Public relations: the profession that refuses to learn?

A debate in London next week will explore the relationship between academics, teachers and practitioners in public relations. I hope that you can join us.

The PRCA is hosting the debate in London from 6pm on Wednesday 15 February.

It’s bringing together employers, students and universities to debate whether in 2017 it’s necessary to have a public relations degree.

It’s a deliberately contentious topic to generate interest. It’s worked. More than 80 people are due to turn up for the discussion.

Panellists joining the conversation

The following panellists will join me at the event.

  • Faith Howe, Director and Partner, Head of Talent Development, UK and Middle East at FleishmanHillard
  • Nicky Garsten, Programme Director in (BA Hons) Public Relations and Communications and Senior Lecturer, University of Greenwich
  • Robert Minton-Taylor, Senior Lecturer, School of Marketing, Public Relations and Communications, Leeds Beckett University
  • Chris Owen, Director, M&C Saatchi PR

The event is being hosted by FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) at Bankside 3, Southwark Street, London, SE1 0SW. It’s the site that FHF shares with Ketchum in London, and other agencies in the Omnicom group.

The relationship between public relations theory and practice is an issue that I’ve been exploring since I was President of the CIPR in 2014. I joined Newcastle University as a Visiting Professor in the same year.

Exploring theory and practice

Here are some of the issues that I hope to explore.

Community of practice

Why is the relationship between public relations theory and practice so limited? Is it not the case that without the historical perspective and discipline provided for by academics, practitioners lack rigour and are limited to trading in simple crafts and tactics?

Degrees as career preparation

Since when did degrees become about career preparation? A period of conversion between the workplace and university is the norm in almost all professions. Why isn’t this the case in public relations?

Continuous professional development

At the heart of this discussion is the value of education to those in public relations. By my estimates, less than three percent of practitioners are signed up to continuous learning with the CIPR or PRCA. Why is this?

Why is public relations the business that seemingly refuses to learn?

Is it an issue of regulation? We’ve a low, or no, barrier to entry, and public relations pays relatively well. What’s the impetus for learning and continuous improvement?

What would best practice look like?

What kind of relationship should academics, teachers and practitioner have with each other? Are there any other related professional disciplines that have got this right?

Two way street

I’m going ask panellists and the audience to share examples of where theory has helped inform practice and vice versa. What are your standout theories or examples of public relations in practice?

Where do we need help?

What are the big issues in public relations that academic colleagues could help us address? Where do academic colleagues think they could add the biggest value to professional practice?

Practical ways forward

Finally I’m keen to explore some practical ways in which academics, practitioners and teachers could work together. I ran a workshop on this topic at BledCom last year. Outcomes included events such as this, awards, conferences, exchanges and share media.

Please get involved

If you’ve any other topics you’d like us to cover please leave a comment. I’m keen to involve as many questions and viewpoints as possible.

In fact I hope you’ll come along and join us. The 2018 President of the CIPR has promised to show up.

Please email Mary Davoudi at the PRCA if you’re interested in attending. Alternatively you can follow the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #PRCAdebate.

Event summary

6pm, Wednesday 15 February
PRCA Industry vs. Academics Debate
FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) at Bankside 3, Southwark Street, London, SE1 0SW

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Stephen Waddington

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


  1. Will the debate be recorded or available on youtube/Soundcloud? The world needs to hear this!

    • Excellent idea. I’ll see what we can do. As a minimum I’ll record it on my iPhone.

  2. Sorry won’t be there. Brilliant idea, sorry I can’t make it.
    Hope it becomes an annual event or inspires both regional versions of it and vehicles, as suggested by Tersia, for wider sharing and creating legacy assets.
    Does the initiative need a brand name? ‘PRacademia’?

    • Thanks. Per my other responses, at the very least I’ll record this on my iPhone and upload it to DropBox or Soundcloud. I’m hoping that we can get a Facebook Live solution in place.

  3. Looks like a really good event – shame I can’t be there but I’ll be keeping an eye on it! Any discussion of the effects of likes of TEF, REF, and casualisation in academia and its impact on the links between academia and practitioners would be appreciated as from my experience pressures of REF and casualisation at early career stage seem to at times be prohibitive to making links with practitioners

  4. Can’t make it that day, unfortunately. We’re definitely going over the same ground again, again, again .. Issues plain, public relations demanding work, needs adequate preparation, solid base in theory, body of knowledge (which is constantly evolving, making continuous learning absolute necessity). University preparation useful in helping individuals learn how to learn — good public relations degree programmes will do this, as will programmes in other areas, but public relations degrees an option for those seeking to prepare for a career in public relations. Need to take all the points you’re raising seriously and act on them. Catch up soon?

    • Yes we’re covering old ground but we’re also hopefully making steps forward. The response to the event has been fantastic. I’ll report back.

  5. Great idea for an event Wadds. I can’t make it but would be interested in views about how often PR academics are hired for commercial work as consultants. This is common in other academic fields and I wonder whether the industry – and CIPR and PRCA – need to do more to encourage that and celebrate the depth of academic expertise now available.

  6. As a practitioner of long standing now engaged in the development, delivery and assessment of PR education I completely agree that this is a dialogue that is needed, not just ‘by occasion’ but ongoing. I fully support Tesia’s suggestion and look forword to listening back.

    • Thanks. At the very least I’ll record this on my iPhone and upload it to DropBox or Soundcloud. I’m hoping that we can get a Facebook Live solution in place.

  7. Thank you for this initiative. It is most welcome and needs to be part of PR practitioner consciousness.

    There are developments in communication that PR people need to understand.

    At the very mundane level, what does Twitter PR look like (ask Donald Trump or a PR degree or CPD by PRCA/CIPR?). The same could be said of all manner of new media then there is media matrix communication (time/traditional, social, electronic media/content).

    So much for yesterday.

    Now let’s add in Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Internet of Things and Blockchain. Here there is a need for academic research and PR institutional cooperation to provide practitioners with new advanced tools and capabilities (or, in my view, be without a job in less than a decade).

    The question I want to ask is whether the Universities and industry institutions are prepared to invest in such initiatives and spread them to practitioners?

    My ancillary question is whether academic and the industry is prepared to make such findings available to all their lecturers, students and members.

    • I’m optimistic. This is a cyclical issue. We’ve seen the waves of innovation in public relations several times before: computing, internet, digital publishing, mobile and social media. The latest is automation. Next will be Blockchain. Each time our future was questioned, and yet each time people at the forefront of the profession have pushed it forward. We’ve innovated, developed, survived and critically grown.

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