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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.

NEMO-Helsingborg

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

European Digital & Social Media Director at Ketchum and President of the CIPR. Author of Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals; and editor and contributor to Share This and Share This Too.