a ‘one-woman’ PR department for the business!
    Keep blogging Stephen – good stuff.


  20. Thanks for your comment Michelle. I think just about everyone who has read and commented on this article feels that learning social media at an under-graduate level is crucial.

    Similarly to you, my social media course has helped me gain work where I otherwise might not have.

    I am also familiar with that look of confusion when mentioning popular social channels such as Twitter to clients. After being asked twice in the same day what Twitter and social networks were I began writing and memorising concise, easy to understand answers.

    The best one I heard was: “Why would I want to promote my brand on Facebook? Everyone just uses it to sleep with each other and cheat on their wives or husbands.”

  21. this is a great article and very interesting to read. it is indeed important to learn social media for it helps students learned on how to cope with the reality when they get outside the school premises.

  22. Thanks Andy,

    I’m pleased you enjoyed reading my article.

  23. Hey there are using WordPress for your blog platform?
    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get
    started and create my own. Do you require any html coding knowledge to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!


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