On mute

A dispatch from the educational front line

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Framed print designed by Grant Sewell
Framed print designed by Grant Sewell

I ended my lecture on communication models with a conventional open question. It drew a blank. Silence. Tumbleweed. These are first year undergraduates; they turn up on time and in good numbers and sit politely on mute (and with their cameras off).

Could I be sure anyone was still there? Had a largely theoretical lecture switched them off? So I tried a different, closed, question.

What day of the week is it today? After a spit second to unmute three voices called out in unison ‘Monday’. I’d achieved a minor result in terms of two-way interaction.

Teachers share many of the same challenges faced by communicators. Speaking does not amount to understanding. And engagement is hard to achieve in a world of short attention spans and many distractions.

So, I comfort myself with the small achievements. A month from starting the course, the numbers attending the online classes are holding up well. I miss the classroom but know it brought its own set of challenges. Some students were anxious about turning up in a public space, fearing they would be judged by their classmates, or challenged by their lecturer; all could be distracted by peripheral issues such as clothes or this week’s hair colour. Online teaching lowers barriers to entry, and one class member talks openly about her campaigning on disabled rights because physical disabiliites are less evident online and the reminder is necessary.

While I adopt a one-way transmission model of communication (see, I remember my own lecture) on Mondays, I expect the students to prepare for a longer class on Thursdays during which I encourage them to contribute and ask questions.

We’re now at the half way point of the first teaching block (my university has replaced the two-semester model with three shorter teaching blocks that I recall from my student days – though we have nor reverted to archaic names like Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity terms). So far I’m pleased with the progress, as far as I can tell.

My class members are more familiar with the technology and with the etiquette of online learning than their lecturer. They were mostly born this century and have a long familiarity with communication happening through screens and devices. They would be more likely to experience cognitive dissonance in the classroom than on MS Teams.

We’re making progress and are, I think, all learning something.

But a colleague warns me against complacency. This is a public relations class, she reminds me. They’re going to have to get used to meeting people. We need to help them prepare for the workplace!

A different colleague, formerly a high-flying consultant, used to insist that students should always enter and leave her classroom in groups and never alone. She wanted to inculcate easy sociability in her trainee professionals – and wanted to engender a sense of fun around her teaching.

I was sceptical then, and I’m not so sure now. The myth of the gregarious public relations practitioner with an endless contact book and a full calendar is just that. Rich Leigh addressed this in his book Myths of PR. As if Myth 7: ‘PR is glamorous’ was not enough, then how about Myth 10: ‘You have to be an extrovert to succeed in PR.’

Leigh reminds readers that there’s more to public relations than media relations (despite media stereotypes) and argues: ‘If managing the social media accounts and/or the creation of content for clients or your employer, you might struggle if you’re the kind of person that can’t go an hour without a chat.’

This points to the central paradox of social media that’s well-described in the ‘Anti-social social club’ fashion brand.

In one generation, we seem to have moved from ‘introverts need not apply’ to concern for the suitability of extraverts to cope with remote working and long hours in front of the screen and keyboard.

Those (like Sarah Williams) who have returned to their former workplaces in their new guise as ethnographic researchers have observed how quiet offices have since become. Those phone calls have long since migrated into email threads, so the office was becoming less obviously social even before we took to working remotely. Susan Cain’s Quiet is now the new normal. This 2012 book seems increasingly prescient, though part of its subtitle now seems ill-judged. ‘The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.’

I attempted to explain the purpose of university to my class. It’s not to acquire knowledge, because Google will always do that better than you. But rather, it’s two things. One is to help you to solve difficult problems. We write essays today so you will be able to investigate and analyse real problems later. The second is to help you achieve self-reliance and the ability to recover from setbacks.

Our classes are not perfect (no class ever is). But the university class of 2020 are able to focus on education more singlemindedly than previous groups of students were and they are certainly learning about frustrations and setbacks. Hopefully they’ll learn about themselves as a result.

So let’s turn this around. If you’re a public relations student, what’s your experience of education this year? And how are you able to build your network and gain work experience given so many restrictions on actually meeting people? We’re keen to document your experiences through our weekly selection of #prstudent #bestPRblogs.

You have time to create content, and there’s much to talk about in a year in which so much has been restricted and canceled.