A letter from BledCom to the public relations profession: developing a community of practice

A letter from BledCom to the public relations profession: developing a community of practice

Over the last two days scholars from around the world have been thinking about the future of the public relations profession at BledCom on the shores of Lake Bled in Slovenia. It’s a great place to think. lake-bled

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the international public relations research symposium.

I was invited to give the keynote after speaking at the  NEMO Flashpoints conference at the University of Lund, Sweden last year about the need for us to develop a community in public relations that embraces both academia and practice.

In my view this is critical if public relations is to truly to become a professional management discipline. We need the two constituencies to work together to tackle the big issues that we all face.

Theory drives strategy; identifies new markets

Academic rigor based on critical thinking, literature review and original research is important for two reasons.

First, theory should drive strategy as it does in other professions. Management consultants aren't shy of incorporating theoretical models into their work. In public relations that typically begins and ends with a SWOT analysis.

Second, academics frequently work at the edges of the profession, exploring issues that have the potential to become significant future markets.

BledCom generated dozens of ideas in each of these two areas that I plan to investigate further as part of my day job at Ketchum.

Highlights included the application of agile techniques in public relations, the impact of radical transparency on organisations, markets and nations, and the use of gaming and wearable technology as media.

The reflection practitioner

BledCom, like other scholarly public relations conferences, has a reputation among practitioners as being a place where academics gather to discuss issues facing the profession with little consideration of practice.

I was warned that if my presentation at BledCom lacked rigour or reflection it would likely be torn apart. As a result I was apprehensive and wary, but in the end I needn't have worried.

My presentation kicked off numerous discussions over the weekend as people shared their frustrations about our profession.

No one argued that academics and practitioners shouldn't work closer together and everyone recognised that the current situation has little benefit to the broader profession.

Barriers to cooperation between academia and practice

In addition to the challenges and solution that I proposed I’ve learnt that there are some structural issues in academia that prevent it from making research more accessible to practice.

Academics are rewarded on the basis of the number of papers they publish  in top tier academic journals. Papers equate to points and research budgets are allocated relative to how many points a university accumulates.

Articles, contemporary books, text books and presentations at practitioner conferences don’t count.

The fact is that the community is motivated to be inwardly focused and reflective rather than relevant to the broader profession. That has to change.

There’s a secondary issue. There was a surprisingly lively Twitter conversation at BledCom around the hashtag #BledCom. Contributors joined in the conversation at the event and from around the world. Peer review took place in real time.

This contrasts starkly with academic papers that can take 12 to 18 months to realise publication and must be written in dense prose that is frequently indecipherable to practitioners.

Bridging the gap: content and conversation

In the conclusion of my presentation I proposed that our two communities should seek out ways to work together; we must be generous with our time for each other, and we must share and publish content as widely as possible.

But we also need to find ways of bridging the content and conversation between our two communities so that they become one. Until we do this we’ll remain isolated from each other. That really isn’t helpful.

The future of the public relations profession is at stake.

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