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Public relations theory and practice toolkit

Practical suggestions for improving the relationship between scholars and practitioners in public relations from a BledCom workshop.

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The Community of Practice workshop at BledCom explored ways of improving cooperation between theory and practice in public relations. BledCom is an international public relations research symposium that takes place in Bled, Slovenia each year in July.

In the lead up to the conference workshop leaders Dr Jon White, Sarah Hall, and I crowdsourced opinion on the issue from around the world. We received 21 responses from academics, teachers and practitioners; from Asia, Europe, and the US.

The project started as an online discussion I led as Past President of the CIPR last year.

Project purpose

Public relations is practical. We should learn from the body of knowledge that academic colleagues are investigating and apply it to our day jobs.

Academic colleagues are enabling greater understanding in every area of practice. Meanwhile practitioners challenged by the pace of innovation are reaching out to theory to help make sense of the changes in practice.

A close working relationship between academia and practice is a hallmark of any professional discipline – enhancing real-world practice with research, reflection and theory.

In public relations this relationship is limited, and without the historical perspective and insight provided for by academics, practitioners lack rigour and are limited to trading in simple crafts and tactics.

As a business in the midst of rapid fundamental change, bringing these two communities closer together will be crucial to us realising our future potential.

BledCom workshop and toolkit

PR Academy’s Dr Kevin Ruck kicked off the BledCom presentation with a summary of the key issues. The summary of his analysis is below.

More than 100 academics and practitioners worked in three groups at Bled to explore the following areas: research (Jon); career journey (Sarah); and collaboration (me).

We’ve each written up our session below. We’ve also extracted practical suggestions to help improve cooperation between theory and practice.

There are eight areas where academics, scholars and practitioners could work better together to share knowledge and advance the public relations profession. With the exception of the opportunity for joint media, we’ve singled out these suggestions as practical no cost or low cost practical nudges.

#1 Awards

Invite a mix of practitioners and scholars to participate as judges on industry award schemes. Add reciprocal categories that recognise excellence in research and practice.

#2 Accessibility of research

Open source publication of a single-page summary of academic research papers for practice to improve knowledge exchange. Google Scholar is useful for signposting original work.

#3 Conferences

Promote a greater diversity of academics attending conferences and speaking at industry events. BledCom is a good example of the benefit of this cooperation.

#4 Industry initiatives

Improve the representation of academic and practitioner interests in industry associations and initiatives. The Barcelona Principles and Global Alliance Global Capabilities Framework both worked on this basis.

#5 Media: HBR for PR

There’s a clear opportunity for an HBR-style publication for public relations. Communication for Leaders (Norway) and Communicatie NU (Netherlands) are both good examples. Funding is a challenge.

#6 Reciprocal guest speakers

Practitioners speaking on university courses; and academics speaking at agency and community team meetings. There are lots of examples of this happening from practice-to-university at an informal local level.

#7 Residencies

A scholar or practitioner in residence would be good way to develop a working relationship, and provide a route for sharing knowledge and influencing research topics.

#8 Alumni networks

University students graduating into practice provide a potentially strong connection between theory and practice. Motivated scholars maintain relationships via a shared form of media such as a Facebook or LinkedIn group.

We’re sharing this toolkit and summaries with the goal of inspiring motivated individuals and organisations to develop these ideas.

I plan to focus my personal efforts on the opportunity for shared media, and my relationship with Newcastle University.

I hope that the outcomes from this project inspire you to consider how you might help tackle this issue.

Thank you

My thanks to Sarah Hall, Dr Kevin Ruck, and Dr Jon White for their contributions and commitment to this project.

Thanks also to everyone who contributed to the BledCom workshop; all the individuals who shared their opinions via letters ahead of the event; and the original participants in the online discussion.


kevin-ruckLetters to BledCom
By Dr Kevin Ruck

Comments made in the letters to BledCom 2016 can be categorised into three themes:

 

  1. Accessibility of academic research
  2. Education and lifelong learning
  3. Collaboration between academics and practitioners

Issues for each theme are summarised below with selected quotes from the letters.

On a personal note I would be interested in hearing from anyone who would like to pursue the development of more opportunities for academic-practitioner collaboration.

Unconferences and round tables have already been suggested. If you have other ideas or would be willing to support an event, please contact me directly kevin.ruck@pracademy.co.uk.

Research accessibility

Issues with accessibility:

  • Academic papers are stilted and too long
  • Limited open access

“Practitioners can understand and appreciate theory, but it has to be explained in terms that are relevant to them” Jim Grunig.

“Make academic endeavour meaningful by linking it to what’s happening every day in offices, train stations and conference venues right across Europe and internationally” Elizabeth Underwood.

“Can academics commit to make as much of their work openly available and accessible? Let’s incentivise this by recognising those scholars who make a significant contribution to practice, and who seek to make their work accessible” Richard Bailey.

Education and lifelong learning

Partially because of issues with research accessibility, practice is not being informed by research as much as it could be:

  • Ongoing debate about the content and value of a public relations degree – coupled with a growing emphasis on continuous professional development (CPD) and lifelong learning
  • Research and critical thinking not always valued

“Learning about media relations, video production and social media engagement platforms – while very useful – can hardly be expected to represent the principle pillars of practitioner knowledge” Ella Minty.

“The latest figures from Professional Associations Research Network (PARN) on degree requirements for professional entry, and take up of mandatory nature of CPD tell a story of shift from degrees to life time learning” Alastair McCapra.

“Recent academic research identified that of the forty professional public relation associations across the world only ten had a mentoring programme, which are on average ranked as moderately satisfactory” Lucy Laville.

Collaboration between academics and practitioners

Academics and practitioners seem to be two separate communities:

  • Few widely established academic-practitioner communities of practice
  • Few academic-practitioner conferences

“The ‘academy’ does not speak to the practice with one voice, nor do practitioners make clear demands on academics” Alex Aiken.

“We need Summits where we talk and get feedback from practitioners to find out what is important to them” Tina McCorkindale.

“What is required is an open mind, a willingness to challenge and engage, a determination to see the value of the contribution from both sides” Anne Gregory.


jon-whiteResearch accessibility
Dr Jon White

Researchers and practitioners consulted ahead of the session said that collaboration works best when research-minded practitioners cooperate with researchers who appreciate the challenges of practice (often practitioners who have become academics – of which there are a number of examples).

A problem has been that academics have not spoken with one voice to practice about priority areas for research, and practitioners have not made their research needs clear to academics.

The group felt that practitioners and academics are moving away from each other. Only a few practitioners have a real hunger for knowledge that leads them to consult and work with researchers. Academic writing is seen as too dense: researchers need to learn to write feature style material alongside their more academic output.

Much more needs to be done on incentives. Researchers are not rewarded for their preparation of practice-relevant material, and those working in the practice need to see more real and financial benefit from collaboration.

Application of theory in practice

The group felt there is very good scope for collaboration, in joint formulation of research questions and development of answers to these. Researchers can use more involving research methods, such as participant action research, which produces answers in the course of research. This can work very well: at applied universities in the Netherlands, faculty are expected to collaborate with practice to develop relevant teaching material.

Practitioners and researchers need to find ways of meeting in the same place, talking critically to each other and using mutually understood terminology. Some of this contact should be possible through alumni networks, or through encouraging practitioners to take professional doctorates.

More or less successful contact between the two groups has been achieved through organisations such as the US Institute for Public Relations and the Commission on Public Relations Education.

The BledCom discussion turned to immediate and longer-term practical steps that could be taken to deal with the issues raised:

  • Universities should hire more practitioners to contribute to their teaching and research programmes
  • Real work placements should be available for academics in consultancies and in-house departments
  • Academics should be thoroughly familiar with, and should contribute more to business and practitioner journals
  • Hybrid practitioner, research conferences should be held, involving equal participation from both groups, a 50/50 split
  • Small low-cost transmission units should be set up, to translate and pass on relevant research findings to practitioners, along the lines of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest or the European Journalism Observatory
  • National associations should also work more closely with academics, to improve links
  • Universities should cut red tape preventing researchers from collaborating more closely with colleagues in practice

sarah-hallCareer journey
By Sarah Hall

Breaking into groups during the workshop at BledCom soon underlined three important points in the drive to improve to how academics and practitioners work together.

  • There is excellent work already taking place but for the most part this is in isolated pockets around the world and not widespread; there are also no best practice templates to follow
  • Ultimately it comes down to communities and relationships. For example, speaking generally neither educators, nor their organisations, nor graduates are good at staying in touch post completion of a designated course; perhaps because to date there has been no real incentive to do so. Where interaction does takes place, this is driven by motivated individuals who recognize the benefits
  • Lack of finance is an issue; who will fund collaborations when the value and outcomes are as yet relatively unproven? This makes the business pitch a tricky one. However if the examples that are available were easily to hand, the pitch would be much more compelling and such public-private partnerships an easier sell.

Simple solutions work best

The answer appears to lie in ‘the simpler the better’. There are obvious solutions that don’t have to be time consuming or costly but which can lead to positive outcomes.

  • Forums that see academics and the practitioner community come together to discuss issues within each line of work can be cost effective and lead to group problem solving and collaboration, even work opportunities for those involved.
  • While advisory boards appear to be a popular solution, caution should be given to who sits on these and how in touch the practitioner is with the evolution of PR practice. Universities and other training organisations should also ensure a level of flexibility with regards to the curriculum so this modernizes at an appropriate speed.
  • Newsletters and magazines which welcome contributions and call outs from both groups can increase mutual understanding and inter-party cooperation.

Asking the associations

A common issue in different countries and regions appears to be limited support from industry bodies and associations.

Publicising joint working or requests for help can be very easily done by membership organisations.

These have networks, media and award schemes in place already making them an obvious place to publish opportunities, celebrate successful initiatives and showcase best practice.

Greater pressure should be applied to such bodies so they deliver in this respect for the greater good.

Greater the effort, the deeper the pay off

There are more difficult solutions which can deliver significant benefits.

Work integrated learning, where students carry out communication audits under academic supervision may now be endemic, but workplace knowledge transfers are not.

Embedded training schemes which see practitioners seconded to a university for a set time period and academics placed into agencies quickly drives up understanding and leads to different discussions and activity around theory into practice.

We are all role models

To return to a point at the start of this workshop round up, collaborations only flourish when strong, like-minded people come together to achieve agreed outcomes. Every one of us can make a difference in our professional communities.

Incentives should be provided via credentialing schemes for academics who are enrolled in life long learning.

Practitioners should be encouraged to enrol in Doctorate in Business Administration programmes to encourage critical thinking and analytical skills.

Every one of us has a duty to stop and regularly reflect on our practice. Clearly improvements can be made by reaching out to those outside our usual working circles, listening to what’s required and working together to deliver what’s needed.


stephen-waddingtonCollaboration
By Stephen Waddington

Mainstream business and industry media rarely report on communications or public relations research by universities.

But for their part universities don’t pitch their content beyond specialised scholarly publications. This divide needs to be crossed.

Examples of excellence

There are examples of best practice. Peggy Simcic Brønn and Betteke van Ruler shared examples of publications aimed at mainstream professional audiences in Norway and the Netherlands.

Communication for Leaders published by Peggy at the Norwegian Business School and Communicatie NU published personally by Betteke both bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Sarah Hall working in the UK assembled a group of international contributors from both academia and practice to write essays on developing areas of public relations. The first edition of #FuturePRoof was published last year. A second edition is in the works for 2016.

Each of these projects results from the motivation of individuals seeking to tackle the divide between academics and practitioner, rather than industry or institutional support.

The Institute for Public Relations in the US is the exception to the rule. It was cited as an example of what’s possible. It publishes content from academic scholars on its Research Conversations blog alongside issues facing contemporary practice.

Google Scholar has bridged the gap in many professions between academic publishing and mainstream audiences. It is a useful tool that can be used to scan academic journals for research related to the profession. Alerts can be used for regular updates.

Lost in translation

Research papers aren’t accessible in mainstream practice. There’s typically a cost although this isn’t a substantive barrier.

The challenge is the dense prose written for a small number of scholars rather than a mainstream audience.

A one page summary or infographic published openly under a creative commons license would go a long way to helping to address the issue.

HBR for PR

There’s a clear gap in the market for a publication that reports on research, as well as issues facing practice at a high level.

The Conversation achieves this goal. The online publication publishes opinion and research on contemporary topics from scholars in Africa, France, New Zealand, UK and US.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) is a standout publication that meets this brief for business audience. The public relations business needs a HBR for PR.

The benefit for practitioners would be access to the latest research and learning. Academics would benefit from new relationships and profile by sharing content more widely. We’d all benefit from closer cooperation.

The challenge is funding. Agencies, companies, professional associations and crowdfunding were all suggested as potential sources of investment.

My personal action post-BledCom in concluding this project is to explore potential sources of revenue to create a shared form of media.


Project links

This project started as a Facebook discussion in September 2015 that I led as CIPR Past President. You can follow the discourse and progress via the links below.

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Stephen Waddington

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

9 Comments

  1. Excellent stuff, Wadds. Thanks for all your work on this. It’s posed some interesting questions, provided valuable answers in some cases and, as usual with you, provided some useful further actions such as exploring funding.

    • Thanks Eva. None of it is radical. I guess that’s the point. Science and practice should be relevant to each other

  2. Dear Wadds,
    Although I have participate bot at Bledcom and at this workshop, a very subvesive insight dod not come through:
    There is no such question in physics for instance. Why? Because there is in fact no gap between practice and theory if “both sides” understand that practice is not possible without sound theoretical insight and that theory is futile if it is not practical theory. Unfortunately all conclusions only make circles around this fundamental truth. As long as representatives of “both sides” will reproduce such image of separation, no solution is forseiable.
    This truth is though extremely unpleasant both for academia and for practitioneers. But: one should not avoid unpleasant reality.

  3. Stephen…

    To clarify my recent tweets about this report and toolkit, what I am expressing is a general criticism of the relationship between practitioners and PR educators. The report is fine, but its assumptions are plastic and too preferential.

    Since even as a national president of PRSSA in 1980, I continue to marvel at the close and unquestioning posture of PR academics and researchers toward industry. They are prone to study and publish what is pretty and polite and thus only useful for the practice — not what is candid and honest. Is see this at IPR conferences. I see this in The Arthur Page Society and its close affiliate The Page Center at Penn State University. I see this in PRSA. They are keen to present PR as a function for social understanding, a radically imperfect and incomplete definition. If that is an American perspective I am happy to be corrected, though my experiences in Europe, Asia and Latin America suggest no deviations.

    In my teaching and consulting, it is clear that PR operates in a preferred and idealistic mindset when, in fact, the very foundation of the function is to provide competitive advantage through strategies and programs that influence. Whether they do so with symmetry or asymmetry is for ethicists to figure, but that PR scholarship, per se, so carefully avoids study of the means and measures by which PR manipulates is proof enough that academics are not encouraged or somehow comfortable to study the effects of how minds and behavior are materially altered through PR. I’d be inclined to blame industry for maintaining such a sanitary standard but, hey, this is not research they can use or that is flattering to the craft.

    Those wishing for some elaboration on my viewpoint are welcome to visit my blogs, op-eds, papers and my book, The Elements of Influence.

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