Considering Certification? An Analysis of Universities’ Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals
- Julie O’Neil, Texas Christian University
- Jacqueline Lambiase, Texas Christian University
Working professionals may need post-baccalaureate education, but finding time and resources to do so may be difficult. An analysis of 75 university master’s programs in public relations found 22 related programs offering communication certificates. A web audit of these programs, plus a survey and in-depth interviews, indicated professionals are interested in earning certificates, particularly in social and digital media strategy and measurement. Professionals want to attend certificate programs that combine online and face-to-face instruction.
Keywords: certification, public relations, communication certificates
O’Neil, J., Lambiase, J. (2016). Considering Certification? An Analysis of Universities’ Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals, 2(1), 34-46.
PDF Download Link: Considering Certification?: An Analysis of Universitiesí Communication Certificates and Feedback from Public Relations Professionals (Link opens in a new window.)
U.S. News & World Report (2014) named public relations as one of the top 100 careers of 2014. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that from 2010 to 2012, job growth for public relations specialists would increase by 12% (2012a) and that growth for public relations management positions would increase by 21% (2012b). This growing number of public relations practitioners must keep up with technology and industry trends and demands occurring in public relations.
There is no shortage of options for ongoing training and learning in public relations, as noted by the Commission on Public Relations Education 2012 report. Professional associations, commercial enterprises and trade publications offer a plethora of webinars, face-to-face seminars, and publications to educate and train public relations practitioners. Some public relations practitioners take advantage of these training and learning opportunities, while others invest the time and money to pursue a graduate degree in public relations or a tangential field such as business. However, in addition to the offerings provided by professional entities and the in-depth masterís degree, there is yet another way for public relations professionals to learn and grow: earn a certificate from a university. To date, scant research exists on communication certificates offered by universities. This study seeks to address this gap, by (1) analyzing through a website audit the types and structures of communication certificates offered by U.S. colleges and universities that also offer masterís degrees in public relations, and (2) examining public relations professionalsí preferences for certificates through an online survey and in-depth interviews.
Public Relations Graduate Education
Graduate education is growing particularly fast in public relations, fueled by the explosion of social and digital media and the accompanying job opportunities. Another driver of the growth of graduate programs in public relations is the need for universities to offset declining enrollments in journalism programs and budget cuts from state budgets (Commission on PR Education, 2012). Since 2000, the number of masterís degree programs in public relations has increased from 26 to 75 (Commission on PR Education, 2012; Shen & Toth, 2013).
In its website audit of 75 graduate programs in public relations, the Commission on PR Education (2012) noted a lack of uniformity among masterís degree programs in public relations in terms of program titles, admission standards, required credit hours, and curriculum. Follow-up research by public relations scholars Briones and Toth (2013) found a lack of conformity among the programs in terms of adhering to recommended content areas provided by the Commission on PR Education 2012 report. Briones and Toth attributed the lack of uniformity among programs in part to the widely different graduate models in existence at universities. While the majority of programs offer a professional graduate degree in public relations, some offer an academic degree designed to prepare students for a Ph.D., while others provide a more interdisciplinary graduate degree.
The Commission on PR Education (2012) also reviewed the delivery methods of public relations graduate programs. Roughly 82% of programs offer traditional courses, which rely on face-to-face meetings and instruction. Approximately 10% of public relations programs use online delivery, and about 8% use a hybrid/blended delivery that includes online and in-person instruction. Despite the small number of programs offering online programs, the Commission on PR Education predicts that the number of online and hybrid graduate programs in public relations will increase. According to journalism educator and researcher Casteneda (2011), some journalism programs are partnering with outside vendors to develop certificates and online degrees using a shared-revenue agreement.
Professional perceptions of education delivery methods is mixed. For example, research indicates that public relations educators and practitioners view traditional programs more positively compared to online programs (Commission on PR Education, 2012; Toth, Shen, & Briones, 2012). However outside of public relations, evaluation of online programs tends to be more positive. One evaluation of an online masterís program revealed that students listed improving themselves, advancing in their career, personal reasons and securing new job opportunities as the top reasons for their need of an online program (Tokmak, Baturay & Fadde, 2013). Online courses can better accommodate working professionals who may be balancing family commitments (Wyland, Lester, Mone, & Winkel, 2013), and they enable people to take courses from universities located around the world (Gold & Jose, 2012).
Graduate programs can integrate in-person meetings with online sessions to create a hybrid program that combines benefits of both methods while still remaining flexible for students. In an 18-month Internet-Based Masterís in Educational Technology (iMet) program, students learn collaborative problem solving through teamwork assignments in a classroom and online platform (Cowan, 2012). Students of the iMet program “meet 25% face-to-face and 75% online” (p. 13). At the University of Nevada at Reno, a hybrid masterís degree program allowed the journalism school to create variety in its curriculum that accommodated studentsí preferences without needing additional staff or resources (Coulson & Linn, 1995).
For students who desire to earn new skills, but require a more cost-effective and/or more accessible program than what is afforded through a masterís program, a certificate program is a viable option. Universities are increasingly offering students the ability to complete courses to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate. Bosworth (2010) of Complete College America defines a certificate as a technical diploma comprised of “credentials issued by educational institutions that indicate completion of a discrete program of study or series of courses” (p. i). Certificate programs provide credentialing for new skill sets in a shorter amount of time than a typical masterís degree. In the 2010-2011 academic year, public and private universities in the United States conferred more than 1.20 million certificates (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013). The knowledge and skills gained from a certificate program allow students to easily transfer what they learn to the workplace (National Center for Education Statistic, 2012). By teaching students more practical knowledge, the coursework included in a certificate program is typically more applicable for career advancement.
The demand for certificates is steadily increasing. Since 2000, conferred certificates have increased 64% (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). The increase in certificates demonstrates both a desire from students and a need for universities to provide these types of learning and training programs. Certificate programs range significantly in structure in terms of the amount of time and coursework needed for completion. However, compared to certificates completed in shorter periods of time, certificate programs lasting more than one year are linked with higher salaries (Bosworth, 2010). Public institutions award more one-year certificates compared to private universities, which account for only 5% of all certificate programs (Bosworth).
Certificate course delivery ranges from traditional and online methods to hybrid approaches that combine the two. In a study conducted about an online library media certificate, researchers found that a strictly online education provided working adults access to specialized knowledge needed to prepare them to maintain and grow within their current positions (Meyer, Bruwelheide & Poulin, 2009). In a study conducted by professors from Northern Illinois University, they recommended that certificate programs of all types should target more interdisciplinary approaches to courses (McFadden, Chen, Munroe, Natfzger, & Selinger, 2011). By providing overlap, students can learn how to address core subject areas more dynamically. Universities that can provide course crossover are better positioned to equip their students to think critically about their subject area.
In 2013, the Public Relations Society of America began offering the Certificate in Public Relations Principles for university students majoring in public relations in their final year of school (PR accreditation, 2013). This certificate program is currently offered at 13 participating colleges and universities. The Universal Accreditation Board administers the certification exam (PR accreditation).
In summary, in response to the growth in the public relations field and professionalsí need for ongoing training and learning, masterís degree programs in public relations also continue to increase in number. Certificate programs in multiple disciplines are also increasing. Other than the 2013 PRSA certificate program, less is known, however, about the ways universities are offering certificate programs related to communication professions, how those programs meet the specialized training and learning needs of public relations professionals, and whether public relations professionals see value in pursuing a certificate. This mixed-methods study therefore seeks to answer:
RQ1: What types of communication-related certificates do universities offer?
RQ2: Do public relations professionals value post-baccalaureate certificates, and if yes, what certificate features are most attractive?
In the first phase of the project, researchers conducted a website audit of communication-related certificates offered at universities in the United States. The sampling frame included the 75 universities identified by the Commission on Public Relations Education (2012) as offering a masterís degree in public relations. Researchers first visited the websites at those 75 universities to determine if the university offered a certificate program in a communication-related field. Only post-baccalaureate certificates, not undergraduate ones, were systematically analyzed. Twenty-two of the 75 universities offer post-baccalaureate certificate programs, with four university programs offering two types of certificates, for a total of 26 certificate programs to be analyzed. Researchers then systematically analyzed the offerings for certificate title, program costs, delivery method, and the ratio of courses and credits earned.
The second phase of the research included an online survey and in-depth interviews with public relations professionals. The survey instrument was created in Qualtrics and included questions about communication professionals’ ongoing training and learning needs and their interest in and preference for certificates, including content and delivery method.
Researchers secured approval from their university’s Institutional Review Board prior to data collection.
The researchers used purposive and snowball sampling to recruit practitioners for their online survey. Researchers emailed 30 presidents of local chapters of professional communication associations such as the Public Relations Society of America, Social Media Club, and the International Business Communicators Association to ask them to forward the survey invitation to their respective members. The researchers also recruited participants via social media and personal contacts. One hundred and twelve participants completed the survey in February 2014. Participants live and work across the United States.
As part of the survey, participants were asked if they would be willing to be interviewed by the researchers. In this third phase of research, more than 20 participants were contacted after volunteering, and the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 13 communication professionals. Each participant responded to nine open-ended questions that were related to their career and educational goals and professional development needs. Their responses were transcribed and analyzed by the researchers through an iterative reading process used to discover common themes and to produce descriptive summaries of participants’ ideas and suggestions. In this qualitative part of the overall study, participants created meaning with the researchers.
Audit of Existing Certificate Programs
Table 1 displays the information about the communication certificates offered by the 22 programs. Eighteen of those programs offer a single certificate program, with four offering two certificate programs; the following descriptive findings, then, are based on these 26 separate certificate programs. Seven programs use the term “marketing” in their titles, as in “Strategic Marketing” or “Integrated Marketing.” Five programs include the word “digital” in their titles, with three of those titles using “Digital Marketing.” The other two programs using this term were called “Digital Storytelling” and “Digital Media Skills. Five programs include the term “public relations” in their titles, while four programs use the term strategic in their title, as in “Strategic Communication” or “Strategic Marketing.” Nine programs positioned themselves through terms related to new/social media or technology. The single or double appearances of these following terms indicate more focused programs on this list: “nonprofit,” “global,” “storytelling,” “ethics,” and “diversity.”
As indicated by Table 1, the majority of the graduate programs included in this website audit offer a certificate completion in one year or less. That is, out of 22 schools examined, 12 offer certificate completion within 1 year, with the leading minimum being a 3-months’ completion at the University of the Pacific, followed by a 9-monthsí completion at Seton Hall University and Lasell College. Out of the remaining 10 schools, eight offer certificate completion between a 1-year minimum and 2-year maximum. Factors playing into completion within this timeframe depend on a studentís course load and availability of requisite courses. For example, Northwesternís certificate in Strategic Marketing requires a completion of five courses, which may be taken in just 2 semesters or across 2 years. Similarly, the certificate programs at West Virginia University require 1-year minimums and 8-year maximums to complete, on a kind of “as you go” basis. Two other schools, the universities of Denver and Oregon, require a 2-year minimum for program completion and certificate attainment.
The ratio of number of courses to credit hours varied but most programs followed credit-hour protocols borrowed from graduate programs (i.e., one course equals three credit hours). Six programs offered 5 courses/15 credits for their certification, and six programs offered 6 courses/18 credits for certification. Six other programs were based on three courses, with varied credit hours. The outliers in this study were a 2-course program at Seton Hall for 12 credits and a 7-course program at the University of Oregon for 28 credits. These differences account for some of the variety of costs of these programs. Two universities, California State University-Fullerton and Georgetown University, offer Continuing Education Units (CEU) rather than credit hours. Twelve CEUs can be earned at California State University-Fullerton for completion of 6 courses and 10.8 CEUs at Georgetown for 6 courses.
While the majority of these graduate certificate programs cost between $10,000 and $15,000, five of the 22 programs cost less than $5,500. Of these five, the most affordable program is the University of the Pacific’s certificate in Social Media Business, offered at $495 and in a completion time of 3 months. Second to this program is that of California State University-Fullerton, offering a Digital Marketing certificate between $2,700 and $3,600 depending on in-state or out-of-state tuition, and obtained in a 10-month period of time. Six programs cost between $7,000 and $9,900, beginning with Rowan University at $7,019 for a certificate in Public Relations, and ending with Lasell College for a 9-month-long certificate obtainment priced at $9,825. Programs at 10 schools cost between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on students’ in-state or out-of-state classification and other factors. Moving on to those programs in the $20,000 bracket, the University of Oregon’s non-resident certificate cost of $22,198 begins the category, and is closely followed by George Washington University’s $23,674 Public Relations certificate program cost and Northwestern’s $24,330 Strategic Marketing certificate program cost. Standing as the most expensive certificate programs are those offered by Farleigh Dickson University at $33,507 for a six-course completion in Public Relations Administration, and $56,208 to obtain a Communication certificate from Auburn University in just two semesters.
The delivery models of the 22 university certificate programs varied as well. Eleven programs were online only and seven programs were classroom only, with four programs using a blended model.
One hundred and twelve professionals responded to the survey, although only 85 people fully completed it. Seventy-four percent of respondents are female; 26% are male. Fifty-nine percent are 30 or younger, 24% are between the ages of 31 and 45, and 17% are older than age 45. Eighty-six percent of participants have an undergraduate degree, mostly in the areas of public relations, strategic communication, and journalism. Fourteen percent of respondents have a masterís degree. In terms of current position, 25% of respondents indicated they are working in public relations, 18% in advertising, 14% in digital media, 4% in journalism, and 35% in “other,” which includes fields such as event planning, sustainability, fundraising, marketing, corporate communication, and human resources. Five percent of respondents said they were not currently working. Thirty-six percent of respondents work for an agency, 31% for a corporation, 13% for a nonprofit organization, 9% for government, 4% are self-employed, and 8% said “other.” The self-reported income levels included 6% less than $25,000, 16% between $25,000 and $35,000, 34% between $35,001 and $50,000, 24% between $50,001 and $75,000, 10% between $75,001 and $100,000, and 11% more than $100,000.
Survey participants were first asked to indicate their level of interest in taking leadership and training programs at a university on a variety of topics by indicating whether they were interested, uninterested, or unsure of interest. As indicated by Table 2, the topic that received the greatest interest included effective storytelling across multiple platforms (traditional and online) followed by social media and digital media strategy, and then measuring and evaluating communication effectiveness. The topic that received the least amount of interest was design fundamentals and multimedia, although roughly 50% of respondents still indicated interest in that topic alone.
When asked to indicate their level of interest in earning a post-baccalaureate certificate in a communication-related area, 28% said they were “definitely interested,” 29% said “probably interested,” 29% indicated they “might be interested,” 10% said “probably not interested,” and 3% said “definitely not interested.” There were no statistically significant differences among people of different ages regarding their interest in certificates (x2 = 25.54; df = 32; p = .78), between men or women (x2 = 4.19; df = 4; p = .38), nor between people working at different types of organizations (x2 = 19.15; df = 20; p = .51).
Participants were next asked what type of learning environment they would prefer for certificate coursework. Sixty percent said they would prefer one-day weekend, in-person seminars coupled with 5- to 10-week online assignments and discussions; 22% said in-person weekend seminars only; and 18% said online learning delivery that consists solely of online assignments and discussions. Sixty-seven percent of respondents then said they typically prefer to learn and keep up with professional development with a community of people; 33% said they prefer to do so by themselves.
Fifteen percent of participants said they had already earned a professional certificate. Participants indicated they had earned certificates in new media, human resources, management, fundraising, teaching, training, graphic design, leadership and communication, including both APR (Accredited in Public Relations, offered through the Public Relations Society of America) and ABC (Accredited Business Communicator, offered through the International Association of Business Communicators).
The last survey question asked respondents for other suggestions related to their professional development and learning needs. In this open-ended survey question, some participants expressed the need for program flexibility and course options that accommodated professionals working full time. A few participants said programs need to have a strong focus on contemporary digital and social media tools and strategy. One participant lamented that “I’m pretty skeptical of any structured program’s ability to keep up with the pace of real-world trends in communication.” Another participant mentioned “connectivity to top-level executives for networking and job placement,” and another said the program must be “engaging.” Finally, one participant wrote that s/he “would love more info on how pay increases and how it can help with getting better job opportunities as well as figuring out your specific interests so that you can decide which program you want to go into.”
The in-depth interviews with 13 professionals included 10 women and 3 men ranging in age from mid-20s to early 60s. Nine of those interviewed are between the ages of 30 and 50, during a time of life when many professionals are seeking graduate-level educational opportunities (“Digest,” 2012; Mullen, Goyette & Soares, 2003); 4 participants had earned master’s degrees. These professionals work in varied environments. Four are employed by corporations, four work for nonprofits or universities, three work in sole-proprietor communication businesses, and two are employed by marketing or public relations agencies.
Participants were evenly split in response to whether they were actively thinking about pursuing a masterís degree, with five saying “yes” and five saying “no” (but three of the “no” answers were from professionals who already had masterís degrees). Three participants responded with “maybe,” and even the “yes” answers were filled with caveats. Cost and/or time was mentioned by six participants as reasons why pursuing a masterís degree would be difficult for them; two women and two men specifically mentioned family considerations as probable barriers. One of the male participants said “the lawn still has to be mowed,” another said he “was the primary breadwinner of my family,” and two female participants mentioned the ages of their children as factors for delaying consideration of or being hesitant to pursue graduate studies. Two participants specifically said shorter programs of 1 year or 18 months would be attractive to them.
These considerations of family and current career responsibilities also informed participant descriptions of a “dream” post-baccalaureate experience. Five professionals used the words “blended,” “mixture,” or “flexible” when describing a program that would be both in-person and online. This flexible program would help them manage learning while they worked and cared for family members. One participant who was interested in earning a masterís degree said, “Right now, we are all hands on deck, and I don’t leave here most nights before 7 p.m.” Nine of 13 participants expressed their preferences for a mixture of online and in-person course work for other reasons, too. One participant said he would want to meet in person “to connect and network,” while another wants to hear “what others are doing.” Another said she wants “a think-tank format (where discussion) is part of the learning.” One female professional said, “I never did want to do the APR thing (through PRSA), since it’s a lot of studying by yourself.” Finally, one participant said that while he realized some of the instruction would probably be online because many people required flexibility, he realized “I do better in person, not online – there’s a level of accountability in a group setting.”
An ideal curriculum for post-baccalaureate programs would include new social media communication strategies and new digital tools for analytics, according to almost all participants. “I need help with strategy,” said one participant, “to know what an orderly process is for doing the research or finding information, and then making a plan.” Blogging and digital influence were listed as components of needed new media tactics and strategies. Another participant asked for interdisciplinary curriculum that included “the spectrum of PR, marketing, business, advertising, social media.” Next on the list for many participants was curriculum that addressed business management or entrepreneurship. “If you want to move up, you must understand business,” said one, who mentioned a university which offered a business boot camp for non-business graduate students. Two respondents talked about their dreams of entrepreneurship and mentioned that disciplinary area as important to them. Two others mentioned diversity and cross-cultural communication as important to their professional needs.
Eight of 13 people said they would be interested in earning a professional certificate from a university, with one respondent saying “maybe.” Two of the “no” answers came from professionals who had already earned master’s degrees. This question prompted fewer caveats than those listed for masterís programs, with participants seeming to make underlying assumptions that certificate programs were both well focused and completed more quickly than graduate degrees. One participant “loved” the idea of a certificate program “without the commitment of a master’s degree.” Another one of the eight professionals who expressed interest in a certificate program said he “saw value in [it], when people see initials after a name, and know that there’s an expertise level associated with that.” This participant said the masterís/certificate conversation does not have to be an “either/or kind of thing,” but “maybe they could be done at the same time, or one could lead to the other.” Another said she would be interested in a certificate program as long as it was not “just studying to the test.” Curriculum preferences expressed for graduate-level certificate programs included business and marketing strategies, leadership and management, employee engagement, overcoming challenges and handling crisis, ethics, social media, channel and segmentation planning, and digital metrics and methodologies.
Just as Briones and Toth (2013) discovered a lack of coherence in master’s education in public relations, this present research found certificate programs offered by the 22 universities in this study to lack uniformity; certainly, these certificate programs respond to different educational goals and marketing demands than traditional master’s education. However, many certificate programs offered programs of similar credit-hour requirements, with 12 of the programs offering certificates that included five or six courses, for 15-18 credit hours total. There was a split in delivery method, with 11 programs online only, and 11 programs using classroom only delivery or a blended model of classroom and online instruction.
In general, these certificate programs could be said to be following models B and C of the 2006 Commission on Public Relations Education report for masterís degrees in public relations, with B-type certificate programs providing public relations and business-related instruction to meet the advanced career goals of seasoned professionals and C-type certificate programs providing more focused instruction on a specific part of the communications field, such as ethics. Beyond curriculum, the largest differences among these certificate programs were the costs, which ranged from $495 to more than $50,000 for programs of widely ranging requirements.
The desires of practitioners in the in-depth interviews seem to support this certificate program variety, and this variety is supported by responses to an open-ended question in the survey as well. Flexibility was a key to participants’ abilities to earn either a master’s degree or certificate, especially in terms of the timing of classes and/or the delivery model. However, in the interviews many practitioners expressed their desire for building relationships with other students and for in-classroom discussion, where they believed real learning took place. Several practitioners expressed reservations about studying alone or earning a certificate that was a ìstudy to the testî type of experience.
Certainly, programs designing certificate programs must balance all of these concerns and desires carefully, with perhaps the most challenging decision to be that of whether to offer a broad program that serves the demands of seasoned professionals or a specific program designed to “catch up” professionals on new trends in the industry.
Findings from the survey and interviews indicate that public relations professionals are generally interested in earning a certificate. Nearly 60% of survey respondents indicated that they were either “definitely interested” or “probably interested” in earning a certificate, and another 29% said they “might be interested.” More people in the interviews said they would be interested in a university certificate program than in a master’s degree program. Perceived advantages of certificate programs included the shorter time commitment and more specific curriculum content.
Despite the fact that public relations educators and some professionals generally don’t view online programs as positively as traditional programs (Commission on PR Education, 2012), respondents in this research indicated a preference for a hybrid delivery, one that combines online and face-to-face learning. In the survey, only 1 in 5 respondents preferred to earn a certificate program that consisted of face-to-face instruction only. The interviews also indicated that participants would value masterís degree programs that contained both online and in-person components, with flexible meeting times. Although the majority of professionals prefer a hybrid delivery, only 18% of certificate programs analyzed used a hybrid approach, while half provided online-only course experiences.
Although public relations practitioners can certainly learn a great deal by reading blogs and trade publications, the majority of respondents in this research indicated that they prefer to learn with a community of people. One of the strengths of master’s and certificate programs is that they bring together a community of people to learn.
Participants want a graduate curriculum that includes the newest digital tools and strategies for communication careers, with business management and marketing expertise rated highly, too. Participants indicate a preference for multiple topics for a certificate, with the greater number of people saying they would like a class on storytelling, digital and social media strategy, and measuring communication effectiveness.
One overall finding of this mixed-methods research is that universities and colleges have an opportunity to respond to professional demand for certificates and other ongoing training. Only 29 percent of universities that offer a graduate degree in public relations also provide a communication-centric certificate. Although certificates will never completely replace the relevance or need for an in-depth master’s program in public relations, a certificate may be the best educational choice for professionals who want to learn a specialized skill or process without the time commitment and cost of a master’s degree. Certificates may also become more desirable if more people strive to earn “badges” as an informal way to showcase expertise to prospective employers (Goligoski, 2012).
The findings of this research are limited by the use of a convenience and snowball sample. Moreover, the types of people who were motivated to complete the survey likely have a higher interest in graduate education and certificates compared to other professionals. Participation in the in-depth interviews was self-selected.
Future research could analyze the differences in university certificate and for-profit certification programs, and the differences among programs offered by universities, broad professional organizations, and specific trade groups. Depth interviews could be conducted with certificate program coordinators to explore the challenges and opportunities in coordinating these programs. Finally, additional research could delve into professional attitudes and likely behavior of potential students toward universities which offered “laddered” approaches to graduate work, allowing students to begin with a certificate program that would give credit toward a future master’s degree program. As this research demonstrates, certificate programs offer opportunities for both communication professionals and universities interested in being part of their ongoing learning.
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