BledCom keynote: Engaging as a community of public relations practice

BledCom keynote: Engaging as a community of public relations practice


I’m at BledCom for the next two days in Bled, Slovenia. It’s an annual symposium that brings together thinkers and doers in public relations. It celebrates its 21st anniversary this year. I’ve been invited to deliver the keynote this morning on the need for academia and practice to work better together to create a community of practice for the public relation business.


My journey to Bled started almost nine-months ago when I spoke at the NEMO Flashpoints conference at Campus Helsingborg at the University of Lund, Sweden.

Public relations has a role within an area of a modern organisation. Practitioners rightly want to claim their role at the highest levels but fail to call themselves to account to the same standards as set by other professionals such as finance, humans relations and lawyers.

That’s foundation knowledge, ethics, a community of knowledge, qualifications, continuous professional development and a robust exchange between academia and practice.

The building blocks for professional practice are in place but many public relations practitioners are yet to be convinced. That is one of the biggest challenges that I face as President of the CIPR in 2014.

What marked out NEMO was the mix of academics and practitioners. We had some great conversations about many of the big issues facing our profession such as ethics, influence, measurement and social business.

In any other professional discipline this wouldn’t be unusual. In the public relations business it’s exceptional. I had certainly never experienced such a lively interchange before between these two groups.

Many of these conversations have continued over the intervening period with scholars, teachers and practitioners in the UK, and have formed the basis of my presentation at BledCom today.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the thinking of the community that have helped to develop my thinking.

My presentation characterises the issue, and proposes a series of practical solutions.

I hope that it’s a useful contribution to the discussion, and I look forward to exploring these issues further over the next two days at Bled.

#1 Opportunity

Slide6 We lack the rigour of other management disciplines, or professions. However, the building blocks are in place: Code of Conduct, barrier to entry and qualifications, body of practice, and continuing professional development

Then there's a problem specific to public relations. We're multiple industries trying to behave as one profession. Put simply, there are those who see PR as part of marketing, and those who see it as part of management.

The former want to be judged on their creativity such as Cannes.  The latter want the respect of the CEO.  Are we more like advertisers or management consultants? Can creatives go beyond being admired to being respected? Can one person perform both roles equally well?

Many academics are more interested in PR's place in society than its place in marketing or management.

Richard Bailey, University of the West of England

#2 Issues facing the profession

Slide7 We [have] fixed professional standards in the image of what's gone before, we'd risk missing out on opportunities in the shifting sands of advertising, marketing, digital and PR/comms.

In my view, the professionalism project runs the risk of producing some perfectly-formed dinosaurs! And how can a dinosaur see the beauty in a small mammal? A cat doesn't look like a raptor though it's hugely efficient in a different way.

So I'm concerned about who does the judging of their fellow professionals.

Richard Bailey, University of the West of England

Some of the big issues facing the profession – I’d broaden this slightly to say such as how to make best use of the thinking and findings from the social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology, and work done in business schools to understand and work for organisational change, improved planning and measurement.

In light of developments in social media in recent years, we also need to understand the applications of network theory to public relations practice.

Dr Jon White, University of Cardiff, and University of Reading

#3 'The restless practitioner'

Slide8 The ECOPSI report [Communication Management Competencies for European Practitioners] defines competence as the “combination of skills, knowledge and personal attributes that leads to superior performance for practitioners" (p5). The identification of knowledge, skills, personal attributes and competences is useful in terms of identifying gaps in knowledge and skills, such as research methods or social media, on the novice to expert continuum.

Whilst professional bodies such as CIPR and PRCA in the UK can scaffold the gap between academia and industry, between second and first order concepts, at early stages on that continuum, how to progress toward autonomous expert professional is less apparent.

Our research with a self-selected sample of senior Public Relations practitioners found the absence of clearly articulated professional development pathways that move beyond competence frustrated practitioners’ efforts to render their learning progression, and seniority thus, visible. Anxieties about how to conceptualise the value of their practice were commonplace.

Source: IPRA (accessed 30 June 2014)

Dr Jacquie L’Etang, Queen Margaret University and Dr Mandy Powell, Queen Margaret University

#4 Value of theory


My own definition of theory is distilled wisdom, and I debunk the theory/practice divide to my first year students by explaining that every practitioner will have theories based on their own experience, but that research-based theory offers you the wisdom of many lifetimes, analysed and explained by researchers who are expert in doing just that.

I only wish I could get the message out to more practitioners and academics.

Mel Powell, Manchester Metropolitan University

#5 Critical thinking


One of the problems is too many public relations practitioners have the wrong expectations and understanding of how public relations is taught at universities and therefore inevitably end up disappointed.

The expectation amongst some is that PR degrees are designed to create ‘oven-ready’ graduates ready to start work immediately and start earning fees from day one. The reality is that teaching craft skills should only be part of the purpose of public relations degrees. What is more important is teaching the theory and body of knowledge of public relations, [and] its inter-relationship with other disciplines such as social science, anthropology and psychology.

Encouraging students to develop critical thinking and understanding will be far more useful in the long term to them as individuals, their future employers and the public relations profession as a whole.

Stuart Bruce, international public relations adviser and trainer

#6 Other professional disciplines


Most - if not all - of the major 'professions' develop through a very close, symbiotic relationship between practitioners and academics/academia.

The obvious ones are medicine, engineering, [and] the law where a 'holy triumvirate' between practice, governing bodies/institutes and academics/researchers seem to operate.

The obvious benefits of this set-up is that it enables - and ensures - that such professions continue to evolve strategically, identifying changes in the external and internal environments of the sectors and then creating new, adaptive regulations, practices, approaches, etc. It means that they can stay ahead of the curve in an age that moves fast and in wholly unexpected directions.

If you're looking to management sectors then I'd argue that the management consultancy field is one obvious area that is not afraid to engage with academia - and has arguably created an academic field of study to maintain a strong market position as well as client efficacy.

It's interesting as you could argue that in many respects these consultancies are - on some levels - the closest to PR when PR can operate at the level at which it should: strategic business consultancy.

Simon Collister, Sarah Williams and Sarah Roberts-Bowman, University of Arts, London

It is this misunderstanding that prejudices working practitioners from working with and learning from academics. In other professions such as architecture, medicine, law and even marketing there appear to be far less reluctance for practitioners to engage with academia.

Another reason for this lack of understanding is that in the UK public relations is still a relatively new academic discipline so too few senior PR professionals have academic PR qualifications so it isn’t accepted as the ‘norm’ that it would be in other professions.

What also shouldn’t be forgotten is that most, if not all, academics in public relations were once PR practitioners, often operating at the top of the profession.

They have used working in an academic environment to think and research different aspects of the public relations profession, but it is up to practitioners to seize upon this work to improve what they do.

Stuart Bruce, international public relations adviser and trainer

I think that the industries which benefit from a positive interchange between academia and practice are those where practice is constantly informed by research and where academics aren't afraid to call out bad practice.

Medicine (in all its forms) is an excellent example of this. For example would we have communication skills on medical skills syllabuses without academic input? The advancements in dementia and mental health care? Vaccines? Transplant surgery?

Often, these developments are the result of people from different areas working together - and working across boundaries, so medial research, practice and policy research go hand in hand.

Practitioners are also involved in research, and new knowledge is constantly being tested, questioned, researched, tested, questioned ... the process of iteration (rather than one-off projects) is crucial.

Liz Bridgen, De Montfort University

#7 Ambition for public relations


People in business need economists to help them get the big picture- there is no major company that doesn’t take such input either with a paid employee or through consultancy. The same is true for governments. And the same is true for financial services organisations (my home territory).

Quants were academics who brought academic thinking into the heart of business, government and think tanks. No bank, no government, no think tank would do without an economist – and most economists are happy to move regularly between academia, business and government, using their specialist expertise in all three spheres. Look at a role model like Keynes - now there’s an example.

Could we ever get that exchange going with PR? If PR could address big issues, public policy and political matters that change societies, then yes, it could cross the boundaries. But as long as it sits in the realm of pushing product, earning headlines or communicating someone else’s messages because they are tactical channel experts, then I don’t see much reason for a lot of cross fertilisation. Both practitioners and academics are equally to blame for not raising their game to the next level- where both could get to grips with the really big stuff.

Dr Catherine Sweet, Solent University

#8 Mutual respect


Academics in Ivory Towers and spin doctor practitioners aren’t helpful. Discourse has to start from a position of mutual respect and appreciation

Recognise we have differing roles to play but are in the same profession. Stop the divisive rhetoric which damages both sides – practitioners need to stop talking about ‘ivory towers’ and questioning the value of PR qualifications; academics need to perform their valid role of questioning and commenting on PR practice with respect and without suggesting that PR practice is somehow populated by shysters.

Mel Powell, Manchester Metropolitan University

I think that viewing the issue from the point of view of 'academics' and 'practice' as being two separate constituencies is problematic and doesn't move the debate forward. Why?

In reality there isn't such a dichotomy. Many practitioners are academics, or come from an academic background and thus view problems and issues from an informed (research-led) standpoint (the same is true of many practitioner-turned academics).

Also, in between these two groups (if there is a between) you have people who inhabit the 'thinker' arena. These include certain 'gurus' (I won't name any!) who vary in quality and where fame is not necessarily linked to expertise (my particular bugbear are those who state what everyone else has been thinking for years but thought it wasn't important enough to say, or who make bold claims with nothing to back it up).

There are also scholars (practitioners or practice based-academics who think and write about emerging issues but perhaps without the academic rigour of a true 'academic').

We've also got to remember that much writing […] is utter tripe. Just because it's from an academic, it doesn't mean it's any good.

But what about the good stuff? Well, academic writing and research isn't always about arcane theories or models (in fact, those can be quite unhelpful in such a fluid and fast-moving discipline as ours).

Instead, good academic work (and this is my point of view - others will differ (for instance the US-based IPR is obsessed with demonstrating PR's value through academic research but this stuff leaves me cold)) is often about questioning existing practice or asking the awkward questions about industry norms, for instance, what's the real impact of a social media crisis in terms of what people think and do? Why are there so few women at the top of the profession? Why does over-servicing and client pleasing happen (when it doesn't in other occupations)? Is CPD really serving the needs of the industry? What actually do we mean by 'profession'? How are people using multiple screens? Are our assumptions of certain groups of people or responses to stimuli really accurate? Who does the commodification of self via 'personal brand' building really benefit? What do people really think about brands (when terms such as 'conversations' and 'relationship' are bandied around so often)? And so on.

Good academic research doesn't always create models but uses quantitative or qualitative research to, for instance, find out what people think or do and why, or why something keeps happening.

Liz Bridgen, De Montfort University

#9 Share thinking


Encourage more PR practitioners to engage in robust research-based theory building and to publicise their results. (How? The CIPR could provide a forum for publishing best papers from CIPR-owned qualifications.

Mel Powell, Manchester Metropolitan University

#10 Networking


Academia and practice have some really big issues to face. Bled, this year is addressing some of them - it is a digital PR conference.

David Phillips, Escola Superior de Comunicação Social

#11 Applied research


Joint research projects between practitioners and universities – many PR firms do ‘research’ and reports for their own promotion, but often these could be considerably improved and given increased credibility with input from academics. In 2010-11 I worked with the United Nations in New York to carry out research into how the FT Global 500 biggest companies used social media for CSR. The research was improved by working with Paul Willis, a director at the internationally renowned Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University to frame the scope and methodology of the research. Likewise PR academics should involve practitioners more at the early stage of their research to ensure that the scope is as relevant as it can be.

Stuart Bruce, international public relations adviser and trainer

There is almost no interest or engagement with research and no investment. Compared with the US, Canada and Germany, where there is continuing investment directly in universities and in groups like the Institute for Public Relations, the UK shows little initiative or interest.

Professor Tom Watson, University of Bournemouth

#12 Conversion to practice


At Bournemouth University, we try very hard to build relationships with industry. A good example is the very wide range of paid 40 week placements for 3rd year BA Public Relations students. The students gain experience and the employers get cheap knowledgeable labour. That has been going for 25 years.

CIPR Wessex also has ‘meet the Professionals’ sessions for students every year, but we seldom get interest at levels above these. Initiatives such as offers of free research seminars for practitioners, for instance, have drifted into the sands with no response. The position is such that we are getting funding from US sources (IPR, Page Center, etc.) because there are none from the UK.

Professor Tom Watson, University of Bournemouth

#13 Guest lecturing


Work as part-time lecturers – this is what I do. It doesn’t pay very much and is quite time consuming, but is very rewarding. I’ve taught undergraduates, but mainly teach international post-graduate students studying at Leeds Metropolitan University. Preparing a lecture or tutorial is actually a good learning experience for the lecturer as well as it makes you think about the topic, read or re-visit books and literature on the topic, and research what new ideas, research and learnings are available on line and on social media.

Stuart Bruce, international public relations adviser and trainer

#14 Professional journey


Let’s move away from criticisms by practitioners and professional bodies regarding what is taught about PR in academia and counter-claims that professional bodies and practitioners don’t engage with scholarly underpinnings. Rather we can adopt [Dave] Cormier’s mantra that “the community is the curriculum” and encourage a more organic, spontaneous, flexible, collaborative perspective among the different PR tribal communities. Then whether or not we, and our knowledge and behaviour, can be described as academic, scholarly, professional or practical will be less relevant than whether it forms a useful knot (connective node) for the network that comprises the full tapestry of public relations.

Source: blog post (accessed 30 June 2014)

Heather Yaxley, independent academic, educator, author and thinker

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis's 2013 book Strategic Public Relations Leadership is a wonderful example. It draws on practitioner examples to inform the thinking, and digests academic insights in a useful format for practitioners. If only more academics would ditch conventions like Harvard referencing it would prevent them writing only for their peers and encourage them to communicate more widely.

Other recent books in the CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series have also succeeded in drawing on insights from practice and from academics. Even PR Week, in its monthly guise, carries a couple of book reviews and through its columnists reflects an image of a field that ranges from internal comms to public affairs as well as marketing comms.

While public relations has traditionally been taught at less prestigious universities who do not have the pick of the brightest school leavers, I do think we've produced some very good graduates. And now that public relations / communication is beginning to be taught at Russell Group universities (e.g. at Newcastle University and at University of Leeds; note also that Oxford University has a Centre for Corporate Reputation) we can expect some even stronger graduates in future.

Richard Bailey, senior lecturer and programme manager, University of the West of England

Thank you


Thanks to the following people for their contributions and insight to this discussion.

Stuart Bruce, international public relations adviser and trainer Richard Bailey, University of the West of England Simon Collister, Sarah Williams and Sarah Roberts-Bowman, University of Arts, London Liz Bridgen, Senior Lecturer, De Montfort University Dr Jacquie L’Etang, Queen Margaret University Jason Mackenzie, Birmingham City University David Phillips, Escola Superior de Comunicação Social Dr Mandy Powell, Queen Margaret University Mel Powel, Manchester Metropolitan University Dr Catherine Sweet, Solent University Dr Jon White, University of Cardiff and University of Reading Tom Watson, University of Bournemouth Heather Yaxley, independent academic, educator, author and thinker

How to build a blog: Northern Ideas launched

How to build a blog: Northern Ideas launched

A brief history of the CIPR: the route to professionalism

A brief history of the CIPR: the route to professionalism