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An Adjunct Professor’s Perspective: Gen Z is Shifting the Communications Industry

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  • Blog
  • Culture/Agency Life

An Adjunct Professor’s Perspective: Gen Z is Shifting the Communications Industry

Phil Nardone, President & CEO of PAN Communications, is an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Syracuse University. Backed by PAN PR pros Adam Novak, Ryan Browne, Hannah Altuch, Eric Chapman and Sydney Mueller, he and the team guide graduating seniors through real-world communications strategies and equip students for a successful career in PR and marketing.

Looking back on 2020 and even the beginning of 2021, there were many silver-linings.

In one of the most trying time periods in our lifetime, all was not lost. I saw this not only in my capacity as CEO of PAN Communications, but through the exemplary work and attitudes of my students at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. As an adjust professor for nearly 20 years, I witnessed faculty and students face unprecedented challenges on campus, in the classroom and with their job search.

In all the years I’ve been teaching and connecting with students, however, I’ve never seen such positivity, perseverance, professionalism and passion as I have with this group. Through the hybrid classroom model, I was able to connect and develop relationships with students in unique ways, to really understand their worlds and opinions on job prospects and marketing trends.

“In all the years I’ve been teaching and connecting with students, however, I’ve never seen such positivity, perseverance, professionalism and passion as I have with this group.”

After wrapping up the Spring semester, I noticed three overarching themes from my Gen Z students: they care about corporate social responsibility (and demand that their future employer does, too), they recognize that social and influencer marketing must be authentic to resonate in today’s climate and as digital natives, they are acutely aware of the role of technology, AI and data in decision making.

Let’s dive into this a bit more.

gen z communications trends

3 Communications Takeaways from the Class of 2021

The Power of Purpose-Driven Communications

You could argue that we’ve never updated a course more than we did from 2020 to 2021. The world has changed so much in one year.

One of the most powerful changes involved the rise of corporate responsibility and an emphasis on purpose-driven communications. This, coupled with a rise in executive activism, has changed the way we as communicators approach our jobs. Make no mistake about it, the next generation is watching how brands communicate their values – or lack thereof – with more scrutiny than ever. Purpose-driven communications has emerged from the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate activism to a ‘must have’ to show the heart of any company.

“Make no mistake about it, the next generation is watching how brands communicate their values – or lack thereof – with more scrutiny than ever.”

Influencer Relations Continues to Mature

I don’t only mean the literal maturity of the TikTok influencers the students showed me in class!

Influencer relations in the consumer world has been big business for a long time, and we spent many weeks discussing the latest brand partnerships from the most trending social media stars. But beyond the viral videos, sponsored posts and the Travis Scott Happy Meals from McDonalds, we also talked about the increasing sophistication of the profession and the focus on ROI, which extends into my world in B2B public relations as well.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working so closely with this generation, it’s that these influencer partnerships that brands forge must be authentic. Gen Z is not afraid to boycott a product or speak out if the influencer behind the story isn’t trustworthy.

A Deeper Discussion of Data

We have talked about data-driven decision making in the communications profession for a long time in my class. But this year, the discussion took a more sophisticated turn towards the role of automation and AI in the public relations profession, along with the ethical obligations that communicators have as they utilize personal data for promotional purposes. We’ve spent years talking about access to data, but now we’re thinking more deeply about what that access means, and whether we are violating online privacy.

This is the first year that I can remember where we looked at the data issue with healthy skepticism, as an overall emphasis on values and ethics permeated every discussion. And I loved every minute of it!

What We Can Learn from Next-Gen Communicators

I would argue I learned as much from my students this past semester as they did from me.

Gen Z continues to redefine what it means to be a communicator today. They’ve taught us that it’s never too late for businesses and leaders to become purpose-driven, and that brands must function ethically and authentically in everything they do.

“Gen Z continues to redefine what it means to be a communicator today. They’ve taught us that it’s never too late for businesses and leaders to become purpose-driven, and that brands must function ethically and authentically in everything they do.”

There’s no denying the fact that the last 18 months have been challenging, especially for college seniors missing out on their ‘normal’ last year. But, the future is VERY bright for recent PR graduates. I can’t recall a higher job placement rate by graduation – many of my students even had multiple offers throughout the semester. This is a testament to the strength of the communications and media industry and its ability to come out stronger as we near the end of the pandemic.

Congratulations Class of 2021, I look forward to seeing you change the industry and wish you all success.

Learn more about our commitment to shaping next-gen PR talent by visiting our Careers page.

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