Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

Bill Nielsen Biography

Consultant to management of for-profit and non-profit organizations; retired corporate vice president of Johnson & Johnson.


INTERVIEWER: Let’s revisit public relations education for a minute. Talk about what in your mind should be the most important focus of public relations education today.

NIELSEN: The basic skills have to be a given. Too often they’re not, unfortunately. Writing, speaking and in this new age—which thank goodness I did not have to practice in—how to write an intelligible tweet. It just blows my mind to go on Twitter. I follow 170 people. Half of the tweets I cannot understand. I have no idea what they’re trying to say. Now it may sound silly but if we’re going to be out there then we’ve got to figure out how to use it better. But that’s only one issue. I would say in public relations education, no one should be allowed to get through that who thinks that PR is just a matter of glad-handing, back-slapping, meeting the right people, networking and all of that. You absolutely, you have to have the basic skills of being able to start with a clean sheet of paper and to get down something that’s intelligible and that will adequately inform and inspire people to move with whatever it is you’re going to be communicating. I hate to even say that but it remains true and we have to keep saying that. Everybody’s going to be better off. I think that as far as the educational experience, I would speak about it from two dimensions. Faculty needs far more interaction with the real world than they are currently getting. And this is not the fault of the faculty and it’s not the fault of the practitioners. But somewhere we’ve got to come together. I think the institute’s (Page Center’s) focus on providing a link between the academic world and business is a great one and well needed. And I think the Page Society and other organizations need to recognize that. What are we graduating now, 70,000 a year with degrees in public relations communications? I thought holy cow, what do they really know about the real world? I’ve been out doing guest lectures enough to see that real need. Academics, faculty members, they want the interaction. Somehow we’ve got to figure out a way to accommodate that. Another side, in strictly the early grades and early years in public relations education, is to make sure that people have understanding of what that life and that role and career field is all about. What are the dimensions of it? What’s your day like? I’ve said so many times, it’s about this ability and comfort you have in handling a lot of things at one time. Being okay with the fact that you may start out your day with six things you want to get done and not get one of them done. In fact, you may not even touch one of them because of other intervening issues. There are some people that are very happy with that. There are other people who are not. I would say at all stages of the public relations educational experience that needs to be retested and reexamined. You find a lot of people who think that the basic information included in curriculum is good for them in many different directions. But they don’t wind up going into PR jobs, many not until years later. I think those things are very important. Equally, though, is the understanding of business and finance and accounting and HR and all of those other disciplines of management and production, sales, and marketing. Communications people need to have an awareness of all those other fields. And we have to do a better job of forging alliances with the business schools to make sure that that happens. Just as much as the business schools need to build into their curriculum for management people an understanding of communications and the important role that can play in the success of any business person. Those are important to mention, I’m sure there are others—well I know there are others—but that’s what comes to mind.

INTERVIEWER: Can ethics be taught? How should ethics be integrated into a public relations curriculum in your mind? Should it be a stand-alone course? Should it be woven throughout many courses? What’s the best way to teach students about ethics?

NIELSEN: I think ethics absolutely can be taught from the standpoint of, how does ethical decision-making come into play in an organization? Can you teach basic values? That I’m not so sure about. But there’s a whole lot on the board of Josephson Institute of Ethics. We have programs for businesses where Michael Josephson and his people will go into a troubled company and do an assessment to determine where the disconnects are between the values the company espouses and the behavior that has occurred in that company; design programs to teach teachers to carry this into the workplace. All aimed at making good decisions and the right decisions for these business organizations. And everyone wants that today because everyone is under that microscope in a very precise and detailed way. So nothing can be overlooked today because all is going to come under scrutiny at some point. And a lot of that has to do with ethical behavior, ethical decisions. Yes, it can be done. Right along with that though, needs to be the reinstruction or indoctrination into the values that an organization holds. That’s really where it starts. If you think about an organization making a declaration; whether it’s developed by employees or management, you’re going to come out at the same place. Through the values statement you’re saying, ‘this is important about who we are and what we do. These are the dimensions.’ It could be putting the customer first; it could be any number of things—quality of products, depending on industry. But management and employees or associates need to agree on what is really important about who we are and what we do. What are we going to protect for the long term? And, now that we’ve done that, how are we going to behave against these beliefs? Once that declaration is made, this is what we know about who we are. This is what’s important. This is how it’s going to influence how we conduct our business and this is the way we’re going to behave. That’s your ethical imperative; because now you’ve said it publically. You’ve invited, in effect, people to observe you, to challenge you, to question you based on those beliefs. That’s your ethical imperative. So that says, ‘now we’ve got to make sure our decision making is consistent with that.’ Because the only way ultimately to build trust—which is what everybody is after in the marketplace—is observe behavior that is consistent with what you’ve said and you believe is important about who you are and what you’re going to protect and how it’s going to affect your decision making. That’s trust. When you’ve done that and then something happens and your public sees or they’ve gotten to know about your organization then they make a judgment that, ‘Wow, that isn’t what they said they were going to do. That’s not consistent with what I believe that company stands for.’ That’s where this whole issue of long-term trust, long-term sustainable trust, finds its genesis and its sustainability over a long term.