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PR Rock Stars: University of St. Thomas’ Betsy Anderson

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Betsy Anderson first asked me to speak to her University of St. Thomas PR class a number of years ago. Ever since, I’ve been a regular guest speaker–I think mostly because I beg her to do it 🙂

But, over the years I’ve gotten to know Betsy quite well. Many lunches and coffees later and I’d go as far as to say we’re pretty good friends. So, this interview today is entirely biased–just so we’re clear 🙂

But, I’ve also come to admire Betsy a great deal over the years. First, she has one of my “dream jobs” for lack of a better term (teaching–which some day, in some shape or form, I will do). Second, I can see first-hand the impact she’s making on kids’ lives. In fact, I hear it from the legion of kids who have graduated from UST over the years–and believe me, there’s a lot of them. And, not coincidentally, most of the are quite successful.

So, let’s hear more about how this agency pro-turned-educator is helping to shape the next generation of PR minds.

Betsy A 1

You started your career in agency PR before making your way to the academic world 10-plus years ago. Why did you make the switch? And what do you miss–if anything–about the agency world?

I decided I wanted to be a professor while I was still in college. I was inspired by my favorite professor at Bethel (Kathy Bruner – now at Taylor University). So going back to grad school was always in the back of my mind; but first, I thought I should learn something about the subject I wanted to teach.

I loved my PR agency experience. A couple of things I miss are the great people I worked with and the fun of working downtown. Overall, though, I feel like I’m still connected to the industry enough that I still feel part of that world to some degree, so the career shift has allowed me to experience the best of both worlds.

What’s the one thing you absolutely love about teaching?

I love when a student really connects with the topic, and when I feel like I’ve been really helpful to students. There’s nothing better than having people come up after class and say they didn’t know much about PR before, but are now excited to have found the perfect major.

It’s also a great feeling when students really get into an activity, such as a crisis simulation, and immediately see how it has enhanced their knowledge or skills.

For those considering a career in academia, how would you even start to consider that as an option? What did you do? What would you do over if you were to pursue a career in teaching all over again?

There are basically two tracks: you can teach a course as an adjunct while continuing in your day-job, or go back to school for a Ph.D. and pursue a full-time faculty position.

For those considering an academic career, I’d recommend: doing informational interviews with faculty; trying it out first as an adjunct; and/or attending the “Help Wanted in the PR Classroom” session at the PRSA International Conference, which focuses on transitioning from a professional role to the classroom. For a full-time faculty position, the schooling is obviously a commitment, and then it takes many years of hard work to develop a line of research.

If you’re really lucky, you may be able to find what St. Thomas calls a “clinical” faculty position – which is a full-time faculty position that requires significant professional experience rather than a Ph.D. (there are fewer of these positions available). One thing that’s important to know is that faculty salaries aren’t what you might expect given tuition costs, and most professors I know work extremely hard so the hours aren’t quite as cushy as some people might think, but it’s definitely a fun and rewarding career.

I’m glad I don’t have to do it all over, but I’d try to enjoy the process more and stress less.

You regularly bring in folks from the professional world into your classes–in fact, I believe that’s how we met for the first time! How big of an impact do you think that has on the students?

Students LOVE hearing from real-world professionals. And given how quickly our industry is changing, I love learning from them too – especially on newer or more technical topics such as SEO, SEM, analytics, or content strategy & management. I’ve experimented this past year with having “professional writing experts” come into our PR Writing class to give students feedback on their writing. That way, students aren’t just writing for one audience (me), but are learning that not everyone reading their writing will necessarily have the same opinion.

Some pretty smart people have come out of your PR program in the last 13 years–Mike Keliher, Bridget Jewell, Allison Janney and LeeAnn Fahl (formerly Rasachak) come to mind, just for starters. How has UST become this PR juggernaut–especially for a smaller, private university?

This is a good transition from the previous question because all of the professionals you mentioned have come back to UST as guest speakers! I can’t take credit for Mike and LeeAnn – who graduated before I started at UST – and there are students like Bridget and Allison who will be successful no matter what, but hopefully I helped interest them in public relations as a career. Even when I worked as a PR professional making hiring decisions, the St. Thomas PR program had an excellent reputation, along with places like the U of M, St. Cloud State, and even St. Olaf for its English major.

One reason for UST’s strong strategic communication program may be its location. We have access to incredible adjuncts, guest speakers, professional development opportunities and nearby internships. This creates a culture where junior/senior students who do a good job at an internship are able to recommend younger students when they leave, and it just becomes the norm to see students in your classes gaining great experiences – which inspires others to follow in those footsteps. Also, St. Thomas currently places great emphasis on quality teaching and provides excellent professional development opportunities to faculty.

How has teaching PR changed over the last 10+ years? I mean, we know how the INDUSTRY has changed, but how has that impacted how you teach PR classes at UST?

The industry changes have, of course, impacted the content of the classes I teach, and it’s both fun and demanding to try to keep up along with other research and service responsibilities I have as a faculty member. Take PR Writing, for example. I taught this course in 2013 for this first time since 2008. I felt pretty cutting-edge by including a blog assignment in this class in 2005, but think about how writing tasks have changed from 2008 to 2013. Students still need to know how to put together a media list, media alert and news release, but also how to write a good tweet, Pinterest caption or social media news release, and how to generate relevant ideas for a social media content calendar.

But beyond content, teaching strategies also have changed. Active learning activities such as case studies and discussion have been popular for a while, but we’re getting to a point where some students have a low tolerance for a 60-minute lecture. Professors are starting to experiment with “flipping the classroom,” where students view a (hopefully engaging) lecture module online, for example, and come to class ready to participate in an activity that applies the information. Professors are also having to get more creative to capture attention.

You started and championed the first social media class at UST–and from what I can tell, it’s been a BIG success. However, I continually hear of schools who don’t have a single class devoted to social and digital, despite the fact that this is a key skill employers are looking for in the professional world. Why have schools been so slow to start and offer classes that would better educate and train our future PR pros in the basics of digital marketing?

There are probably at least a couple of reasons for this.

Often there can be some red tape (curriculum committees and approval processes) that can slow down how quickly universities are able to offer new courses. Also, there can be a philosophical divide between offering too many “how-to” skills classes (where a social media class may be categorized) vs. providing more of a well-rounded liberal arts education that emphasizes abstract and critical thinking skills. My personal opinion is that sometimes this point is over-emphasized, and that skill development and thinking work together. For example, I took a year-long video course in college. The equipment and software I used is completely out-of-date now, but today I still use what I learned about storyboarding, good shot composition, and how to teach myself new software programs (lifelong technology learning skills).

Not all administrators realize the extent to which social media and digital technologies are completely reshaping our field, and the advantage that students have over the competition if they’re able to gain skills in social media strategy, graphic design, video, etc., in addition to more traditional communication skills.  TopRank’s Lee Odden reflected this sentiment in his MN Search Summit keynote address this summer with this quote from Avinash Kaushik, digital marketing evangelist at Google: “You can no longer be good at just one thing… It is a 10-thing world now.”

There is a practical reason for a lack of social media courses, as well. It takes an incredible amount of time for a full-time faculty member to keep up with social media today, along with other teaching, service and research responsibilities. I love to quote what Hugh MacLeod wrote in a copyblogger post a few years ago: “Some time ago I found out the hard way that keeping up with social media, keeping ahead of the curve, was impossible. You might as well try emptying the Atlantic Ocean with a bucket.”

Finally, it can be difficult for an adjunct professor who is immersed in a 24/7 social media job to commit to teaching a social media course on a long-term basis. I think universities that can find this type of professor or adjunct should recognize this rarity and take advantage of it. In my opinion, the ultimate benefit to students would be a team-teaching approach between a full-time faculty member and a social media professional expert. Attention universities: Arik Hanson would be perfect for this. Want to team up?

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PR Rock Stars: University of St. Thomas’ Betsy Anderson

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