Liberal Arts Matter: Choosing a Public Relations Major in College

By Prof. Kirk Hazlett

Kirk with Students2In my multiple roles as former public relations professional turned public relations professor, advisor to both undergraduate and graduate public relations-focused students, and member of the Public Relations Society of America’s board of directors, I often am asked by students (and their parents), “What should I (my child) study to get a good public relations education?”

A valid, and crucial, question to be asking early on; not so good if you’re in your senior year and still flailing about trying to figure out life after graduation!

To quote from Edward L. Bernays’ “Your Future in Public Relations [1961]”: “If an individual is to give advice to others, he should have knowledge and understanding. Emphasis should be on economics, political science and the social sciences, psychology, social psychology, public opinion, anthropology, and history. The practitioner who is well grounded in these subjects will be better able to judge the future in terms of the past and the present.”

In a nutshell, what Mr. Bernays, known to many of us as the “Father of Public Relations,” is suggesting is a solid liberal arts education.

I encourage my PR students and advisees to get an exposure to as broad a spectrum of subjects as possible. As I discussed in one of my own blog posts some time back, you need to learn a little about a lot. When you learn how all the pieces (history, psychology, art, math…the whole nine yards) fit together, you are much better prepared for the “big picture” thinking that is the hallmark of the public relations professional.

The core skills still apply, so get as many writing and public speaking courses under your belt as possible, as well as an introduction to business management and to accounting.

I mention the latter thanks to an experience I had as an organization’s communications director. Our CFO called me into his office a few days after I started and handed me a piece of paper with a hefty six-figure number written on it. “This is your budget for the coming year…I need to know by the end of the week how you are going to spend it in the next 12 months.”

A couple of days later, I came back to him with an Excel spreadsheet showing the next 52 weeks with expenditures detailed both as individual and as cumulative figures so that he could see how much each activity was going to cost as well as a running total of how much had been spent to date.

He looked at me in amazement and asked, “How did you know how to do this?” To which I replied, “I took an accounting course.”

He responded, “You’re the first person we’ve had in this position who knew how to do budgets!”

Simple example, but proof of the value of a liberal arts education. I knew how to do not only my “official” job as a public relations professional but also my ancillary job as a business area manager.

I love it when my students tell me they’re taking a second psychology course, or a business management course, or a fine arts course. They’re learning something about all the many variables that make up “life,” and they will be better prepared when they walk off the stage with their diploma in hand to enter the “real world.”

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” – John Dewey

Kirk Hazlett (@kirkhazlett), APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication at Curry College where he oversees the undergraduate public relations concentration. He also is Lecturer in Communications at Regis College where he teaches graduate communications courses. Read more from Kirk on his weekly blog, KirkHazlett-APRofessor’s Thoughts.

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