The state of student blogging

About the author

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

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This is the sixth year I’ve run a #bestPRblogs contest, originally at Behind the Spin and now at PR Place. So I feel well placed to provide an overview.

It’s also encouraging to see that I’m no longer alone in championing student blogging. The formidable team of Stephen Waddington and Marcel Klebba have launched Comms School to provide encouragement and guidance to would-be content creators.

I note how open they are about one of its aims: to provide a pipeline of talent for their digital marketing agency, Metia. Turn that around, and it makes the point that blogging is a way for students to display their talents to employers.

I also welcome that several universities are strong centres of excellence with blogging built into the curriculum and assessments.

Quality – and quantity

The positive news is that this year #bestPRblogs has been strong judged in terms of quality and quantity.

We’re running until Easter so I’ll provide definitive figures then but in the academic year to date we’ve already highlighted 190 posts from 62 students at 14 universities.

In terms of quality, can it ever have been better? For one thing, there’s not one but two past winners still blogging (and now in their fourth and final years). They are Orlagh Shanks, our 2018 winner, and Lucy Hayball, our 2017 winner.

One thing to note about these two is that they’re outliers. Rather than being encouraged by their lecturers or pushed by their classmates, they are flying solo – and probably benefiting from friendly competition with each other.

Orlagh in particular has shown me how much craft (and graft) there is to producing a quality blog. But if I’m to identify one reason why these two are past winners and current leaders, it’s that their writing is a pleasure to read. The test for me is that I enjoy reading their blogs even when they’re writing about topics of little interest to me (a middle aged man).

Nor are they alone in this. Heiða Ingimarsdóttir has written with great honesty about a difficult childhood, about motherhood and about coming late to education. Her story has echoes of Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir Educated and of Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other. It’s a redemptive story that deserves a wider audience.

Holly Rees writes openly and with increasing assurance about her own challenges. Others have described how writing helps them to address their mental health problems, and I sense her emergence as a confident individual through her blog.

That brings me to the centres of excellence. Ulster University continues to provide a forum for the greatest number of students to get their thoughts published. This is more about collective identity than individual excellence, though Ulster student Niamh Murray features regularly at her own blog. Her writing invariably makes me smile, and sometimes astonishes.

University of South Wales has a strong blogging culture, as do Southampton Solent and Sunderland universities.

You may feel I’m being too generous with the praise. So judge for yourself. Here are five extraordinary blog posts worth revisiting (presented here in alphabetical order):

It’s true, our student bloggers don’t always write about public relations. They’re rounded human beings with a range of interests and we’re looking for quality content by PR students, not necessarily quality content about public relations. But I should give this warning: public relations is not a crowded niche, unlike fashion, sport, travel and celebrity. You’ll find it much more competitive to become a lifestyle blogger, so becoming a public relations blogger alongside your studies should make sense.

But it’s not all positive. I can give you a more negative narrative.

Apart from Orlagh Shanks, Lucy Hayball and her Bournemouth classmate Yana Miladinova, where are the undergraduates? Where are the men? Where are experiments with vlogging and other visual formats?

I’ve not mentioned it until now, but the award-winning bloggers take great pride in appearance. They recognise the power of images as well as of words.

Your personal blog is your shop window to the world. There are some admirable examples of WordPress customisation, but many are happy to rely on a standard theme, and don’t seem to recognise the power of first impressions (covering visual design, accuracy of text, up to date content.) To my eyes, Weebly and Blogger sites look less professional than WordPress sites. Owning your own domain can be a smart move.

Then there’s the question of content. Your lecturer will no doubt be satisfied with your essay if you’ve managed to include a few academic references. But to me, Harvard referencing looks weird in a blog (haven’t you heard of hyperlinks?). Content that’s fit for one purpose is not necessarily fit for another. Look back at those posts identified above and note how freely and creatively they’re written. They’re as far as it’s possible to be from dutiful essays.

Then to the matter of timing (this in an important lesson to learn). I take it you’ve seen the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix? I make this assumption because I’ve read so many of your blog posts on the topic.

The first post I read on this topic came across as fresh and insightful. The tenth – even if it’s more considered – will struggle to stand out.

Timing is not a lesson we can easily teach at university. You are given a deadline, and have to meet it. There are penalties for being late, but there’s no reward for being early.

In the real world of public relations, there’s this notion of first mover advantage. News is only news when it’s new. Timing matters. Prizes go to the originals, not to the imitators.

So my challenge to all would-be bloggers is as follows:

  • If you don’t read, how can you expect to write?
  • It’s useful to know what’s already been published, but it’s even more useful to anticipate what’s just around the corner
  • Be interesting in your writing and in your choice of images (original is best)
  • Be useful. Address questions on your mind and your content will probably resonate with others.
  • Your blog is your shop window; it’s an expression of your personal brand. Take pride in it.