Academia vs practice: working together hallmark of a maturing profession

I’m just back from the NEMO Flashpoints conference at Campus Helsingborg at the University of Lund in Sweden.

What marked NEMO out is the mix of academics and practitioners. We had some great discussions about ethics, influence, measurement frameworks, and social business.

It was a similar experience to the International Communication Association (ICA) pre-conference meeting that I gate crashed earlier in the year. Discussions and debates are robust and truly exercise the mind. You leave events like these with a long reading list.

In any other professional discipline this wouldn’t be unusual. In the communication and public relations business it’s exceptional.


Mars vs Venus

Sarah Williams, a practitioner-turned-academic at the University of Wolverhampton, who attended NEMO, published a blog yesterday on Comms2Point0 about this issue titled Practitioners are from Venus, academics are from Mars.

In the post she reports on an exchange at the PR and Disruption Conference at the London College of Communication, University of Arts, in July.

“There were very disparaging remarks and tweets from the conference’s practitioner attendees towards academic participants; practitioners were reluctant to engage with some of the different ways of seeing and thinking about industry problems envisaged by the academics; they felt that academics were out of touch with their reality.”

“Conversely, academics felt that the practitioners were too focused on technical issues relating to the day job; too obsessed with academics delivering ‘oven-ready’ graduates rather than the broader industry issues; they felt that practitioners were out of touch with their reality.”

Smart thinking needed

My view is simple: without academic rigour and a historical perspective to support practice we’re limited to craft and tactics. As a practitioner channels and tools may change but if your expertise is rooted in education and continuous learning, your core knowledge will be readily transferable.

Our business is changing incredibly quickly. We also need research to help contextualise change and smart thinking rooted in learning to help us tackle issues such as planning, measurement and network theory.

The chasm between academia and practise is unique to the public relations business as far as I can tell. In more mature professional disciplines such as business, engineering and medicine, academic and professional interests work together to further the industry.

Academic thinkers for their part need to be more accessible. There are some notable examples such as Richard BaileySimon Collister and Heather Yaxley who all share their thinking freely on their blogs and contribute to online discussions. It’s an excellent start.

This is an issue that has been exercising Yaxley. In a blog published last week she made the case for greater cooperation.

“One other aspect of public relations that occurs in the real world is professional education and academia – despite criticisms of some practitioners. […] Research, reflection and theorising are pretty much exclusively predicated on a connection with PR practice. The real world of practice (online and off) is enhanced by greater understanding of what can be learned from connecting with this real world of academia and professional education.”

Call to action

In my view education and lifelong learning are critical to public relations developing as a profession. It is crucial to us growing up as a profession.

NEMO shows the benefit of working together. The question is how can we do more? Maybe the PR and Disruption or NEMO Flashpoints conferences in 2014 could be a start.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Wadds, good post, I agree that academia and business need each other – we need well researched ideas and they need to see how they work in practice. Ketchum has shown this with its Nutrition Certification Program developed in collaboration with Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition.

    • Thanks Robert. I agree the Nutrition Certification Program is an excellent example of collaboration.

  2. Timely post Stephen. As I NE of the organisers of this year’s PR and Disruption event I’m definitely up for exploring in advance how we can ensure the event addresses the points you’ve mentioned. I’d welcome all input from both fields.

    I’d also like to think my own blog contributes to the academic/practitioner debate in some (hopefully comprehensible!) way. :)

  3. Oh no!

    PR academics and practitioners are now both destined to be a tiny historic footnote in your scenario.

    Lazy, lazy academics not challenging simple minded practitioners is not the path to nirvana.

    Lord Chadlington, who founded Shandwick in 1974 and Huntsworth in 2000, outlined the rules he thinks are significant this week and one of them is:

    “We need young people whose intuitive solution to a client problem is a digital one and not an analogue one.”

    He should have retired years ago!

    Can’t he get it?

    There is NO divide between digital and some other world. The world has already been changed and it is changing at a faster rate.

    Lord Chadlington needs people who, far from having a digital answer, have a revolutionary mind-set.

    There is a new way of thinking.

    For example:

    I can tell him about the skills of his people without any reference to the Huntsworth managers. I can tell him what interests them (down to the last woman). I can know what their clients think of them.

    How? I have Big Data

    If I already know about 2,390 employees (and ex-employees) at Huntsworth plc in great depth and about the other companies in the Group, can I know about governments and other powerful institutions?

    Looking as these skill claims can my semantic approach lay bare the 1500 employees who have clients top of mind and the remainder that don’t?

    Perhaps the food they drink and the shoes they wear.

    If I know what motivates these people and who influences them day by day hour by hour, do I have a new form of Public Relations?

    What about the channels for influence hour by hour through the waking day?

    It is all so familiar. We used to do such studies and call it consumer surveying. Now we have the measure of civilisations by the minute.

    Equally, now that the FT is a minute by minute information medium (oh, yes and has a printed minute record of data that comes out every day) the idea that practitioners can hide behind some myth that there are forms of media is gone.

    The new reality is that there are machines driving news and people and that a few people can, from time to time affect the agenda driven by algorithms that decide what is news – to you. No one else, just you! Google only serves up the news you want and it knows what that is because you tell it.

    Moving the needle is a role academics and PR practitioners seek for this profession.

    Changing the engine is what others do.

    Changing the road and its direction is what others do.

    Changing the way we can cope with civilisation is what others are doing.

    Not the PR industry.

    Even today, the PR academics and practitioners do not know that this is not about either/or, the world is different.

  4. You should know the original Venus vs Mars article was written by an academic, Betteke van Ruler, who expressed many of the same concerns.

    • I didn’t know that, Peggy! These concerns are definitely not new but the question is how to make them old?

  5. As a PR graduate, I’ve long been an advocate of professional qualifications. It gives you context of PR as a management function, it gives you a foundation to build a career in our dear industry. But my advocacy is not unconditional. Since I graduated back in, ahem, 1998, the number of institutions offering PR qualifications has exploded. But, as I’ve said before, more courses does not mean more ‘oven ready’ graduates. If academia does not operate hand-in-glove with practice, students will be left half-baked. At Bournemouth, academia was twinned with regular exposure to real-life PR; guest speakers, real-life projects, and a full year in a real-life press office. I’m not suggesting all these elements are essential, but theory and practice must be hand-in-hand. The CIPR runs its own qualifications, but could it do more in endorsing courses where this crucial alliance is established?

    • I’ve been involved with PR courses at six UK universities and regular contact with PR professionals, advisory committees, work experience, guest lectures and mentoring is common practice, in fact I’ve yet to encounter a course that doesn’t engage with practice at a local level.

  6. There are a couple of issues I’d like to explore here (in no particular order!). Firstly, for academics and PR practitioners to work more closely together, both need to understand each other’s way of thinking. This can mean stepping back and not instantly criticising the approach of the other but asking why the other thinks that way. (I’m thinking of the discussion at the PR and Disruption conference about measurement – neither side really explored the reasons for the other’s perspective). Aside from this, we need solid examples of the benefits which would be derived from comms professionals and academics working together which go beyond the tactical (Does anyone have any good case studies?). In summary, both sides need to see the value of closer co-operation.
    Also, the CIPR needs to play a greater role in promoting the work carried out by universities and demonstrating how academic skills can translate into (and inform) practice. This could mean giving a greater role primary research and critical thinking in the CIPR Diploma and for the CIPR as an organisation to promote the value of PR degrees and Masters-level study to employers and explain how the graduate-level knowledge, critical thinking and research skills can benefit employers far more than an ‘oven ready’ graduate who isn’t prepared to think and question.
    Finally (and this is with reference to David Philips’ post), academics and PR practitioners need to have a reason to work together and harness each others’ skills, knowledge and networks. Together we can help to find the answers to the big issues in PR and explore the issues which are too big for one side to explore on their own. Too many practitioner insight and models which try to do this are based on unsubstantiated ideas and make huge conceptual leaps and I’d freely admit that some academic work is too far removed from the reality of practice to be useful …
    Let’s hope this debate continues but, importantly, that it translates into another level of co-operation and understanding.

    • I completely agree, Liz. What is needed here is ‘mutual understanding’, now where have I heard that phrase before…!

  7. Surely what is needed are joint projects that produce tangible benefits for both “sides” – properly funded research that applies objective academic rigour to real world problems.

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